The blockbuster success of the film Nairobi Half Life after its release in South Africa in August this year was confirmation of the artistic truism that creative waters find their own levels. The film, directed by David “Tosh” Gitonga, evinced some now common realisations and reactions.
For one, the lingering absence of self belief that is very much a part of the Kenyan psyche. Whence, the shock when it transpired that Joseph Kimani Wairimu, in the lead role, had won the Best Actor award at the 33rd Durban International Film Festival. How could it be that a Kenyan actor had been considered so good? The shock then turned to chest thumping, patriotic pride when Nairobi Half Life opened in Kenya itself, in October. It ran for weeks and weeks in Kenyan cinemas, breaking existing attendance records for local productions, with publicity spreading largely by word of mouth and social media. Even cabinet ministers were persuaded to go to a special screening. Nairobi Half Life pressed on, inexorably, in its quest to conquer the world. It began a 15 city tour of Germany. The UK was to follow. Then, the icing on the cake: Nairobi Half Life was submitted for contention for the 85th Oscar Academy awards in the Best Foreign Film category. Quite understandably, informed Kenyans were ecstatic at the news.
Nairobi Half Life also pointed to the prevailing situation in which foreign support is needed (in this case largely German) in order for us to tell our own stories and to showcase our own talent. Finally, there was yet more proof of our oversensitivity to what can be termed as a negative portrayal of our circumstances, to be seen eventually by outsiders, much to our embarrassment. After all, isn’t Nairobi the city of skyscrapers and the starting point of a super highway? If so, then why opt for a storyline involving small-to-big-time gangsters operating from a filthy slum? Isn’t Kenya a country with a brand new constitution, with representative democracy as its corner stone? Then, why focus on a corrupt police force, eng expaged in serial, extra-judicial killings? Why point out huge disparities in the quality of life between the haves and the have nots and expose the haves to realities that they would much rather pretend didn’t exist ? Why highlight the dead-end existence of many of our youth, as first suggested by the film’s title? Why can’t we be more positive around here?
Without giving too much away, the synopsis of Nairobi Half Life is best expressed in the words of Joseph Wairimu, in interview: ‘I played the lead character called Mwas. He is a young dreamer from upcountry who comes to Nairobi with stars in his eyes; with dreams of being a movie star. Mwas is faced with many temptations and challenges in the big city of Nairobi. But despite all the odds, he stops at nothing to achieve his dream.’ And, indeed, this gritty, no gun shots barred production is ultimately an uplifting story of hope and redemption. It may not be a masterpiece, objectively, for there are moments when the unfolding action calls for a suspension of disbelief. However, its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.
It is, indeed, gratifying to register that, as people from Kenya, we can see ourselves depicted on screen by fellow Kenyans rather than look to depictions of our human condition through offerings from Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood, Latinamericawood and Indonesiawood. It is, indeed, gratifying to see our languages affirmed as being rich in nuance through subtitles rather to hear our actors speak in supposedly unintelligible English. And it may also be a revelation to some that a majority of the actors involved can be seen regularly in the flesh on our own theatre stages. In this regard, a notable breeding ground for home grown talent is the group Heartstrings Kenya, which provided no less than six actors in title roles: Namely, Joseph Wairimu as Mwas; Olwenya Maina as the leader of the gang, Oti; Nancy Karanja as the love interest, Amina; Jacky Vike as the hooker and Paul Ogola and Anthony Ndungu as gangsters, Mose and Waf, respectively. They joined others to give a thoroughly convincing display of controlled, ensemble acting.
So, what is there to conclude? Perhaps, the following: The unsatisfied should rest assured that we have many different stories to tell. Poor as we may be, we shall ultimately need government and local, as opposed to foreign private sector support. We shall also need the viewing support of our own audiences. And we should strive to set our own standards of recognition. But, above all: Yes, we can but we must know we can!
Reviewed by John Sibi-Okumu