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African Cinema

Nairobi Half Life (Kenya-Germany 2012)

Mwas (Joseph Waimiru) bewildered when he first arrives in Nairobi.

Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) – bewildered when he first arrives in Nairobi.

Kenya has the largest economy in East Africa and like Nigeria and South Africa it has a legacy of anglophone film culture from the British colonial period. Contemporary Kenya has managed to retain cinemas in Nairobi and Mombasa but unlike the other two countries it has so far not managed to export films for the international market even though a range of films are made locally. In 2013 two Kenyan titles were screened as part of Bristol’s African Film Festival, Afrika Eye in the UK. Nairobi Half-Life and Something Necessary (Kenya 2013) were well-received and have now begun a tour of UK venues. Nairobi Half Life was also an official Kenyan entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2014, although it failed to make the shortlist.

In the past, Kenya was too often simply the ‘backdrop’ for adventure stories made by British or American producers. A good recentish example would be The Constant Gardener (UK-US-Germany 2005) which featured scenes set in the enormous shanty town of Kibera on the edge of Nairobi. Though this film had elements of ‘authenticity’ in its imagery (as might be expected from Fernando Meirelles,  the co-director of City of God) it was not really an African story. The two films screened at Afrika Eye were both made under the aegis of a partnership between German director Tom Tykwer’s One Fine Day production company and a local Kenyan company, Ginger Ink. What this meant in practice was that a local story and script was produced by a Kenyan creative team and Kenyan actors but aspects of post production were carried out in Germany and Tykwer and cinematographer Christian Almesberger were ‘supervisors’ of direction and camerawork. The music was scored by Xaver Von Treyer who worked closely with musicians in Nairobi (listen to a sample track here).

I should start my comments on the film by saying how much I enjoyed watching (and listening to) it. The performances of the leads are very good, the camerawork and editing, alongside the music, present all the vibrancy of city life and the narrative of what is a familiar genre film works well. The film was directed by David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga (who had been an assistant director on The First Grader (UK-US-Kenya 2010)).

The central character is Mwas (Joseph Wairimu), a young man desperate to leave his village and make it as an actor in the big city. What follows is a familiar story of the country boy landing in the city, suffering setbacks and falling in with a street gang. But Mwas really is a talented performer and he finds himself accepting an acting role in a local theatre group’s production at the same time that his new friends begin to escalate the scale of their criminal activities – partly, and largely unwittingly, because of actions begun by Mwas. It is this ‘double life’ for Mwas that creates his sense of ‘half life’. He can’t properly enjoy the new experience of acting (and meeting educated and sophisticated young people) when he is still committed to the street gang people who ‘rescued’ him.

My initial reaction to the film was that much as I enjoyed and admired it, I did have the feeling that there were two styles/two approaches in evidence that didn’t quite gell. In one sense of course this reflects the ‘half life’ for Mwas but I think that there is a more fundamental issue here about the ‘supervision’/mentoring by Europeans. No matter how well-intentioned (and well-thought through) the project, there is a sense of a hybrid film being produced. I was reminded of Metro Manila which has a similar narrative and genre mix. As in that film, the dialogue in Nairobi Half Life is mostly spoken in a local language, first Kikuyu in the village and the Swahili in the city. English words creep into Swahili much as they do in any modern urban language, but the crucial moment comes when Mwas meets actors who use English regularly (Swahili and English are the two official languages of Kenya). These meetings emphasise the social class differences in a society in which there is a relatively wealthy minority and a significant problem of rural poverty fuelling the drift to the city. I’m really skirting around the issue of ‘authenticity’ here. Nairobi Half Life tells a genuine African story but it does feel like an almost universal crime genre film with a realist style – and a conventional genre resolution to the narrative. It might be worth making a comparison with the gangster picture from the Congo, Viva Riva and the Canadian-directed War Witch (Rebelle) which both share some elements.

African filmmakers are faced with three choices in developing their own approaches. The first, evident from the early 1960s, was to accept training abroad and return to Africa to make films which attempted to offer an alternative to Hollywood/European models. The second is to take the overseas training but to then embrace genre models familiar from Hollywood and other commercial cinemas. The third is to stay home and try something rooted firmly in local culture – the Nigerian video film approach. I suspect that there are Kenyan variations on Nollywood and it would be interesting to see what they look like.

There are several interesting resources which give background on the production of Nairobi Half Life. This article from John Bailey and the American Academy’s outreach programme on cinematography visits Kenya and looks at classes of aspiring cinematographers linked to the Nairobi Half Life project. The film has its own Facebook page and One Fine Day Productions has details of its African workshops. Reviews of Nairobi Half Life have generally been very good, like this one. There are some others more critical, like this one.

Here is a One Fine Day Workshop documentary showing how the Kenyan project works in practice:

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