Spectacular Kenya basks in Lupita Nyong’o’s light

One morning in early March, a group of frowning men in business suits sat at their usual table in one of Nairobi’s popular Java House cafés. It was a sunny day but clouds were cast across the men’s brows.

They were, as usual, talking politics. The day’s early newspaper editions were scattered around the table like maps of the Western Front, giving the impression that a bunch of particularly well-dressed generals were planning to invade and occupy a small neighbouring country.

When a latecomer arrived and anxiously approached the table, he quickly cut through the preliminaries to ask, simply: “Did she win?”

The mood brightened. In a nation of pavement pundits and sidewalk cynics, there was finally some good news for the breakfast table. Just hours before, Lupita Nyong’o had wrapped up her Oscars acceptance speech in Los Angeles’s Kodak pavilion, a glittery scene about 16 000km removed from the crumb-covered tables at Java House. She won best supporting actress for her role in 12 Years a Slave.

The news reached Kenya at about 5am local time, meaning that this country of 43-million went to bed on Oscars night in a state of uncertainty. Though the usual political storms raged across the front pages in the morning – including news of a melée that broke out at a primary for the political party of Nyong’o’s father, a prominent parliamentarian – most Kenyans put off their worries for a few hours to celebrate the news from Los Angeles.

By the end of the day, President Uhuru Kenyatta had taken to Twitter to congratulate the star, calling her “the pride of Africa”, and senators brushed aside more pressing matters a few days later to pass a motion commending Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents.

For a heady week, the tabloids buzzed about Hollywood’s latest “It girl”, wondering if she and actor Jared Leto were indeed an item (they weren’t) and if it was true that she could only resell her Oscars statuette to the academy for 86 Kenyan shillings, or one US dollar (it was).

Scenic backdrops
But, once the buzz died down, many Kenyan filmmakers were left wondering if Nyong’o’s historic win would be enough to jumpstart their own fledgling movie industry. For years, Kenya has offered scenic backdrops for Hollywood films but the task of creating something homegrown has proven elusive. (“Lupita’s Oscar win exposes dearth in local film industry” ran a particularly bleak headline in the Daily Nation.)

Frustrated by a lack of funding, government complacency and audiences more eager to spend their money on Hollywood blockbusters, Kenyan filmmakers are struggling to bring their stories to the big screen – and the rest of the world.

The Kenya that has long featured on the silver screen was largely a product of the mid-20th century imaginations of the Hollywood studios. For many years, Kenya was a place where white, square-jawed adventurers could tussle and drink and romance around the sprawling savannah. Many of the early “jungle epics” were shot largely in American studios, with crews dispatched to Kenya for secondary footage. To get a taste of their tone and content, one could perhaps look no further than the splashy posters for the 3D romp, Bwana Devil (1952), which titillated audiences with the tag line, “A LION in your lap! A LOVER in your arms!”

Although foreign filmmakers later showed a bit more tact, movies such as Out of Africa (1985) and I Dream of Africa (2000) still presented Kenya as romantic scenery for the (often romantic) exploits of their white leads. Kenyan characters showed little range or emotional depth. As Roger Ebert quipped in his review of I Dream of Africa, “the Africans drift about in the background, vaguely, like unpaid extras”.

What Kenya lacked were cinematic voices to tell their own stories in their own way. Unlike the great auteurs produced in West Africa during the post-independence era, it is hard to name a single Kenyan filmmaker who has made a name internationally. Only since the turn of the 21st century has something like a local industry emerged on the rough and tumble streets of Nairobi, and a handful of promising young filmmakers are trying to push Kenyan film on to the global stage.

From the outside, Nairobi’s Simba Centre looks like any other commercial plaza in the Kenyan capital, with signs advertising internet cafés, hair salons and promises of instant cash. Inside, though, is the nerve centre of a local film industry that has spent nearly two decades producing roughshod portraits of Kenyan life. Dubbed “Riverwood” after the chaotic stretch of Nairobi’s River Road where the industry got its start, it’s a homegrown attempt to tap into a desire among Kenyan audiences for local storytelling.

The industry got its start in the late 1990s, when stand up comedians began recording their live sets on the cheap digital cameras that were starting to proliferate in the Kenyan market. Though the production values were shoddy – early Riverwood films were often shot in a single take from a tripod-mounted camera – the movies quickly became sensations.

By the middle of the past decade, Riverwood was producing close to 200 films a year – mostly shot in just a few days for less than R10 000. Everything about the films, from production to release, is frenetic. “If I produce my movie, I go to the field and produce another one immediately,” Daniel Kamburi, a producer, distributor, shop owner, and part-time Christian rapper, once told me.

This spirited effort to build a local industry reflects a kind of urgency on the part of filmmakers to bring their stories to the world and a demand by consumers to hear them. But the industry’s shortcomings are also a reflection of how far it has to go. Although Riverwood has evolved over the years, production values are still poor. Shoestring budgets are the norm and many films are made in local languages, such as Kikuyu or Luo, limiting the size of their potential audiences.

Although Nigerian filmmakers have managed to succeed with similar constraints, they work in a nation of 170-million, roughly four times the size of Kenya, which gives them a much bigger audience to tap into. In Kenya, where the first-ever Riverwood Awards were held in March, the industry is still struggling to earn legitimacy and respect.

Riverwood’s prolific filmmakers remain unfazed, churning out more and more low-budget hits each year. “I see myself as a griot,” said director Kibaara Kaugi, who in 2003 produced what would become Riverwood’s breakout hit, Enough Is Enough, for what was the unprecedented cost of 1.2-million Kenyan shillings – about R80 000 at the time. “I’m passionate about our history, how we record it.”

When Wanuri Kahiu made her post-apocalyptic sci fi short, Pumzi, in 2009, following on the heels of her feature debut, From a Whisper, she depicted a dystopian, futuristic world whose inhabitants fight for water and pay for air. Pumzi was Kenya’s first foray into sci fi, and it made a splash when it screened at Sundance and Berlin, with Kahiu quickly emerging as one of Kenya’s bright new voices. (She is currently directing a West Wing-style TV drama, State House).

But the parched world of Pumzi was perhaps an apt and unfortunate metaphor for the Kenyan film landscape, where the scramble for resources – funding, distribution, box-office receipts – can resemble something out of a Mad Max movie. For filmmakers whose ambitions go beyond the low-budget street fare of Riverwood, making movies is still an uphill climb.

Part of the problem is the small, insular world of Kenyan film. “You really hit a ceiling here,” said filmmaker Judy Kibinge, who last year directed Something Necessary, a gripping drama about Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008. “There are very few producers who even understand how the festival circuit works. What are the politics of breaking into an international space?”

She cited young directors such as Hawa Essuman and Kahiu – whose latest project, Jambula Tree, a highly anticipated drama about an illicit love affair between two young women, is being produced by South Africa’s Steven Markovitz – as the rare examples of Kenyan filmmakers who have managed to navigate the treacherous waters of foreign financing.

It’s one of the reasons Kibinge helped create the Docubox film fund for East African documentaries, which has received support from the established International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. “At least then there will be a bunch of filmmakers who have had their eyes opened to the world,” she said.

That sort of international collaboration underscored the success of Kenya’s biggest hit to date. In 2008, the German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Cloud Atlas) created the production company One Fine Day Films in an effort to give the local industry a boost. Each year the company brings in participants from East Africa for a series of intensive, two-week workshops in directing, scriptwriting, editing, cinematography, production, production design and sound design; the group then works together to produce a feature film.

The company’s second effort, Nairobi Half Life, premiered at the Durban International Film Festival in 2012 before going on to become the first Kenyan film submitted for foreign language Oscars consideration. Last year it also became the highest-grossing local film ever to hit Kenyan theatres. But the film’s success has also highlighted the industry’s challenges. Although the movie has a distinctly Kenyan feel to it (no white heroes running around, trying to save Africa), its R7-million budget was astronomical for a local film, and only possible because of One Fine Day’s backing. Fans filled theatres throughout a solid six-week run, but Nairobi Half Life still only made around R200 000 in Kenyan theatres – a figure that wouldn’t raise eyebrows in Cape Town, let alone Hollywood.

Even if it presented Kenyan audiences with a new kind of movie – told in the multifaceted, Babel-tongued voice of modern Kenya – Nairobi Half Life didn’t offer a sustainable business model for local filmmakers. Kibinge’s Something Necessary, which One Fine Day produced, had little success at the box office last year, and the company is hoping to turn things around with its next feature, Veve, which is scheduled for release this year.

Crippling blow
Even filmmakers who manage to take their movies from script to screen struggle to reach audiences, with just five multiplexes in the whole of Kenya. Last year’s terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall dealt a crippling blow to local exhibitors. “Suddenly, people got scared and shopping malls were empty,” said Trushna Patel of Crimson Multimedia, East Africa’s biggest distributor. It took months for confidence to return – the Kenyan army was even deployed at shopping centres to reassure customers – and cinemas are only now starting to return to pre-Westgate ticket sales.

Piracy, too, is taking a heavy toll. When the Kenyan government banned The Wolf of Wall Street earlier this year, for its “extreme scenes of nudity, sex, debauchery, hedonism and cursing”, dozens of street traders were scooped up for selling pirated DVDs in a highly publicised government sting. But the moral crusade failed to address the broader issue at hand. On the streets of Nairobi, Nyong’o’s fans can pick up 12 Years a Slave, and other Hollywood blockbusters and TV series, for about R10. Far from operating in back alleys, the DVDs are sold in storefronts, in shopping malls and by traders just steps from theatres.

Officials turn a blind eye to it. “The pirates … are out of control,” Patel said. Although the pirated movies are typically Hollywood blockbusters, the low prices have all but killed the potential for a local DVD industry, unless a filmmaker is willing to undercut the pirates to compete.

Kenyan filmmakers would be grateful for some government support. Last year, the Kenya Film Commission appointed a new chairperson, Chris Foot, who is tasked with convincing the government to push through a comprehensive film policy that has been on the table for years, and to introduce a rebate and incentive package that would allow Kenya to compete with South Africa when wooing foreign productions. Those two moves, he said, would help to create a “synergy between getting more movies made in Kenya and building up our industry.” It would allow Kenyan filmmakers to truly engage with the rest of the world.

That sort of synergy has already had a dramatic success: Nyong’o, who got her start in film as a production assistant on The Constant Gardener. The buzz her Oscar win generated back home is something everyone agrees can only be a boost for the industry.

“Lupita’s win is going to influence a lot of young people,” said Jim Shamoon of Blue Sky Films, East Africa’s biggest production services company, who gave Nyong’o her job on The Constant Gardener. The ripple effect, he said, will be felt everywhere, from primary schools to the halls of government. “People are going to start paying more attention to film.”

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Christopher Vourlias
Christopher Vourlias works from Brooklyn. Athens.. Wordsmith, wanderer, occasional crooner. Reports on African film and TV for Variety. Christopher Vourlias has over 1016 followers on Twitter.

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