Wednesday, October 12, 2011



Directors are supposed to shout “Action!” and “Cut!” while actors are supposed to mispronounce their lines and smile, saying “let’s take that again!” hoping that their goofs make it to the behind the scenes or cut-ins as the credits roll. Now imagine a production where the actors can not hear the director, nor can they audibly speak. A production where the actors are deaf and dumb, and to film them, everyone from the director to the continuity person has to go through an interpreter who signs to the actors in gestures the whole production team does not know about. Tough huh? Well, the production got nominated four times for the Kalasha Kenya Film and TV awards, 2011.

My Constitution: Specific application of Rights is a TV production by Media  Development in Africa (MEDEVA) in association with the Kenya National Association for the Deaf and funded by URAIA. Medeva are known for their ground breaking programming, from their first ever audience based socio-political show Agenda Kenya (KTN,KBC), audience based women talk show The Woman’s Show (Citizen TV), and the socio-cultural TV magazine show Tazama. In a country where most people are coining the term ‘first ever’ for their productions as if by being the first it means you are the best, these six, 5 minutes films are indeed the first ever in this country in the true sense of the word first, and better still, among the best four in 2010. Any serious production person would not just look at them casually, but wonder at the production, technical, and aesthetic feats that the production team had to put in to achieve such a high end production given the challenges of incorporating the deaf and dumb actors into it, and more so, targeting a TV production to the deaf and the dumb.
Fundamentally, the uniqueness starts from its convincing script, where the scriptwriter Seydou Mukali had to write a script for people who can only use sign language. The director and cinematographer too must have had challenges. Imagine a shoot where you can not go for tight close ups because sign language means gesturing hands and therefore most shots have to be at least medium shots for the hands to be seen. At the same time, you can not go for extreme wides because the fingers have to be clearly seen signing. Yet you have to vary shots to make it interesting. And then, you are to take the actor through their paces by first talking to an interpretor on set who signs for the deaf actor, and the actor communicates back to you through the intepretor. You can see then that Carole Gikandi, nominated for best Director, and Bonnie Katei, cinematographer, did not have it easy (its hell enough to deal with actors who hear yet don’t seem to understand what the director wants.). Then the sound people who had to take at least three takes per shot with the first one having the interpreter shouting and signing back and forth between the crew and cast, then the second mute on sound. Dan Oloo, another nominee for best Soundman, must have worked magic. Now imagine the edit where each shot is people signing, how do you know where to make the cut unless you have someone interpreting for you? An edit where you can’t cut to reaction shots because the person signing has to be seen in full until he finishes signing with their hands? Carole Gikandi, director/editor, did a good job here too.
Director Carole Gikandi
  This TV series marks a great landmark in Kenyan TV and Film history as being the first to be shot entirely targeting the deaf and dumb community, and using the Kenyan sign language entirely in it. The Executive Producing team of Jason Nyantino, Joy Wanjiku, and Elizabeth Wanjiku out did themselves in ensuring a production flow that sees a team communicate essential material to a previously un-attended audience. It breaks down the new constitution in digestable ways to a people who have been marginalized in every major communication strategy this country has had, with a few token gestures of a tiny, cropped image of a sign interpreter squeezed and inset in a corner of your TV, barely visible to the eye, yet sign language heavily relies on the visual. This is a TV series that works across the spectrum in that even those who have hearing capabilities and speak learn so much from the new constitution. It is, to me, arguably the best TV production yet that breaks down the new Kenyan constitution for the ordinary citizen in an ordinary yet entertaining drama.
Which makes a case for Kalasha Film Awards to have in the least, given a special Jury Award to this particular programme for its ground breaking nature, excellence in production, and in recognition that by looking at it you can tell it was not a regular production, it must have had extreme challenges that needed brilliant minds to overcome. The case for special jury awards is often in situations where a project might not be box-office, but displays exceptional skills in production that needs celebration.. A case in point is the Oliver Hermanus film Shirley Adams entirely shot in handheld, very tight close-ups and shallow depth of field in every shot, and in limited locations, dealing with the subject matter of a mother struggling to take care of a paraplegic son. The African Movie Academy Award (AMAA) had to give this film a special Jury award 2011 in addition to its winning the best achievement in sound due to its innovativeness in shooting style and subject matter, a uniqueness that showcases the bravery and unique fresh aesthetics of the director. Kalasha 2010 saw a new category, never there in the initial stages, pop up on the awards night for Best Animation to accommodate Tinga Tinga tales animation who presumably had submitted but no one had thought to add animation category. Special Jury award though is not to be equated with this kind of accommodative pop-ups.
I can assure you this is one production that might suffer the fate of in adequate recognition at home, yet will score so many unique first continentally and universally. It seems to have been grossly misunderstood, starting with it being nominated under ‘Documentary feature-length film’ category in the Kalasha, yet it is a TV drama. I asked in the Kenya Film Stakeholders facebook forum for an explanation on the criteria used such that a drama could end up in the documentary category, worse still, a series of independent, five minute dramas could be termed a feature length film. No one answered. When all is said and done, My Constitution shall firmly remain a Kenyan classic, expanding the target of film to the marginalized deaf and dumb community, and entirely using Kenyan Sign Language as its primary language of dialogue. Hats off.

Simiyu Barasa

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