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More and more young filmmakers from Kenya are creating “the magic.” Despite many economic and political hurdles, the desire to tell stories about the complex realities of a postcolonial African society is unstoppable. Young Kenyan auteur cinema is striving for international screens. In partnership with the Studio Cinema Xenix in Zurich Switzerland I curated the focus program Magical Kenya? — a selection of young Kenyan auteur cinema, short and feature fiction and non-fiction cinema.
Three years ago, RAFIKI (2018) was the first Kenyan film to screen at the Cannes Festival and wowed audiences: the romantic drama received a standing ovation and subsequently traveled around the world, but in Kenya, the film was placed under censorship due to its depiction of lesbian love.
Director Wanuri Kahiu, co-founder of the “Afrobubblegum” movement, is one of many Kenyan creatives striving for international cinema screens. These films are getting global attention and winning awards at international film festivals: for example, the poetic and dark fairy tale KATI KATI (Mbithi Masya, 2016) in Toronto or the political portrait SOFTIE (Sam Soko, 2020) at the Sundance Festival. The time is ripe for a foray into the latest decade of Kenyan cinema, which is cosmopolitan in outlook while Afrocentric in storytelling. Thus, the films in the Magical Kenya? program deal with universal themes such as love, self-determination, death or trauma and, at the same time, very concrete (maybe rather tangible?) Kenyan realities.
Until twenty years ago, voices from Kenya in cinema could be counted on one hand. Moreover, for a long time the East African country was represented exclusively by the colonial view of the region, which became imprinted in the collective consciousness. American entertainment cinema has done its part to consolidate the “white gaze” in the public consciousness: Ever since the 1985 Hollywood hit OUT OF AFRICA, the Oscar-winning biopic about Danish baroness Karen Blixen and her years in the colony, Kenya’s savannah and lake landscapes have been popular backdrops for foreign cinematic productions. At the same time, stories from the perspective of Kenyans found their way to the screen only tentatively and only thanks to cheaper formats such as VHS and later digital technologies. These films remained predominantly low-budget for a local market and were extremely rarely intended for an international audience. In Kenya itself, access to Kenyan arthouse cinema remains limited to selective screenings to this day, while cinemas in Nairobi and other cities show mainly U.S. blockbusters.
“Magical Kenya” is a popular slogan that the government tourism agency also uses to promote safaris: unspoiled nature (maybe rather the pristine land?), wild animals and the pre-colonial cultures of the diverse, multi-ethnic country. As a hashtag on social media, #MagicalKenya — often filled with patriotism — is also popular among locals. But the slogan is also used ironically where the social and political abysses open up behind the reductionist facade of travel marketing: the infiltration of state institutions by corrupt private business or NGOs, rampant police violence, the neocolonial exploitation of natural resources, or widespread poverty and unemployment are just as much a reality. And telling stories about this is a major concern of many young filmmakers.
The films in the program Magical Kenya? live from strong contrasts — between city and country, between tradition and modernism. They open up spaces that tell of the discord and contradictions within a society that still suffers from the colonial trauma. But the films also testify to the potential in the diversity of this country and to the possibilities of breaking through barriers in the mind. The settings range from the most remote region in northern Kenya to the chaotic capital of Nairobi. And in the spirit of ‘the future is female’, in the presented films, often female characters are the epicenters in the films: in OIL & WATER (Anjali Nayar, 2020), a women’s group fights an overbearing oil company; in the docu-animation YELLOW FEVER (Ng’endo Mukli, 2012), a girl questions the grotesque ideals of beauty associated with pain that are oriented toward the Wazungu (the white people).
THE LETTER (Maia Lekow and Christopher King, 2019), in turn, is an atmospheric portrait of a matriarch accused of witchcraft by family members who finds an ally in her adult grandson.
The strong female character in the drama SOMETHING NECESSARY (Judy Kibinge, 2013) is fictional, but her story is based on true events and involves many families who have been victims of politically motivated violence. The film is set against the backdrop of the rigged presidential elections of 2007, which led to a wave of violence throughout the country that was unsurpassed in scale and brought the current heads of state before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Director Judy Kibinge has since made a name for herself as a producer, and is the founder of Docubox, the main funding vehicle for documentary film in East Africa.
Docubox has financially supported many films in this selection such as SOFTIE or the lyrical film essay NEW MOON by Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann (2018), which delves into the world of Sufi Islam in the ancient Swahili trading town of Lamu Town, and also the portrait I AM SAMUEL (2020) directed by Peter Murimi in the style of Direct Cinema, in which Samuel’s love for his partner Alex means latent danger.
Homophobia is very widespread on the African continent due to various factors, including in Kenya. Existing resentment is fueled in particular by the new evangelical churches and instrumentalized by politicians for populist propaganda. Same-sex love is defamed as “non-African,” although it should be remembered that homosexuality was first criminalized by the British colonial administration through draconian laws.
One of the pioneering voices in the fight for the rights of LGBTQI+ people is the collective “The Nest”, which is also one of the most successful production sites for independent artists in Kenya. Shot in black and white, the episodic film Stories of Our Lives (2015), directed by Jim Chuchu, provides insights into queer life in Kenya. The film wowed critics worldwide, while this production also remains banned in Kenya. Jim Chuchu’s cinematic universe moves radically and imaginatively around searches for identity in a fractured society (WE NEED PRAYERS: THIS ONE WENT TO MARKET, 2017 and TAPI!, 2020). The decision to put their own name behind Stories of Our Lives took a lot of courage for the makers. Coming out means risking rejection and persecution, and it is usually filmmakers, musicians, writers, or academics like the late author Binyavanga Wainaina who dare to take this step and thus become role models.
Who narrates for whom? This question arises again and again in systems of great inequality, and was also a question that has occupied me through the process of research. DREAMS OF ELIBIDI (Kamau Wa Ndung’u and Nick Reding, 2010) lives from a very special charm: because the film weaves documentary passages of real street theater performances into the plot, the film audience sees the reactions of the population to the play and also experiences it through their eyes. Many can identify with the story of an average Kenyan family seeking their fortune in the capital city of Nairobi.
The project was funded by an NGO. This corresponds to a reality for many creatives in countries of the South, where there are no governmental cultural funding pots. Financial dependence on foreign funders is a fact of life for Kenyan creatives, which is also reflected in the film industry. The relationships with international funding bodies and producers are decisive factors in whether someone creates a career or not. Some feature films in this selection have been produced by the German One Fine Day Films initiative of director Tom Tykwer, with the declared aim of promoting Kenyan arthouse cinema. Among them are some festival hits: SUPA MODO (Likarion Wainaina, 2018), which tells a drama about a terminally ill girl sensitively but never sentimentally, and KATI KATI by Mbithi Masya, whose theme is also death. The cult factor of this film is provided by the now disbanded popular electro-funk formation Just a Band, of which directors Masya and Jim Chuchu were members.
Kenyan cinema can by no means be understood as a homogeneous movement; too many different cultures and realities of life are united in this young nation. Without claiming to be exhaustive, this essay was written as an introduction in the Program booklet for Magical Kenya? that will play in the Cinema Xenix in Zurich, Switzerland between 2nd and 15th of September 2021.
The Program, find the overview here, is intended to unite as many different narrative forms and perspectives as possible into a kaleidoscope, so that Kenya can be portrayed in as many different ways and facets as possible.