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THE BIG FILM REVIEW 2011

Gerald Langiri
September 23 / 2011

While I was ’away’ I still did manage to make some progress with my goal to watch as many local films as possible and share my thoughts on them with you all. This then is penance for my long absence; a 6-film review compilation of local films both recent and slightly older that I have seen and the first of them is of particular significance:

DANGEROUS AFFAIR:
Judy Kibinge
Judy Kibinge

Those who have followed Kenya’s film history will concur with me when I refer to Judy Kibinge’s ’Dangerous Affair’ as probably one of the most important films in Kenya’s film history. Films have been created and consumed in this country since colonial times but ’Dangerous Affair’ is widely believed to have been Kenya’s first locally written, directed, and funded fictional feature film. Local productions had previously consisted mainly of documentary films utilizing foreign and NGO funding. And that is not all, it also discussed subjects that were considered to a certain level ’taboo’ in television and film at the time and featured in leading(and seminal) roles, two female characters who did not conform to what were then societal expectations of women.

Watching the film at Goethe Institute during a homage to Judy Kibinge held a while back, the first thing that struck me was the cast. After seeing a number of them in later productions, it was great to see the likes of Nini Wacera young and fresh faced (at her prime you might say) and was a true reminder of the amazing acting talent this country holds. The story stands the test of time beautifully, leading you through the gritty underbelly of the city into dingy local pubs and common restaurants where the main character, a slightly misguided gentleman, discovers that his heart and his loins do not necessarily have the same taste. The production quality of the film is (not surprisingly) less than amazing considering the equipment and financial resources that were available at the time but it does not take away from the story at all seeming instead to place it even more comfortably within the environment of a certain tier/class of Kenyan citizenry. An economic class that the main character has built a career and a marriage to escape but that keeps drawing him back to its warm comforting bosom. A class that is symbolized and played to perfection by Serah Mwihaki’s lascivious character, Rose. This is the original ’mpango wa kando’ story and everyone, from the friends who fail to provide the right guidance to the husbands whose shortcomings lead their women into other ’stronger’ arms; everyone has their chance to present their angle of the story. And thanks to the exemplary performances from the cast, every character leaves the audience with twenty questions to ask. Ages after it was shot and exhibited, ’Dangerous Affair’ is without a doubt one of the most interesting and enjoyable Kenyan films I have ever seen. When our film industry eventually reaches the period when we start to refer to some films as classics, my first nomination for the ’classic’ title will be Dangerous Affair without a doubt.

TOGETHERNESS SUPREME:

Kamau is an artist who lives in the slums of Kibera struggling to make a living out of his art and struggling to tell Alice, the local preacher’s daughter, exactly how he feels about her. Otieno is a streetwise hustler who’s always in on all the easiest deals and the easiest girls and he thinks Alice will make a pleasant change from his usual fare. In the midst of the heated campaigns that eventually lead up to the horrible violence that scarred Kenyan history in 2007, the two boys begin doing brisk business with a local campaign office oblivious to the ominous whispers and darkening political climate. Their tribes are on opposite sides of the political divide and their hearts are set on the same prize. As the slums of Kibera and the nation itself are torn apart by conflicting tribal loyalties, the friendship between the two characters undergoes a test it may not survive.

Rumour has it that this was Nathan Colett’s feature film follow-up for his award winning short film ’Kibera Kid’ but I’m not so sure about that. What I am sure about though is that the slums offer some amazing cinematographic opportunities and backgrounds for the discerning director’s eye and quite a few of them are to be found in this film. The visual stylesx and characters reminded me a bit of Fernando Meirelles’ ’City of God’ though Kibera slums look more like the slums of Bombay in ’Slumdog Millionaire’. The acting in the other two films was much better though. ’Togetherness Supreme’ features relatively unknown actors in the Kenyan TV/Film scene and it’s crew was made up partly of students of Kibera Film School. The relative greenness of some actors is noticeable in several scenes though the effort that the lead actors put in is definitely worth mention. In fact Kamau and Otieno, the lead characters, both succeeded at getting me to believe their characters and invest emotionally. The weaker performances came mostly from the actor who played Kamau’s dad and some of the campaign officials. A continuity error is also noticeable(without pausing and rewinding that is) with Kamau’s make-up at the part of the film where Kamau’s father loses his houses to a fire and Oti gets burned.

The production quality and cinematography of this film carried it for me and in my opinion, are a perfect signal that local productions are up to par with international standards in terms of production quality. Local films now lose ground only on the basis of their script quality and their marketing. It is an all round enjoyable film that tells the story of a trying period in Kenyan history at a time when the story is still relevant and as far as subject matter goes, it was a great choice. This choice of subject is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why the film has had such an enviable international career playing at numerous festivals and winning several awards.

MUIGWITHANIA:
Muigwithania
’Muigwithania’ Film Poster


Director Amit Tyagi could not have selected a better period of history from which to draw a story. This will not be the last depiction of the MauMau struggle in Kenyan film, mark my words... and for a first one, it does a good job. The issues tackled in the script are heavy: land distribution, the position of indigenous Indian citizens in Kenyan society, inter-racial relationships, and though not overtly, the issue of racism. In the film, a dangerous MauMau general and his associate are being pursued after a night of wreaking havoc on white settlers as well as their lackeys and informants, the home-guards. Wounded and out of places to run, the two take refuge in the shop of the resident Indian businessman in a local village and take him and his family hostage. Their plan is to wait out the night patrol and escape at dawn but the general’s injury as well as the bungling antics of the general’s henchman make sure that not only do they get discovered, but they put the Indian and his family in grave danger and the Indian and his family have to make a choice: turn them in and earn the favor of the white settlers, or help them escape and earn the favor of the fighters and the oppressed locals. As you may have guessed, the Indian and his family choose to help... at their own peril.

This is an impressive film. I watched it on the same day that I watched yet another impressive and more well-known film, ’The Rugged Priest’, and I must admit I enjoyed ’Muigwithania’ more. The story is interesting and the characters, despite being a little cliche, are well portrayed. By well portrayed I mean that they were portrayed well enough to carry the story: no Oscars here, but Kalashas, definitely. Actress Prachi Savani does a great job as the Indian’s teenage daughter who develops a liking for the second MauMau fighter and faces the chief’s patrol bravely in an attempt to get the witchdoctor to treat the general’s wound. She is nominated for a best supporting actress Kalasha at today’s gala event and I have a sneaky feeling the award is as good as hers. The plot drags at some points of the film and events seem to be a bit unrealistic, for example, the white settlers and home guards simply wait outside the house even after they are sure the general is inside. History books tell us otherwise, the British were not so considerate with MauMau and their sympathizers. Also, though the Indian’s shop is a small tin-shack on the outside, inside it seems to be a huge spacious house with wood paneling and a loft. Despite the seriousness of the issues tackled in the film, at some points the film goes off on a comical tangent, especially where the second MauMau fighter is involved. I am unsure whether this was intentional and I hope to clarify that with the director one day but I feel it would have been much better without the comical undertones. The film is in the running for best feature film, best director, best editing, best cinematography, best sound and best scriptwriting at the Kalashas that culminate today and in view of the competition(mainly ’The Rugged Priest’), it is likely to do well in the scriptwriting and supporting actress categories and put up a brave fight for the directing and sound awards. Lets see if I am any good at predictions... heh heh.

THE RUGGED PRIEST:
Rugged Priest

Bob Nyanja’s other film, ’Malooned’ certainly got tongues wagging for all the wrong reasons: the premise of the film was ridiculous. A guy and a girl from opposing tribes stuck in a toilet with no help coming. It should have been a horror flick, with a few more girls and Papa Shirandula as the murderer. But that’s not the topic here, ’The Rugged Priest’ is and it too got tongues wagging; For all the right reasons this time. Everyone was interested in two crucial things that are international ingredients for generating buzz about a film; Controversy(the life and death of Fr. Kaiser) and Budget(people always prefer spending their little ticket money when they know you’ve spent a fortune to give them something worth seeing and ’Rugged Priest’ definitely cost a pretty penny).

A renegade priest in a remote region of the country bears witness to horrendous atrocities meted out on a minority population (one of whom is a young lady acquaintance) by an unscrupulous local politician and is too brazen to keep out of trouble. For his own safety, he and his ward, a young priest in training are transferred to a distant parish where they try to make the most of limited resources to sustain a church. By coincidence, the young lady is posted to the same area and a relationship begins between her and the young priest even as the older priest prepares to give evidence implicating the politician whose antics got them transferred. The politician has grown much more powerful now and a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins pitting the priest and his ward against the politician’s henchmen along with the police. The odds are heavily stacked against him and his life depends on whether he can hold himself together. The two priests find out that in love and in life, all actions have consequences.

Definitely the biggest film project by a local producer and crew and the financial effort shows in every aspect of production. The visual spectacle is amazing as the film makes maximum use of Kenya’s rolling landscapes and beautiful wildlife and locations are carefully chosen for their visual impact(the rugged priest does kill some of the wildlife though). There is no need to say that this film is the front-runner for the cinematography award at the Kalashas tonight. The film features stellar performances all round with very few weak moments from the cast and with the production quality being as professional as it is, ’The Rugged Priest’ proves a point I made earlier: that Kenyan films have their only remaining Achilles heel in their scripts. ’The Rugged Priest’ is no exception; It contains a lot of dialogue and action that does not further the plot in any way. As a matter of fact, the young priest’s relationship with the young lady seems to be an unnecessary sub-plot since it neither contributes to the main plot in any way, nor leads the young priest to a momentous decision. Good film lives off of escalating tension and the fact that the young priest runs away and hides for a period at the end of the film is anticlimactic. If for example the politician had developed some sort of unhealthy fixation with the girl after raping her and still been pursuing her even later in the film, the young priest would have had something to fight for and his escape with the young lady would have been a bit more justified(not to mention the status of the politician as the villain would have been embellished). It is a well directed film especially considering the scope of the production and it is likely to win the best directing award as well as best feature film at the Kalashas despite stiff competition from Muigwithania. Lwanda Jawar who is nominated for best supporting actor will also not have much competition in his category considering his performance in the film as the young priest.

The thing about buzz is that it heightens audience expectations and subsequently if the film does not deliver, sets up audiences for disappointment. That was likely the case when I watched the film and the weaknesses in the script did not particularly help. The film lives up to its billing as one of the best Kenyan productions to hit the screens yet and since it is showing in local theaters again, I suggest you all go and see it and form your own opinions.

CONTROL:
Ian Thinji
Ian Thinji talks about ’Control’ at The Lola Screen Forum

The first short film on this compilation is also Ian Thinji’s first short film. Made as part of a student project at Daystar University, it was one of the highlights of the recently concluded Lola Kenya Screen Film Festival. Portia Opondo stars as a desperate female student with a nasty plan to relieve the university of most of the recently submitted fees for the new semester. She recruits a young male student who seems taken by her charms and together they start the ball rolling, but the young man seems to have sinister plans of his own. The plan falls apart and the entire blame falls on the young lady who is forced to consider that perhaps, she wasn’t the one with the master plan. And that’s not all, the film has a trick ending that leaves the audience wondering if there is more to her capture than meets the eye.

The script is interesting and as expected of a student film, is a salad of ideas borrowed from notable scriptwriters and directors. The non-linear plot is inspired by Christopher Nolan’s ’Inception’ while the main plot line of a con game is inspired by the TV show ’Hustle’. I am surprised there wasn’t a Quentin Tarantino reference in there somewhere, he is notoriously most student filmmakers favorite director to borrow from. There are several mistakes occasioned by the difficulties of shooting on a limited budget with limited access to locations and equipment. Most hurdles are ingeniously worked around except for one scene where chirping crickets overpowered the actors’ voices on a night shoot. We’ve all got to start somewhere and ’Control’ is a great start for any filmmaker. Lesson One: Don’t mess with the crickets. Speaking of which Ian’s main actress in ’Control’ is a filmmaker in her own right and will be exhibiting her film at the 49th LKSFF at Goethe Institute on September 26th. To get an invite, contact the forum coordinator on lksff@lolakenyascreen.org or visit the Lola Screen Forum Facebook Page.

MADAM CHIEF:
Joan Kabugu
Joan Kabugu, Director of ’Madam Chief’


Joan Kabugu’s original debut into writing had nothing to do with film scripts, she first authored a popular children’s book The Boom Boom Bus for which she is better known. Her foray into serious film-making came when she joined Medeva, a local production house for a TV/Radio production training program. The program gave her the basic skill set for a career in film but it is Maisha Film Lab that gave her the opportunity and means to write and produce her first short film, Madam Chief.

In ’Madam Chief’ the main character, a lady chief, decides to play devil’s advocate by refusing to give scholarship forms to Mwambia a bright form four leaver. Her judgment and morals are questionable and she decides to use her position of power to ask a ’favor’ from Mwambia. An exploration of the dark spiral down which anyone, even the fairer sex, can fall when the opportunity and circumstance present themselves.

The small grant given by Maisha Film Lab seems to have gone to good use as the production quality is of a professional level. Short films work best when they explore a concept, abstract or simplistic and in that respect, ’Madam Chief’ stands out as a stark portrayal of a subject seldom shown in local film productions; The darker side of the fairer sex. It remains to be seen whether the jury at Kalasha will enjoy it enough to award it the best short film prize for which it competes against Me My Wife and her Guru among other films.

GOOD NEWS FOR FILM

It’s certainly good news to see quality productions from old hands in the game as well as new films from beginning filmmakers competing at local festivals and even better, it is important to note that there is renewed interest in film-making in schools and universities. Apart from ’Control’ there have also been other impressive student projects competing at Kalasha and ZIFF notably ’Organs’ by Asha Mwilu and Zeynab Wandati and more student productions are coming up with the quality improving steadily and the stories getting better and more ambitious. It has always been the new filmmakers who push boundaries and create growth in the film industry and a lot is expected from the new crop consisting of the likes of Ian Thinji, Joan Kabugu, Chris Sang, Asha Mwilu, Jeff Mohammed, Portia Opondo and the rest.

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Written By Film Kenya.

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