When you say that 250 people died, you forget that they are individuals

Interview with Wanuri Kahiu by Olivier Barlet

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Here we are at the Cannes Film Festival. What’s your impression so far? Is this an important event for you?
Of all film festivals, Cannes is the mecca of film. It’s the centre of cinema. It seems like this is where everything happens. I hadn’t realized how important a festival it was until I came here. I don’t think I could have ever prepared myself enough, mentally and emotionally, before coming here. It’s also my first time in France. So, as a filmmaker, to be in Cannes first, before being anywhere else, it’s bigger than a dream come true. And being invited by Cinéma du Monde, and by the French embassy, is such a privilege and an honour. So far, because Cinéma du Monde is connected to the producers’ network, I’ve met many producers and many people who are interested in working in sub-Saharan Africa, which I didn’t know, because I think that it’s so risky to work with African films. But being here, and realizing that there’s a lot of money, especially European money, which people would like to invest in films within Africa, has revitalized me and I’m feeling more energetic and more excited about continuing my career now.
You studied at UCLA. What kind of experience was that for you?
UCLA was like a womb. Before UCLA, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I didn’t really know what it took. But in UCLA, because I was in the film school, and it was a Master’s programme, all the conversations, all the people you meet are people who are surrounded by films. So, you’re always thinking, talking, living film, more than anything else. It really gave me the chance to be able to craft my style more than anything, and that’s what UCLA does; it enables you to find what your style is. It doesn’t force you to make Hollywood films or whatever, it just says, if these are the kinds of films you want to make, then this is the way you can do it. So it was a great honour to be there and I remember that initially, when I was accepted into UCLA, I was one of the youngest students in the Master’s programme and to be there and to know that other people have worked so long to come back to UCLA gave me a diversity of people to be in contact with. It’s a great network that I still have to this day.
You have this major experience of the States and now you live in Kenya. What are the avenues for you for making films in the Kenyan cinema world, which is just emerging, compared to what you experienced in the States?
Kenya is emerging, like you said, the cinema is emerging. I wouldn’t say that we have a film industry yet. I think we have the beginnings of a film industry. It’s still very embryonic. To be part of that, to be part of the growth of an industry is a great challenge, but it’s also very invigorating. You are more or less guaranteed, with any film that you make, to do at least one thing in the film that somebody will say, « Oh, I’ve never done that before ». So you’re always at the forefront, creating new ways of making film, of thinking about new ideas, new solutions to new problems and that’s great and challenging. And also because it’s such an emerging film market, there is no financing, there is no funding and there is very little governmental support. I think they are just beginning to realize what film does, not only to the cultural scene, but also to Kenya as a tourist destination, and in terms of industry and the jobs it can generate. Those ideas and those conversations are just beginning to happen. So that’s completely different to being in the States. The States has an established film market, an established industry; it knows very well what it can and can’t do. It was great to be able to be in the States and to train there, and to know what you can do, because if you stay only in Kenya, with people saying « you can’t do that », you might begin to believe you can’t do those things. But being in the States and knowing what you can do and coming back and saying, « no, of course you can do it because I’ve done it before, it might be in a different way or a different place, but you can do it », means pushing those boundaries. And also earning the respect of your crew, as the crew is largely male; earning their respect because you have travelled, and that they can see that the films that you are producing are quality films. It earns you a certain amount of leverage that you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t left the country.
Has it been difficult for you, as a young woman, to make your way, to find your place in the Kenyan film world?
Initially it was very tricky to be able to make my way, but once the people I was working with realized the kind of films I was trying to make, and were supportive of what I was trying to do, and when the films that I started to make began to win awards, there was a respect that began to grow. People have, and have always had, a love of cinema, but haven’t had a chance to explore it. So, it was tricky, but what happens is that you know that the crew you are working with will not be a one-time affair. We don’t have such diversity that you’re not going to work with the same people over and over and over, so you build a family almost, a very strong unit of people that you will continue to give work to and who will continue to come to you whenever there’s a project.
You made the feature film, From A Whisper. The central character, who speaks with an American accent, is very strong. The character is a bit of an outsider, who comes to the country with a different experience to everyone else, and who is traumatized. What made you choose to tackle this kind of subject?
From A Whisper
was really originally made because I wanted to be able to explore the idea of what happens on a small scale once a national tragedy has happened. It was based on the bomb blasts that happened in 1998, when 250 people died and 5000 people were injured. When you say those things, you forget that they are individuals. You forget that it’s a mother, a father, a best-friend, a sister, you forget those things. It was important for me to tell a story that comes back to who is one of those 250 people. 250 is just a number, but when you realize that 250 families were affected, tragically affected, and will never recover for the rest of their lives, living without a sister, living without a mother, living without a best-friend, that was important to tell, to be able to explore. But also I wanted to explore the idea of Islam because, especially since the recent events that have been happening in the world, Islam has been depicted in such a negative way. It was important for me to be able to say, like with Christianity, like with any other religion, there are people who think about their relationship with God in different ways. There are those who are completely fundamentalist, like the suicide bomber character in From A Whisper, and there are those who can be very devout, like Waleed, who is the policeman. You can’t put Islam in a box. There is a beauty and devotion not only in the religion, but also in the culture of Islam that is important to talk about. Those dialogues were not happening in Kenya. So it was important for me to tell that story for those reasons.
Was it the first film made on that subject, including documentary too?
There were many documentaries that came out after the bomb blast, but it was the first narrative film made about it.
What reception did the film get in Kenya?
It was well received in Kenya. Initially, when we were going into production, it was very tricky because we approached different organizations, particularly Islamic organizations, saying this is the kind of script we are going to film, hoping that they would not only support us, but that they would also be able to give us advice on the best way to tackle such a sensitive issue, but instead we found the reverse. We found people who were not willing to have us talk about it and it got to the point where I had to walk around with a bodyguard on set, just to be able to make the film. It was quite an extraordinary experience that I never want to repeat again. But it was important that we had safety. There were some people who wouldn’t even come to certain parts of the location, because the location was around the bomb blast and they didn’t want to be around there, because they felt that the energy was wrong. So we had some crew members who wouldn’t come to certain places. It was very complicated in that way. It was very interesting trying to juggle those things and being able to make a film about it. But the film was very well received when it came out. And still to this day there are many people who are very keen to have it shown again and again and again.
Has it been shown on television?
We did release it on television a year after we made it. We released it on television on the anniversary of the bomb blast itself, so it played on the night of August 7, 2009, which was a great honour.
So everybody saw it?
There were quite a few people who saw it, but still, even the people who saw it want a DVD. I’ve never been in that situation before where people think that they want to keep one of your films as part of their library.
What do you think about the Riverwood phenomenon?
Riverwood is really interesting. What it is doing is really interesting, because before it, the industry and cinema owners said, « Kenyans don’t like to watch themselves, they like to watch American films ». Even TV would say the same thing: « Kenyans don’t like to watch themselves on TV ». But what Riverwood has done is to show that people want to see themselves; they want to see what’s happening in their own culture and people speaking in their own dialects, and they want to be able to involve themselves in the stories that are coming out. It’s also made the audience more aware of quality. Now we have an audience that says: « We don’t like this type of film because it’s bad quality; we like this type of film, within Riverwood », so it’s also educating an audience. In the beginning I used to say that I didn’t consider it cinema, I don’t consider Nollywood cinema, but that’s not true; it is. It’s an emerging part of cinema. And it’s teaching people what they like and what stories to tell and it’s creating a film literature, which is really important to have. It’s creating a cultural aesthetic that wasn’t there before because so often culture, especially from my part of the country, from my part of Africa, is defined as traditional dances, the Maasai, etc. But now, because people are so immersed and involved in the culture of either Nollywood or Riverwood, which is the local DVD industry, it is going to have to be accepted as a culture because of the amount of people who are watching it, and the amount of people who are vying to watch it. For the first time, we are actually having a film award ceremony that recognizes Riverwood and the kinds of films that are coming out of Riverwood and awards the best of these too.
What you say is very interesting, because when I was in Nairobi I saw ??? doing workshops with people from Riverwood, trying to bring more technique, so as you say, apparently people can feel the films’ lack of quality and want more. They are learning through these low-quality products.
Yes, they want better. People are always hungry for more and more and one of the channels that is doing the best is Citizen TV because they know that people want local content, so they’re creating local drama series. Just this year a bill that was for so long on the docket was finally passed mandating that 40% of TV productions have to be local content. And that excludes news, because people used to say, « But news is local content »! This is a first. It’s enabling people to be able to make shows, but it’s going to be complicated now because I think that the government is going to have to establish subsidies or grant-incentives so that local filmmakers and television producers can actually provide the content.
You also made Pumzi, which is an amazing film…
Thank you…
You really create an atmosphere in it. It required a budget, writing, an idea; how did all this come together?
I had been writing Pumzi for about two years and looking for the funds for as long when I was lucky enough to get money from the Goethe Institute and from Focus Features in the States, who had just started its Africa First programme. Through Focus Features, I managed to meet the production company that backed Pumzi, called Inspired Minority Pictures, from Cape Town. They were the only people brave enough to take on such an ambitious project on such a small budget. We also had some funding from Kenya, called the Changamoto Fund, which is run by the GoDown and KCDF. I completely applaud those funders because they were taking a chance. But more so, so was the production company because, at the end of the day, we only had 35 000 US $ to make that film with the amount of special effects it had, with the holograms, the derelict outside, and to be able to create a world that doesn’t exist. They are an extraordinary company and I champion them with all my heart; they’re innovative. I think they are the ones who are at the forefront of African filmmaking. More so than any other producers.
The content of the film is very interesting too, dealing with the issues of water shortages, controls, and the determination of the women. It’s full of messages.
I started to make Pumzi because I really don’t like bottled water. I know that’s curious, but I really don’t like the fact that it takes more water to make the bottle than the water that’s in it. That seems ludicrous to me. The fact that we’ve become a culture privatizing natural resources to an extent that we can barely afford them is ludicrous to me. And I’m surprised that those conversations are not being had. I know that people don’t understand when I say I don’t like bottled water, but I don’t know why there isn’t a campaign against those things, against the privatization of natural resources. I also started making the film because a friend of mine and I were having this conversation about the way Kenya’s being built up and becoming more concrete every day; we started exploring the idea that the only access we will have to nature will be a virtual experience, that you’ll only have hologram images of nature. You’ll have to see projected images of waterfalls, because they will no longer exist, especially with the devastation and the destruction we are doing to the environment. But for me, more than anything, the story was about Asha and her search for belonging, and her search for life, and her search for love and it’s more important to me that the story makes sense than the issues come through, because if I wanted an issue-driven film, I’d make a documentary, or something that can be completely issue-driven. For me, what really works with Pumzi – even though it’s my own film! – is that it has a strong story and a strong character, who is beautiful, curious, and soft all at the same time.

Cannes, May 2010///Article N° : 9590


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