Move over, Hepburn and Bogart: This is the new Africa

NAIROBI, Kenya — Africa in the movies tends to be an exotic backdrop to one of three stories:  white romance (Out of Africa, The African Queen), white heroism (Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener, Tears of the Sun, The Ghost and the Darkness), or, occasionally, black heroism (Hotel Rwanda).

Hollywood’s Africa can be pretty or threatening, but always passive.

Now a generation of young Kenyan filmmakers are challenging the status quo, telling the stories they want to tell in high-quality feature length movies. The latest, Veve, had its Kenya premier last week before embarking on the independent film festival circuit.

Veve is a thriller about politics and khat, a mild herbal stimulant grown in Kenya, loved by Somalis and banned as a drug in the US and Europe. It’s ambitious, with an ensemble cast and a range of Kenyan locations.

Kenya has the talent, the ambition, the imagination and the drive. What it doesn’t have is a properly functioning film industry.

Reshaping Africa on the screen

Still from Veve (Courtesy: One Fine Day Films)

Veve is the product of an annual two-week film workshop set up in 2008 by Tom Tykwer, the German director of Run Lola Run and Cloud Atlas. The workshops attract applicants from across Africa and afterwards alumni are selected to work on a feature film. Without Tykwer and his One Fine Day Films, backed with money from the German government, Veve would not have been made.

Nor would three previous feature films in which Kenyans have turned the tables on Hollywood, using the language of film to tell their own stories. “There’s a way the world wants to see Africa and that isn’t the way Kenyans, for example, see themselves,” said Veve’s producer Sarika Lakhani of One Fine Day Films.

Soul Boy was the first film to come out of the workshop. Written by acclaimed author Billy Kahora, managing editor of literary magazine Kwani?, Soul Boy tells the story of a teenaged boy in the Nairobi slum of Kibera who goes on a quest to find his father’s lost soul.

Filmed in the local Swahili language, the magical realist movie-making showed Kibera as it is: filthy, poor, and full of life. Its $80,000 budget was peanuts for a feature film but well beyond the reach of local filmmakers without foreign backing.

The breakout film Nairobi Half Life was shot in 2010. It drew big audiences in Kenya and has racked up awards on the festival circuit. The tale of the rural boy with big dreams moving to the city to seek his fortune only to find that life is tough is familiar, but the truthfulness of the urban setting grabbed audiences. Nairobi Half Life showed Kenya’s capital for the modern city it is, with all the good and the bad that implies.

Still from Nairobi Half Life (Courtesy: One Fine Day Films)

Apart from the storylines and the settings it is the high quality of the productions that startled people used to the cheap and cheerful disposable hysteria of Nigeria’s ‘Nollywood’ film industry or its Kenyan imitation, ‘Riverwood’, named for the Nairobi street where many of the production houses are found.

Wanted: Self-starters

Veve’s first-time director Simon Mukali, 31, said that although still small, Kenya’s film industry is growing along with domestic demand for locally made movies. As with much else in Kenya, innovation comes despite, not because of, government.

“We have a problem with [lack of] government support and there are too many barriers,” said Mukali.

Lakhani, the producer, said there are no tax incentives for film productions and financing is nearly impossible to find. She said the workshops and the films that follow are about “creating craftsmanship and bringing out that talent, but it’s also about creating a market”.

Kenya has a long way to go before it competes with the likes of South Africa in attracting the kind of international filmmakers or big advertising productions that can feed the local industry. Nor is cinema-going part of the cultural landscape: there are only seven multi-screen movie theatres in the country.

Veve scriptwriter Natasha Likimani, 32, applied for a place on the 2010 workshop after being “blown away” by Soul Boy. “It was great to see something that was ours,” she said.

Like many of her colleagues in the Kenya film industry Likimani works mostly for television — where there are regular jobs and money — but aspires to make more features.

Mukali also shares that dream, building on experience and freedom he gained through working on Veve. “They give you the chance to take risks and they trust you to tell the story, your own story,” he said.

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