Sunday, February 27, 2011


A group of editors in Russia once wanted to test the concept and level of audience participation in the telling and understanding of film narrative. They took a shot of a man seemingly looking at something off set and decided to cut it into two different scenes. The first scene was a jovial party with dancing and laughter and the usual party shenanigans. The shot of the man was inserted into the party scene and this compilation was shown to a random group of viewers. The second scene was a somber funeral and once again the shot of the man was inserted and the final reel shown to a second group of random viewers. Both groups were asked to explain what they saw and here is what the editors found out: That the first group of viewers were mostly convinced that they had seen a man having fun at a party while the second group were absolutely sure they had seen a very sad man attending a funeral. This was despite the fact that the shot of the man was completely unrelated to both of the other scenes and the man had not been reacting to anything at the time the shot was taken.

It is an eye-opening story. Most actors forget just how much of the narrative of film is controlled by the editor and the audience and tend to believe that they(or their acting) control the narrative. The most important thing for an actor to remember according to Neil is that in film, the actor mostly provides raw material for the editor
to tell the story with. It is the editor who creates/forms your performance and not yourself. In Kenya where most TV/Film actors come from the theater, this is a most important thing to remember as it is perhaps the greatest disparity between acting for the stage and for the screen. For example, in theatrical rehearsals, taking a scene again means repeating action to get a certain performance exactly right. In film, taking a scene again means that an actor should try to do the scene differently from what he did the first time so as to give the editor a variety of action with which to form a performance.

Neil on the set of 'SAINTS'
These are just a few of the acting tips that Neil Schell shared with hundreds of aspiring and established actors at an acting and auditioning workshop held at Kenya National Theater on 24th February 2011. Here are other bits and pieces that Neil shared with participants at the workshop(as I understood them):

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Is this the inevitable future??

Its still relatively early into 2011 but as a filmmaker in Kenya, the year already has me rather optimistic. Within the first month and a half of it I have watched Judy Kibinge's 'Dangerous Affair' and 'Killer Necklace', and Nathan Collett's 'Togetherness Supreme'. This in addition to Hawa Essuman's 'Soul Boy' brings to four the number of Kenyan films that I've knocked off my must-watch list in recent times. For the most part, it was screenings at the French and German cultural centers, Goethe and Alliance Francaise, that allowed me to access the films except for 'Soul Boy' which I had the pleasure of watching at its premier open-air screening last year in the Kibera slum where it was shot.

I couldn't help looking back at this with some level of satisfaction seeing as I had waited for quite a while to see these titles. Yet most of my friends did not consider it as much of an achievement as I may have wanted them to. Upon closer inquiry, I discovered that their nonchalance was due to the fact that they had no idea how good these films were. They were indeed aware of the existence of these films but had very little or no interest at all in watching them and their expectations, before our conversations, were extremely low. Used to a staple of pirated copies of the latest foreign films served cheap by vendors, they seem to have come to equate availability with quality. A common question I got was "If these Kenyan films are so good then how come no one has pirated them?" And truthfully, despite wanting to launch a self-important diatribe on copyrights and moral values, I paused to consider the question. Each of the films I had watched was good, with quality in production values and that most important ingredient, the script. If these films were in the vendors' stalls, they would not fail to have buyers, and in large numbers too. Even though this would not result in revenues for filmmakers, it would result in recognition, maybe even popularity. And if the plan for the industry is a long term one as I hope it is, this may not be a bad thing at all. Sort of like taking one for the team. I am truly sorry I have to suggest this but perhaps the four films that I recently enjoyed so much should be compiled onto a 4in1 DVD disc and leaked to the more popular stalls across the city. And no, don't kill me just yet, at least not until you hear my renegade ideas first (especially NO. 3).

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Every last Monday of every month from December-15-2005, filmmakers and film enthusiasts gather at Goethe Institut to watch and discuss selected films from the region and beyond. The event is known as the Lola Kenya Screen Film Forum and its 43rd edition had a first time guest yesterday. That’s right, I missed all 42 previous editions not because I didn't want to attend, but because I had no idea the forum existed. Thank God for social media, and my New Year resolution to get out there and find Kenyan films and filmmakers and interact and network more aggressively than I have been doing before.
There is a great divide between the people who make Kenyan films and their audience, if indeed it is Kenyans. The ordinary Kenyan whatever his/her opinion about Kenyan films may be, has absolutely no idea where to get them most of the time and the filmmakers, from what I have largely noticed, are at a loss on how to avail their work to the ordinary Kenyan without giving it away free of charge. Subsequently, events like the Lola Kenya Screen Film Forum are a rare opportunity indeed for anyone who would like to sample Kenyan work and meet the people behind them. I counted about 30 other attendees who evidently had the same idea. 
Zipporah Nyaruri

The edition featured the work of Zipporah Nyaruri, an upcoming film talent from Kenya who is making ripples in regional film festivals with her latest short, ZEBU AND THE PHOTO FISH. 
Working variously as director, writer and editor, Nyaruri, who holds a Bachelor's degree in Business Studies from Uganda Islamic University and a diploma from the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication believes that she has learnt more about her craft from being on a real set than she could ever learn from attending formal film school. Though largely based in Uganda, the diminutive filmmaker refers to herself as "a citizen of the world", a clue perhaps to the size of her ambitions. She describes herself as having gone to Uganda looking for adventure, and ended up discovering both work and her passion for film there. After starting her career with NGO funded documentaries, she describes ZEBU AND THE PHOTO FISH as her virgin foray into fiction film and says she does not intend to turn back. Her reason; "the lack of creative liberty that donor agenda impose upon you". If she makes another documentary(one of which she has already begun), she insists it will be on her terms.
(1) MAAMA EMERRE: A documentary short about the Ugandan women food vendors affectionately called 'Maama Emerre' by their customers. The documentary traces a day in the lives of these street vendors, following them in the throngs of Uganda's busy streets as they detail their biggest challenges and hopes. It also takes an alternate perspective from their customers and critics. 
The film portrays the colorful Ugandan street food culture with an honest, curious and critical gaze leaving all opinions and conclusions untouched. Noticeably though, several things are unable to be conveyed visually.  In particular, one wishes to see the vendors cooking, especially as the hygiene of their cooking places is repeatedly decried. Nyaruri explains that despite her friendly overtures, there were some places that she simply could not get permission to film. She attributes it to a unique aversion to cameras among Ugandans. Still, it is enjoyable and informative without having any overt agenda as most documentaries do. At the end of it, it sort of leaves one hungry, and with a desire (if ever in Uganda) to sample a dish from 'Mama Emerre'.
(2) ZEBU AND THE PHOTO FISH: Undoubtedly the main event of the day. The story follows a fisherman's son whose indebted father gives away his entire catch every day to his debtor. This is despite the fact that the value of the fish far surpasses the debt he owes and the boy's mother is ailing and needs medicine and food. The boy concocts an ingenious plan to sell the fish in partnership with a shrewd salon lady and with his profits, not only pays off his father's debt, but also buys medicine for his mother all with some fish to spare; for their own dinner for once!
Its easy to see why the accolades are flowing for this film, it is enjoyable and fun and its protagonist Zebu, is not only likable but also manages to overcome his obstacles in an ingenious way that is both educative and entertaining. And when Nyaruri explains the second layer of meaning in the film, Zebu becomes even more charming as a symbol of resistance against circumstance and opression. You see, the film is an allusion to the oppressive economic and cultural situation that fisher-people along the coasts of East Africa's lakes and oceans find themselves in. Pulling out of the water each day fish whose worth is more than enough to change their lives for the better and yet languishing in eternal poverty as a result of powerful economic forces and the machinations of unscrupulous middlemen.
A young fisherman learns the trade on a Mombasa beach.
Most interesting though was her use of a jump-cut to emphasize emotion and resolve during a scene involving Zebu and his father's debtor. It ignited quite some debate among the audience, some lauding the unorthodox stylistic device and others seeming unwilling to accept it as a way of enhancing the narrative experience of the film.
The film that most recently won three awards (Best Director, Best Script, Best Supporting Actor) at Auteur Experimental Short Film Festival in Cape Town, definitely delivers its message along with some magic. An engaging film to watch and an interesting subject to tackle. My only lament, it could have done better with more than just one reference to its deeper meaning. Only once do the characters refer to the challenges that face fisher-people as a whole and it is only mentioned in passing. It may be difficult for a person without prior knowledge of the underlying theme to get that particular meaning out of the film, though they are bound to enjoy the story anyway. Perhaps that would have required a longer treatment than the current length of the film. Nonetheless, it is a film that will doubtless bring a smile to all who watch it, regardless of age.
(3) TRUCK MAMA: This was not a film but rather a trailer for an upcoming documentary that the filmmaker is currently developing that tells the true story of a female long distance truck driver plying the Kampala-Mombasa route. If Nyaruri's documentary style in "Maama Emerre" is anything to go by, audiences can expect an intriguing account of a life that according to the trailer, defies all expectations. And she swears its does not have a feminist agenda. I believe her, mostly.
Other films screened at the forum were "Bon Voyage" from West africa and Judy Kibinge's poignant 12 minute lesson on Kenyan political history "Coming of Age" narrated through the gaze of a childishly innocent persona.
The forum came to a close with a simulating discussion concerning the future of film in the country and in particular, the place of marketing and distribution in an industry invaded by Nigerian film and ravaged by piracy. "Where is the Kenyan story", one woman asked. I thought she asked the wrong question, the right question in my opinion is, "Where is the Kenyan audience?" If we only knew who we were telling these stories to, we would know how best to tell them. The lack of a unified guiding Kenyan aesthetic, in film or any other art, makes it easier for foreign work to offer an alternative that stands separate from our internal cultural divisions and thus offers much wider appeal. Perhaps the unconscious knowledge of this fact explains the equal measures of disdain and respect (both obvious at the forum) that we accord film productions from our superstitious cousins in West Africa. 
Food for thought... until next time.