The art of portraying real life through a camera lens is common practice but, in the past year, great stories with roots to Africa can be seen on global movie screens.
12 Years A Slave, based on a true story, is currently being rated as one of the greatest films ever made about American slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a freeborn African-American kidnapped into slavery for a dozen years. Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o, in an excellent performance, portrays Patsy, a plantation slave caught up in a tangle of abuse and liaisons between her master, mistress and Northrup. Hollywood was abuzz when she recently bagged the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ award at the Oscars.
Two other recent releases are Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom which premiered in the 2013 Toronto Film Festival in September and is based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography; and Half of a Yellow Sun which is adapted from the novel about the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s, written by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the movie Nairobi Half Life has brought Kenya’s film industry to the world’s attention. It is loosely based on a real-life story and features Joseph Wairimu as Mwas, a young man who leaves his rural home to pursue his acting dream in Nairobi and ends up joining the criminal world in a bid to survive.
What stands out is that the film is a debut for 32-year-old director Tosh Gitonga whose inspiration came from hearing and reading stories on the lives led by youth on the other side of Nairobi.
“When the police shot dead a gang in broad daylight a few years ago, it was front page news for a week. People followed the story keenly and I asked myself, ‘Why can’t we portray that on our screens? Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a film scene with a police flying squad car chasing down a Toyota full of gangsters on Nairobi’s Kenyatta Avenue?’”
He says that directing Nairobi Half Life moved the story from a primetime news item to a meaningful narrative.
“It makes the audience reflect on who these gangsters really are. Why do they choose a risky life? What circumstances led them to these desperate choices?”
The film premiered at the 2012 Durban Film Festival in South Africa and received a Best Actor Award. That marked the beginning as other awards from festivals in Verona, London, Dubai, Kenya, Nashville and Los Angeles began rolling in. The film got selected as the Kenyan entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar for the 85th Academy Awards but did not make the final shortlist. It marked the first time Kenya has submitted a film in this category.
It has enjoyed box office success in Kenya, grossing $118,000 in only two theater screens. In Africa, Nairobi Half Life screened in Zambia, South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania and did successful tours in the United States and Europe throughout the past year.
In Hollywood terms, this success is relatively modest and reflects the long journey ahead for Africa’s film industry. The biggest challenge is that most African films have American or British actors taking lead roles. The credits roll with familiar names like Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris and Thandie Newton. There was a public outcry in South Africa when Jennifer Hudson got the lead role in Winnie.
“It’s about bankable actors. The film backers and studios have to make a return on their money. It’s a business and until the African market becomes formidable with low piracy levels, lead actors of films based on African stories will not be Africans,” says Gitonga.
He adds that Nairobi Half Life was shot on a budget of $500,000 due to a training initiative led by German director Tom Tykwer, with the support of the German government. Each year, after a rigorous selection process, 10 to 12 African filmmakers are selected to go through a two-week workshop where they learn the art of making films of an international level and interact with global professionals.
“If the cost hadn’t been subsidized, the budget would have been $1.2 million; a sum that is quite difficult to raise for African filmmakers.”
Gitonga describes himself as a cinema freak who got into the industry by chance during an internship at a film studio. He drifted to the directors departments and honed his skills by directing extras, eventually becoming a first assistant director for several films like Justin Chadwick’s First Grader.
“I never went to film school but spent 10 years learning in the field and got selected as the director through this training initiative, which is one of the best things that ever happened to the African film industry because we have passion and talent but lack the resources. They fund the workshop and film which helps bypass the countless short films one has to do to prove that you are a good filmmaker and can be trusted with money. I now have much better chances as I have a full feature-length film under my belt,” says Gitonga.
He adds that film distribution, where the masses get to watch the movie at affordable prices similar to buying milk and bread, needs to be resolved.
“We have to create a culture of movie going which increases the consumer appetite and results in more films being made, more movie theaters and DVDs available for sale at local stores.”
Perhaps if filmmakers across the continent merge to tell our own stories, it will create a cult following in the theaters. A semi-autobiographical film based on Kenya’s best-selling fictional book by John Kiriamiti, My Life in Crime is currently in production. The film with a proposed budget of $4 million has combined the best of Nollywood and Riverwood—Nigeria’s and Kenya’s film industries. The film rights are owned by Kenyan producer Janet Kirina, Nollywood’s superstar Jim Iyke has the lead role and the script writers are Kenyan. Time will tell whether this venture will be successful, remembering Chinua Achebe’s famous words: Until lions tell their tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.