NAIROBI HALF LIFE IS OUT TO DESTROY THE IMAGE OF KENYA SAYS FILM CRITIC
“NAIROBI HALF LIFE” - A HALF BAKED CAKE - For many, being accepted into the One Fine Day Film workshops is an opportunity to be part of a global network of film makers funded by the German Government through German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Goethe – Institute Nairobi, DW Akademie and Ginger Ink inter alia. It is an opportunity to behold especially after the successful production of “Soul boy”, “Nairobi Half Life” and “Something Necessary.”
Nairobi Half Life (NHL) is a great film, at least technically, that is a fact that even the greatest novice will not fail to notice. The storyline is equally captivating with some of the actors performing beyond my expectations as a film professional. Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) and Oti (Olwenya Maina) are in actual fact an amazing duo who kept me glued to the screen. I could not help laughing at Mwas’ naivety and his transformation to a street smart hardcore criminal (especially when negotiating with John Waya, the spare parts dealer). The cinematography is absolutely functional and beautiful, so is the editing and choice of music throughout the film. Big congratulations to the director (Tosh Gitonga) for putting together the film and his creative humour (the cell toilet scene) as well as for his effort to tell a story that many will identify with.
But that is just it. Kenya is now on the global map in terms of film making, but for all the wrong reasons; After the film grossed over Kshs. 7Million in cinema tickets in Kenya, the premiere in Durban International Film Festival and the latest premiere in Nigeria, how much more damage is the film causing our beloved country? What impact does the film have on the image of Kenya locally, regionally and internationally? Is it the right representation of Kenya?
Just like many other Kenyan films done by foreigners (read whites), “Kitchen Toto” (1987), “The Constant Gardener” (2005), “Out of Africa” (1985) “The White Maasai” (2005), Nairobi Half Life too glorifies the negative representation of Kenya?
The very first representation of Nairobi is by Vultures Travelling Theatre, when Jose (Bernard Safari) swindles Mwas Kshs. 500 after promising to land him a job once he travels to the city. Looking at it with a naked eye, it appears like the normal unscrupulous agents that we all know exist. However, through a magnifying lens, this incident not only questions the honesty of people from Nairobi but it justifies the sentiment that was later in the film echoed by Mwas’ dad; “Nairobi has the worst people, in Nairobi you cannot be good and make it.” When Mwas tells his mother that he wants to travel to Nairobi, she interjects saying “that is where poverty, disease and the devil live.” What do these statements mean to a person who has never been to Nairobi? There is a misconception that every person from Nairobi is a con and what other better way to justify it than using Jose? The second instance is when Mwas comes to Nairobi and we see crowded backstreets of Nairobi from the top of ‘Silent Bar kwa Muriithi,’ followed by a high angle shot of Country Bus. The composition of this shot is such that we are seeing rusted bus roofs and congestion of the terminus. This is followed by a medium shot of a group of young men stealing from Mwas. Is Nairobi really that much insecure? Or is it a coincidence that Mwas loses his property and arrested by the council askaris on the same day he comes to the city? How many of us have been through this before? Throughout the film, the director has highlighted the crimes of the city, the shacks and prostitution, the poor conditions of our roads as well as police brutality and corruption.
There is a major irony when the camera tilts high to the shot of an advert reading “No worry in the world” to a shot of young boys stealing headlamps from a car parked in the heart of town. This is an indication that as much as there is no worry in the world, when in Nairobi you cannot help being worried about the security of your property. What makes it even worse is the fact that we are shown that all this crime happens right at The New Stanley Hotel which is a landmark in Kenya.
The condition of our cells when Mwas is arrested speaks so much about police reforms in Kenya. Rono (Godfrey Ojiambo) mishandles Mwas in a manner suggesting that there is no presumption of innocence. To say the condition of the toilets in the cell is pathetic will be an understatement. Some of you reading this have been to Central Police and will agree with me that the condition is not as deplorable. There is a police officer who smuggles drugs to inmates while Officer Mutua (Ainea Ojiambo) and Officer Warsame (Tony Rimwah) collaborate with the gangs during crimes. We see Mutua and Warsame collect “taxes” from both gangs. Oti says “Nairobi is full of unsolved crimes” and later “the cops have to round up some guys from time to time in order to fool the public.” This is a clear indication that Kenyan police system is non functional and very corruptible. The 4th and 5th carjacking (the latter happens at Nakumatt Junction) happen in broad daylight, what does it say about our state of security? Novices will argue that it is just a movie but the truth is Nakumatt is a major chain of stores and the best in Kenya and stands the risk of losing the confidence of its customers through this incident. How do you explain the continuous carjacking with no arrests? What does this carjacking do to the image of Kenya? The bigger picture is that it is not safe in Kenya. There is police brutality when a member of Oti’s gang is shot in cold blood so as to scare the other gang members. What does it say of our respect for human rights?
The central theme of Nairobi Half Life in my opinion is hopelessness among the youth; Mwas travels to Nairobi and the very first image is as bad as the troubles that befall him throughout the film. He loses his luggage just after alighting from the bus; the people who steal from him are youths. When he gets to the cell, majority of the inmates are youths; Oti and his gang, which Mwas joins is purely made up of youths, so are Dingo’s and Daddy M’s gangs. The prostitutes in this film are youths in their early 20s. The gang members are so comfortable with their jobs to an extent that they do not mind dying in the hands of the police. Oti says “to survive in Nairobi you are supposed to be smart,” his definition of “smart” is involving yourself in crime and under dealings. Oti tells Mwas that “we are dead men walking,” this is the height of desperation and hopelessness. What fate befalls the gang member who had the dream of becoming a musician? What then was the essence of the director giving us hope that maybe one day he will realize his dreams of becoming a musician? Amina (Nancy Wanjiku) is comfortable as a prostitute judging from the fact that she smiles when Mwas tells her that he hasn’t killed as many people as the ones who she has had sex with. She opens up saying that she enjoys prostitution because it pays well (she earns between Kshs. 50 and 500 in a day). She goes ahead to justify why she is a prostitute claiming that her mother disowned her. Mwas retorts saying “welcome to the family of rejects.” What do these incidences speak of the Kenyan youth?
From our colonial fathers, film has always been used as a propaganda tool akin to early American and German film. Why is it that foreigners always focus on negative representation of Kenya? Whenever they tell our stories, there is always a misinformed bias, a malicious intention to dent the reputation of our beloved country. Nairobi Half Life is no doubt a good piece of creative talent with a story that many people would identify with; this notwithstanding, Kenya deserves a better deal if we are to reap the fruits of our hard fought independence. The fact that people undergo so much trouble when they first visit Nairobi does not mean that there is no success story about Kenya.
What are government parastatals charged with the duty of licensing the production of films in the country doing to protect the image of Kenya?
Kenya deserves to be on the global map for all the right reasons; we are a bunch of talented people with great stories to tell. It is my humble submission that the Department of Film Services and Kenya Film Commission have terribly failed to brand Kenya through film. We no longer care about going through the scripts and the final production in order to critically look at how much Kenya is going to benefit from the film. These parastatals have instead focused on earning revenue through licensing and partnerships at the expense of protecting the image of our country. Hollywood has for many decades branded US as a very sophisticated country with no slums, insecurity, disease and poverty. Whenever you watch a crime/detective film Hollywood, you wish to be an American thanks to the positive image that its police and security systems have. We ought to understand that every film is a political statement that can shape or destroy the reputation of its citizens. It is time we put an end to slum tourism and glorifying crime, prostitution, poverty and under development through film. There must be very high standards of moral and social responsibility by the bodies in charge to ensure that every film that comes from Kenya and about Kenya must observe. It is for this particular reason that I render Nairobi Half Life an effort to destroy the reputation of Nairobi and by extent Kenya. It is a social sham that must be buried and forgotten just like the Artur brothers saga. It lacks moral credence and is ill intended. NAIROBI IS FULL OF LIFE, and not a half life.
By Steven Anderson Wekesa
The writer is a lecturer at the Department of Theatre Arts and Film Technology in Kenyatta University with a passion for Cinematography and Theatre & Film Criticism.