Thursday, December 9, 2010


When I was a little boy in a little backwater town known as Migori, movies were popular and people; village people, used to go and watch them. The video halls were dingy and dark and the damages were a paltry 10 shillings for every title but these makeshift theatres were always full. Every Monday at school, the kids whose parents had allowed them to go and watch a film over the weekend would be surrounded at break time by eager listeners straining to hear the latest escapades of Bruce Lee, Commando (Schwarzenegger), Van Damme, or Rambo (Stallone). I was always one of the listeners as my parents had a no film-watching policy ever since some hapless idiot had started a fight in one of the video halls and gotten stabbed(no doubt inspired by an action flick). Nonetheless, these narrations were my first introduction to film, a subject that would later become a life obsession and(hopefully) a lucrative career.
Part of this intrigue (I'm only human) came from the glamour and lifestyle associated with the art of filmmaking. A lifestyle that being a filmmaker in this country seems more and more unable to provide.
As one of Kenya's best-known filmmakers Wanuri Kahiu puts it:
"It's ridiculously difficult to be a filmmaker in Kenya, it's just not an appreciated art. I am a filmmaker when I'm outside the country -- in Kenya, I'm a hustler, someone who's just trying to make ends meet. Every month it's like, 'Oh it's a miracle, I made rent!"

A slew of factors coincide within the modern Kenyan context to create an atmosphere where films, especially locally made films, are unable to attract audiences to theaters in sufficient numbers to be profitable and/or are unable to appeal to local buyers and make enough DVD sales to break even. The five most pertinent of these I believe are:
Marketing & Distribution: The inability of Kenyan filmmakers to use existing media both to promote and exhibit their films, and to reach potential buyers who are willing to purchase either viewing tickets or home copies. Where for example(apart from a film festival) can I, a common fellow from Migori, watch or purchase any of the recent widely acclaimed Kenyan films? I mean of course films like  Pumzi, Soul Boy, From a Whisper or In My Genes. 
Capital: Money money money! No explanation needed here, films cost money to make and it is never easy to raise the money. What are the possible options? 
Theme and Content Issues: Majority of African and perhaps Kenyan films are funded by external/foreign donors due to factor number two above. You could say that these donors have an influence over the views represented in the films since most usually have a cause or other and subsequently most films thus made are openly didactic with some pertinent issue or the other to expose and educate upon. But in all my childhood years I never heard narrated at break time(or ever), an AIDS awareness film! Truth is, didactic films are never commercially viable projects and though a filmmaker can make a decent living from documentaries and such, it is not what I had in mind when I first said "I want to be a filmmaker". Where are the stories; Just the stories?! 
Quality(Production and Script): It doesn't matter how good the production quality is if the story is not interesting. HD cannot rescue a bad script. Those are the facts. It matters though if the film is expected to compete with other commercial films, to invest in good production quality. Writing is I believe, the least appreciated aspect of filmmaking in Africa in particular and the world in general.

Locally, a good example to look at is the film SHUGA that took an overdone didactic theme(AIDS awareness) and using a mixture of great scriptwriting, great acting and good cinematography, turned it into probably the best production to be shown on Kenyan screens in a very long time. 
PIRACY: The bane of every artist's existence. Internet penetration and computer literacy in Kenya are both only going to get better, which means more, not less piracy will be happening. With a government that doesn't seem to understand copyright law at all, an 'almost impossible to police' universe of file sharing and downloads, and the ability to create unlimited copies of digital content(e.g. DVDs) at extremely low prices; all these in an environment of unemployment, Kenyan filmmakers have no idea what they're up against. Actually, no one does. Not even Hollywood with all its might and money.
In subsequent posts, I will try to tackle each one of these five issues with an insider's view of the Kenyan situation. The idea is to help filmmakers like myself figure out a way to get the villagers in my little backwater town back in those dingy halls spending money on films again. Kenyan films.
Hoping you will join me again…….and again……and on facebook.


  1. And now, what says you of the efforts of the "Riverwood" fellows; who seem to know how to circumvent the tricky waters of piracy and who also by producing cheaply and not so caring about quality as local stories...are selling anyway? Whatever the profits, they seem to be doing something? Or don't you agree? Is there space for such people in your nice arguments? And infact, isn't that the way to go seeing as to how Nigeria's often cheaply produced films are making in-roads into the "African" market etc- and whose popularity seems to soar? Isn't there a hungering for films that show the African as main character in a more "down-to-earthy" way that makes these movies sell? But ofcourse you are in a have been possibly trained in the art of movie making and don't like short-cuts, so you won't try talking "easily" of the "badly" made "Riverwood" products...still, give them hope. Think "Jitu Films" for example!
    F.Mbogo, Eldoret

  2. Ah, Mr. Mbogo you will definitely want to follow the blog as I tackle the next five posts. The Kenyan film environment(Riverwood in particular) will be examined in comparison to other film-making models from all around the world. Contrary to your suggestion, my belief (to give you a preview of an opinion I will expound upon in a later post) is that the Riverwood model of film-making, or at least film distribution is the inevitable future of film-making.

  3. From the few posts and comments I've read, I'm already shivering with excitement! Can't wait to see what topics will unfold.

    I have recently gotten quite obsessed with film and video so I'll be gobbling up and commenting on everything you say! Good stuff.

  4. I am a hopeless optimistic and believe in the magic of positive thinking....if you focus largely on why we are not making it as film makers in general, as individuals we will never make OUR OWN films!!!I however agree with you that film in Kenya needs immense support from various stakeholders and statutory bodies...flip-side is we can hustle and hustle and create those film associations and bodies that will bring the change we want to see in the small film-makers industry...

  5. Good piece there. Incisive and thought provocative. It raises one big question though. Does Kenya really have a distinct film - or indeed in general, a popular art aesthetic? I doubt! Do we really have a socio-cultural template that informs this aesthetic, from theme to langage to style to audience? My crystal ball (this is how Mutua Makau talks) tells me otherwise. In this respect, Nigeria, South Africa and even Ghana are way ahead of us, and you know this I know. Our music, film and most arts in general are not connected to any 'Kenyanness', indeed we don't even have a 'Kenyannes' ... we desperately and quite innapropriately hang on the anglo-american aethetic, which of course cannot take us far, it is like what Achebe says, we think we a puny fart can put out a fire ... I'll explain this later, after I read your next post.

  6. Hey, Kenyan Filmmakers, only 3 more days left, submit your films!! Deadline is December 15, 2011!!! Drop your films off at the Kenya Film Commission
    Get a chance to show your short film at Universal Studios, Hollywood on March 5, 2011.
    go to
    for the application

  7. think Jitu Films! That's the way forward!

  8. Most filmmakers concentrate only in Nairobi. They never get to largely explore talents all over the country making it even difficult for people to know that there is an upcoming film or movie.