A couple of weeks ago we received a message from Kenya asking if we were interested in helping to promote a scheme which supports documentary filmmakers in East Africa. ‘Sema Stori’ simply means something like ‘tell a story’ in Swahili, so if you search for the title online, many different kinds of material pops up. What we are specifically concerned with here is a scheme linked to Docubox and Comic Relief (the tagline on the scheme’s website is ‘Stories that Speak’). The aim of the scheme is to offer mentorship by an established filmmaker and funding to make a documentary on one of four important topics: Mental Health, Early Childhood Development, Gender Justice, and the Right to Safe Secure Shelter and settlement. The scheme was promoted in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, offering up to £10,000 each for a maximum of ten films. The scheme had an applications deadline in May 2019 and the completed films have been made available in August 2020. You can access the films on the Facebook Channel of Sema Stori. Unfortunately, we have withdrawn from Facebook and closed our account so I have not been able to see the films. But since there are aspects of the programme presented elsewhere, I have decided to do some more research.
Documentary in East Africa
There is a long tradition of documentary filmmaking with a focus on ‘social documentary’ in East Africa and in other anglophone African countries. This is often seen to derive from the legacy of British colonial film policy which saw documentary film as a means of aiding social education. (It was also a means of propagandising on behalf of British interests) At the time of independence in the 1960s it did also provide the new nation states with some basic infrastructure and a small group of trained personnel. In other parts of Africa, similar ‘legacies’ meant that the early film cultures of the new nation states followed a different trajectory to that of francophone ex-colonies where French colonial policy promoted French culture and laid a foundation for more artistically inclined films in countries such as Senegal or Ivory Coast. The British-influenced documentary approach resulted in what some commentators described as ‘development filmmaking’. In the last ten years, 50 years after the end of the colonial period, we might expect this legacy to be no longer visible but it seems to have survived in a changed and updated way.
Who are Docubox? Here is the statement on the front of their website:
DOCUBOX IS THE EAST AFRICAN DOCUMENTARY FILM FUND
We exist to enable talented, driven, focused and accountable East African artists to produce unique films that unearth new realities and cross trans-national boundaries. Through training, development and production grants, screenings for people who love documentary films, we promote East African filmmakers and share their unique stories with the world through creative documentary. We currently fund fiction under The Box.
Based in Nairobi, Docubox in the modern parlance of film development work, appears to be an important hub – an organisation that brings together funders such as NGOs, charities and other resources with aspiring filmmakers, and practitioners prepared to take on mentoring roles. Its aim is to promote film as an agency for social change. One of the driving forces behind Docubox is Judy Kibinge who was born in Kenya, lived in the US as a small child and educated in schools and higher education in the UK before working in advertising, corporate video productions and eventually as an independent filmmaker in Kenya, gaining an international reputation. Docubox is a Kenyan organisation but its funding partners include the British Council, The Danish Centre for Culture and Development (CKU), the Ford Foundation, Comic Relief and Hivos – People Unlimited (Netherlands). Docubox has used the available funding to create a range of projects covering both social documentary and fiction and as well as online screenings it has organised documentary screenings in Nairobi courtesy of the screening facilities of Alliance Française. In this way it has helped many aspiring filmmakers to gain exposure.
Comic Relief is a UK-based charity founded by the scriptwriter Richard Curtis and the comedian and actor Lenny Henry in 1985 as a response to the Ethiopian famine. Since then it has grown significantly raising money from biennial ‘Red Nose Days’ which feature community fund-raising initiatives and a ‘charity telethon’. I have to confess that this is not something I have watched or taken part in for a whole host of reasons so I can’t really comment on the venture. A spin-off from the television coverage has involved various UK TV personalities making trips to Africa in particular to discover how the money raised has been spent. Again I haven’t watched any of these, but they have attracted some criticism with suggestions that they reinforce negative typing of Africa and Africans. Because of this I’m slightly wary of Comic Relief’s role in Docubox but it is reassuring to see that Docubox is purely Kenyan.
Docubox clearly want to see proposals for films that focus on personal stories rather than traditional investigative reports with ‘expert’ talking heads. They demonstrate this by offering examples on their website. I haven’t managed to see the films produced for the project, but I have discovered several of the video statements made by filmmakers who I assume applied. You can check the Docubox advice on how to submit and watch the short statements below (they are each only a few minutes long).
Finally I found a statement by someone who I think has been successful in making a film for the project. I think this is Eugene Muigai and his film is called ‘It’s Okay Not To Be Okay’ which should have appeared on the Facebook page of Sema Stori earlier in August.
Kenya has the largest economy in East Africa and like Nigeria and South Africa it has a legacy of anglophone film culture from the British colonial period. Contemporary Kenya has managed to retain cinemas in Nairobi and Mombasa but unlike the other two countries it has so far not managed to export films for the international market even though a range of films are made locally. In 2013 two Kenyan titles were screened as part of Bristol’s African Film Festival, Afrika Eye in the UK. Nairobi Half-Life and Something Necessary (Kenya 2013) were well-received and have now begun a tour of UK venues. Nairobi Half Life was also an official Kenyan entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2014, although it failed to make the shortlist.
In the past, Kenya was too often simply the ‘backdrop’ for adventure stories made by British or American producers. A good recentish example would be The Constant Gardener (UK-US-Germany 2005) which featured scenes set in the enormous shanty town of Kibera on the edge of Nairobi. Though this film had elements of ‘authenticity’ in its imagery (as might be expected from Fernando Meirelles, the co-director of City of God) it was not really an African story. The two films screened at Afrika Eye were both made under the aegis of a partnership between German director Tom Tykwer’s One Fine Day production company and a local Kenyan company, Ginger Ink. What this meant in practice was that a local story and script was produced by a Kenyan creative team and Kenyan actors but aspects of post production were carried out in Germany and Tykwer and cinematographer Christian Almesberger were ‘supervisors’ of direction and camerawork. The music was scored by Xaver Von Treyer who worked closely with musicians in Nairobi (listen to a sample track here).
I should start my comments on the film by saying how much I enjoyed watching (and listening to) it. The performances of the leads are very good, the camerawork and editing, alongside the music, present all the vibrancy of city life and the narrative of what is a familiar genre film works well. The film was directed by David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga (who had been an assistant director on The First Grader (UK-US-Kenya 2010)).
The central character is Mwas (Joseph Wairimu), a young man desperate to leave his village and make it as an actor in the big city. What follows is a familiar story of the country boy landing in the city, suffering setbacks and falling in with a street gang. But Mwas really is a talented performer and he finds himself accepting an acting role in a local theatre group’s production at the same time that his new friends begin to escalate the scale of their criminal activities – partly, and largely unwittingly, because of actions begun by Mwas. It is this ‘double life’ for Mwas that creates his sense of ‘half life’. He can’t properly enjoy the new experience of acting (and meeting educated and sophisticated young people) when he is still committed to the street gang people who ‘rescued’ him.
My initial reaction to the film was that much as I enjoyed and admired it, I did have the feeling that there were two styles/two approaches in evidence that didn’t quite gell. In one sense of course this reflects the ‘half life’ for Mwas but I think that there is a more fundamental issue here about the ‘supervision’/mentoring by Europeans. No matter how well-intentioned (and well-thought through) the project, there is a sense of a hybrid film being produced. I was reminded of Metro Manila which has a similar narrative and genre mix. As in that film, the dialogue in Nairobi Half Life is mostly spoken in a local language, first Kikuyu in the village and the Swahili in the city. English words creep into Swahili much as they do in any modern urban language, but the crucial moment comes when Mwas meets actors who use English regularly (Swahili and English are the two official languages of Kenya). These meetings emphasise the social class differences in a society in which there is a relatively wealthy minority and a significant problem of rural poverty fuelling the drift to the city. I’m really skirting around the issue of ‘authenticity’ here. Nairobi Half Life tells a genuine African story but it does feel like an almost universal crime genre film with a realist style – and a conventional genre resolution to the narrative. It might be worth making a comparison with the gangster picture from the Congo, Viva Riva and the Canadian-directed War Witch (Rebelle) which both share some elements.
African filmmakers are faced with three choices in developing their own approaches. The first, evident from the early 1960s, was to accept training abroad and return to Africa to make films which attempted to offer an alternative to Hollywood/European models. The second is to take the overseas training but to then embrace genre models familiar from Hollywood and other commercial cinemas. The third is to stay home and try something rooted firmly in local culture – the Nigerian video film approach. I suspect that there are Kenyan variations on Nollywood and it would be interesting to see what they look like.
There are several interesting resources which give background on the production of Nairobi Half Life. This article from John Bailey and the American Academy’s outreach programme on cinematography visits Kenya and looks at classes of aspiring cinematographers linked to the Nairobi Half Life project. The film has its own Facebook page and One Fine Day Productions has details of its African workshops. Reviews of Nairobi Half Life have generally been very good, like this one. There are some others more critical, like this one.
Here is a One Fine Day Workshop documentary showing how the Kenyan project works in practice: