A Bold Transmission: Ekwa Msangi Interviews Lupita Nyong’o, Judy Kibinge and Wanuri Kahiu
By Ekwa Msangi-Omari
Ekwa Msangi-Omari is a Tanzanian writer and director who holds a BFA in film production and an MA in African cinema, both from NYU. Her first TV series, The Agency, was selected by MNET-East in 2008 as one of two original Kenyan series to be televised continent-wide, the first of its kind from the region. She is currently the industry coordinator at Tribeca All Access and, artistically, is in the midst of developing several new projects.
…Ekwa: I have three female Kenyan filmmakers sitting here, and as far as I’ve heard living outside of the country, all of the headliners have had female names. So are there just no male filmmakers in Kenya?
Judy: There are a fair number of guys, I must say, but lots of women—maybe two-thirds women and one-third men.
Lupita: If you look at our storytelling culture, women told the stories. It was your grandmother that you listened to telling stories as you sat around by the fire, so perhaps women have been pioneers in the field, more ahead of the game, because storytelling is considered a woman’s role.
Wanuri: My mother told me the most ridiculous tales, and I think up until I was, like, fourteen or fifteen, I wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth or not. [Everyone laughs.] Honest to God! Many things she used to tell me: “You know, Wanuri, your breasts will never grow until leeches . . .” [Laughter.] Honest to God, I just didn’t know! And her being a doctor, I expected her to tell the truth to a certain extent. But also just hearing women talk about people—I think that the way we women relate has influenced my love for people and the story.
Lupita: Yeah, and because of that, women’s early success feeds on itself. If you look at Kenya as the paternalistic society that it has become—but still there were women making films from the beginning—chances are high that more women will get into filmmaking as time goes on, right? Sooner than they’ll become matatu [public minivan] drivers!
Judy: You’re right. What I find interesting is you can’t separate the art of storytelling from literature, yet the writers of the sixties and the seventies were men. Why have we women come into storytelling as filmmakers?
My own family is very interesting, in fact. My mom’s side has lots of writers and artists. I had an uncle who wrote lots of books—he was a lecturer at the University in literature—and I have other uncles who’ve written lots of books. It’s the men who were telling the stories through literature.
Ekwa: What audiences are you thinking of when you’re making films? Are you targeting particular audiences?
Wanuri: This is what I learned in film school, and I think it’s a really handy lesson: I have to think about an audience, but I have to trust my instincts as well. Somebody told me, “You might think you are the most unique person in the world, you might think that nobody else thinks like you, has ideas like you . . . but you’re not that special. If you laugh for some reason, if you cry for any reason, be guaranteed there are a hundred thousand people who will cry for the same reason you’re crying or laugh for the same reason you’re laughing. So when you’re writing, try not to think about your audience. Think about what you want, and what is a genuine emotion for you. Because if you put the genuineness of the emotion into the film, then audiences will respond to that pure emotion, will respond to what you’re saying as a result.” And that’s because—honest to God—we’re not that special. We’re not that random, we’re not that isolated, that you will have a feeling or an idea that somebody will not be able to relate to.
Lupita: When I was a young filmmaker making In My Genes, I was making it for a Kenyan audience, but I really did not focus on that. I was committed first and foremost to the main character. When I met her, I knew my film had to be about her. I also knew the film had to demystify albinism. I talked to people who thought my idea was interesting, but asked, “How are you going to do that?” I didn’t know. I didn’t have a script; I just had this idea. So I’d say, “Well, I’m thinking that the main character—who’s blind and weaves these kiondos [handwoven baskets]—will be deconstructing her life while she’s constructing a basket.” People just didn’t get it—even I wasn’t sure what I wanted. But I had a gut feeling that this is the way it needed to be. So I did not focus on the audience—I just made the film based on what I needed to say, and what I needed to say came from my own ignorance of the topic. I knew very little about albinism when I started the film, and learned so much in the process of making the film, and I wanted my audience to go on that same journey. So, really, I was referring to myself as I made the film. Considering myself as a viewer, what would I like to see?
It really limits me to think consciously about what audience a film is going to reach, because I cannot put myself in some sort of ambiguous group of people. It’s very hard, it’s a very abstract thing to do, and it takes you away from the things you need to say.
Wanuri: And even this film that I’ve just made, Pumzi, I have no idea how people are going to respond to it, because it’s so different. It’s sci-fi. African sci-fi. What is that?
Lupita: You’ve just created a genre!
Ekwa: We’ve all watched sci-fi movies, we’ve all watched documentaries, but I don’t know how many people have seen those kinds of films about us. Do you think that audience development will just come as the industry grows, and as we grow as a nation and a people? Will people be educated to understand that it’s okay to see us in sci-fi, to think of ourselves in these new ways?
Judy: When I made my first film, Dangerous Affair, in 2001, all Kenyan films were about the girl child, coming to the city, clean water, HIV, female genital mutilation . . . because that’s where the money was. My producer, Njeri Karago—she had the concept for the first draft—was amazing because she raised money for this unusual film about Kenyans just living, working, cheating on each other, kissing, having affairs in the night, dancing really sexy. When we released it, all the songs on the soundtrack were hits on the radio. At the time we kept on being asked, “Why are you making pornography?” But we freed the audience in a way because people would come up and say, “For the first time, I see myself.” And people would do this bizarre thing—which I could never get over—they’d recite, like, half the lines in the film. And I’d ask, “How many times did you watch it?” “Ten, twelve.” What we’d created was something that people had never seen: themselves. I think more and more you’re going to be seeing this, all sorts of films of people just being themselves—it’s already happening.
The other thing a lot of film journalists asked about Dangerous Affair: “Why have you made a Western movie?” Well, I live in a city, my friends live in a city, my parents live in a city—you know, people actually live here, and we do kiss. We’re not copying the West; that’s how we live.
Lupita: We live in a contradictory society, and it will not reconcile with our tradition or our modernity, and our films need to reflect that conflict. There are those of us who live in a very Western Nairobi—as far as we’re concerned, we might as well be in America. We are always grappling with this identity, and that’s what our films need to reflect. There’s not one layer . . . our identity is so layered.
Judy: Exactly. On our side of town, people loved Dangerous Affair. But guys on the other side of town, some guys from Eastlands, they were like, “Nobody lives that way—it’s an impossible film, because people don’t really live like that.”
Lupita: You cannot find a film that will cater to everyone. There’s got to be some that cater to the Eastlands boys, but there’s also got to be some that reflect that Western society that exists in Kenya. With regard to educating the audience, I think the existence of the film is the education, in itself.
Wanuri: But also, you can create platforms for discussion. We created Multiple Initiative, where we screen films and hold a Q&A session afterwards, so you can have a conversation. For me, understanding films came from being able to talk about them. I don’t take filmmaking lightly; I think that in the same way people deconstruct literature, you should be able to deconstruct film, because each film says something about this society at that time, in that moment. Dangerous Affair is a historical document of people and culture, of art, and of our society.
Lupita: Audience education is the area we need to move into. Right now Kenya is in a place where film is primarily entertainment: Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, that sort of action film. You go “Whoa!” And then, after you’re energized and you’ve forgotten your problems for a moment, you’re back in the midst of things. It’s an escape, and it should be an escape, but it’s also a reflection of your society, especially if you’re watching relevant films. Film analysis needs to be in universities and other educational settings so people can learn how to look at film in a deeper way. It does help to understand where a film is coming from, to deepen your understanding of it. And not just film—we could use that analysis in a lot of areas of Kenyan life.
Ekwa: What is it like to show your films to different audiences? What is it like having people learn about or scrutinize Kenya, East Africa, through the experience of your film?
Wanuri: In a recent interview I was talking about my new sci-fi film, and the interviewer said, “With so many African stories to tell, why would you do sci-fi?” What is that supposed to mean? What is an African story? Am I not African by telling the story? And defining that African identity can become so convoluted, because what is Africa, then? …
About the directors
Wanuri Kahiu is an alumna of UCLA’s master’s program in film directing. She made her professional debut in 2006, directing a behind-the-scenes documentary, The Spark that Unites. In 2008 she completed her first feature film, From a Whisper, which was based on the real life events surrounding the 1998 twin bombings of U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The film went on to win several international awards. Kahiu has recently completed a short science fiction film, Pumzi (2009), which was partially funded by Focus Features (part of NBC Universal), the Goethe-Institut, and Changa Moto Fund in Kenya.
Judy Kibinge is a Kenyan writer and filmmaker. After creating numerous commercials during her eight years in advertising (three as creative director on Pan African brands such as Coca-Cola North Africa Division, Unilever, and Kenya Breweries), she decided to pursue filmmaking. Her award-winning films include Dangerous Affair, winner of the ZIFF Best East African Production Award, and Bless This Land, winner of the Kenya International Film Festival Best Documentary Award. She owns Seven, an independent production house based in Nairobi, Kenya, which she founded in 2006.
Lupita Nyong’o has worked on the production teams of critically acclaimed films, including The Constant Gardener (2005), directed by Fernando Meirelles, and The Namesake (2006), directed by Mira Nair. In 2007, she wrote, produced, directed, and edited her first film, the award-winning documentary In My Genes. In 2009, Nyong’o was featured as the lead role in MTV’s hit TV series Shuga, an innovative campaign to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS and its stigma in developing countries. She is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Acting at Yale School of Drama.