You Beg, Borrow, Steal ;-) You Do Almost Anything To Get Funding

Wanuri Kahiu
… was born in Nairobi, Kenya. After graduating from the University of Warwick in 2001 with a BSc degree in Management Science, she enrolled for a Master’s Degree at the Masters of Fine Arts program in directing at the School of Film and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles.





Wanuri Kahiu, a young Kenyan filmmaker, was introduced to me by Mark Kaigwa, also author in this issue of we_magazine. Contact, first chat and the interview itself happened within one hour – thanks to real time communication on the Web. Before we start with the interview here is a short introduction to cinema in Africa.

African filmmakers often have difficulty accessing African audiences. The commercial cinemas in Africa often have to book blindly and show primarily Hollywood or Bollywood films. However, there are still limited venues where African audiences have access to African films, e.g. at the Panafrican film festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Most African filmmakers still rely heavily on European institutions for financing and producing their films. A commercially viable video production has been set up in Nigeria, colloquially known as Nollywood. When you look deeper into it, you can clearly see that many young African film makers follow a mission: They focus on social and political themes rather than any commercial interests, and they try to give an exploration of the conflicts between the traditional past and modern times. Their role is often compared to traditional Griots. Like them their task is to express and reflect communal experiences.


WE_magazine:
What made you a filmmaker Wanuri?

Wanuri:
I’m a firm believer that there will always be a role for storytellers in Africa. I think I’m just a modern-day storyteller and I use the tools that are available to my generation. I do remember when I realized without a shadow of a doubt that’s it what I wanted to do. I was 16 years old. Before that I didn’t even know that people produce TV shows or make film.

WE_magazine:
So how come?

Wanuri:
I used to watch a lot of TV. I was a bookworm and a telly addict. When I walked for the first time into a production studio and saw what they were doing, I was like: “That’s exactly what I want to do in my life.” Do you know what I mean?

WE_magazine:
Yes! Where was it? In Nairobi or …

Wanuri:
Yes, it was in Nairobi. A friend of my mother was trying to start a TV station. By then we were still under the dictatorship of Moi, so he never knew exactly if he would be able to get the right documents, you know?

WE_magazine:
Yes.

Wanuri:
The moment I walked in I knew this is it, what I wanted to do.

WE_magazine:
That sounds great, so what is your background? Did you study moviemaking, filmmaking?

Wanuri:
Yes, after knowing that this is what I wanted to do. First I applied for any possible internship to get closer to filmmaking. Then I studied and finished my Masters in Film at the University of California in Los Angeles.

WE_magazine:
Not the worst place to do this …

Wanuri:
It is the best place to be for filmmaking. LA was a very interesting experience for me. I don’t think that I’ve met one single “real” person in all the years I spent in LA. Everybody was playing a role: trying to be an actor or trying to be a singer or cab driver trying to be in drama. There was nobody just being who they are.

WE_magazine:
How would you describe the film industry in Africa?

Wanuri:
The film industry in Africa is twofold. Many people probably know about Nollywood, Lagos, Nigeria, because it is so prolific. But that’s only the one type of film-making we have. And then there’s the African cinematography tradition that has been there for a long time. We all know names like Ousmane Sembene and Oumarou Ganda – the great godfathers of African cinema. They saw filmmaking as an important political tool for rectifying the erroneous image of Africans put forward by Western filmmakers and for reclaiming the image of Africa for Africans.
I would like to think myself as the latter. I would like to think myself as a filmmaker that produces for theatrical release as well. Right now it is very exciting because a lot of attention is turning back to the African continent. Africa is becoming sexy again with the World Cup and everything. That’s great.

WE_magazine:
I totally agree. There is really a u-turn: America or Western Europe at least have started to think differently about Africa. It is no longer considered the “dark continent” as many business opportunities are opening up. But I also feel – since I do quite some work with Africans – that more and more young educated Africans are returning back home after their studies, ready and willing to drive change by themselves. They’re no longer waiting for help. They really start doing their own thing, they want to shape their future by themselves. I really love to see this is! I think it’s very important!
Going back to filmmaking my next question is: Do you think African film production has any impact on African society and what role is played by digital media?

Wanuri:
Of course! So the first question is it important in society? Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes.

WE_magazine:
In which ways?

Wanuri:
In different ways. I think many of us who are not able to travel to other African nations have almost no chance to learn anything about other African cultures. Simply because of the images that we see on TV: so many more stories from the West than from Africa. Africa barely exist on our TV screens. Many of us even forget our own representation, our own role within society and culture, within our ethos and with-in our or own morality. Things are like that, because that is not what is presented to us. That’s definitely not what is presented to my generation of Africans.
I remember traveling around the continent and being very fascinated by Africa. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape and the diversity of our cultures. I haven’t seen it before and I didn’t know about it – even though I live here. And films, documentaries, any kind of story telling can bring this to us, can raise awareness. African filmmakers have an important role to play here. Give people a sense of affiliation, to where they belong to – when they see their continent in the media. That’s one of the things for us, the African filmmakers – and I’m making this very, very general and I apologize for it – but that is one of our important roles: to portray a positive, generous, loving and fantastic image of who we are! Based upon this we can begin to have a dialogue about ourselves and at least we can begin to relish being our own heroes.
The second question about the digital age, yes it’s fantastic. Actually one of the ways I have been able to distribute my films to film festivals was online. I can upload it to a FTP server and somebody else can download it on the other side. It doesn’t lose resolution, its quality remains the same and it’s affordable. Creating a HD master tape is still almost impossible. It is way too expensive and only a few places in Nairobi provide this kind of equipment. So to be able to send a digital format film, so that other people can create masters so that they can save it on a hard drive is revolutionary and also very effective, efficient (cost and time efficient) and has just become a breeze.
And digital media is also important during the production process and in the post production. We Africans have not managed to perfect the art of film- making yet, because it didn’t come from this side of the world. It has a much longer tradition and history in Europe and in the West. So we are still learning a lot. For example in sound mixing and sound composition we are not at the top of the game. For my film Pumzi which I shot in South Africa, I had to hire a composer from the Netherlands. An amazing, amazing composer. Unfortunately until today we have never ever met face-to-face. We communicated via SKYPE – and this is how I know him …! Only in virtual space …!

WE_magazine:
How would you describe the film industry in Kenya?

Wanuri:
The film industry in Kenya is growing. Something new besides the francophile influence from West Africa is happening. For the first time we – in East Africa – have begun to take on a very different role. We are beginning to claim our own space. And I am not talking only about me. I see this happening in Uganda, in Tanzania. There is an amazing filmmaker out of Uganda called Carol Kamya and she produced her first feature film Imani that was shown at the Berlinale earlier this year. So these things are happening and there’s such a wave of new East African cinema. Very exciting, very dynamic. We’re experimenting with the art form and the way we’re dealing with it is definitely different to the way West Africa does.

WE_magazine:
Are there any schools or universities where you can now study filmmaking yet in Africa?

Wanuri:
There are only a few schools. I wouldn’t say they’re filmmaking schools, they are more journalistic schools. Filmmaking is still really, really in its early days. People who are making films are most likely taking training workshops. Like Tom Tykwer has created workshops where young filmmakers can come and study and produce / create a film. His group has just shown their second film in Kenya which has been generating interest in our filmmaking industry. It has also encouraged other people to explore the possibilities of filmmaking.

WE_magazine:
How do you fund your movies?

Wanuri:
You beg, borrow, steal ;-) You do almost anything to receive funding.
At the moment I’ve been fortunate enough to have a day job, so I work during daytime and at night I am pushing my film projects. For this documentary in Sudan I’ve been fulfilling my day job duties, didn’t take one day off and now I am able to leave and make this documentary happen. When I come back in late January I will start again working. I’m splitting my days in half. Day’s work is for paying my rent, night’s work is dedicated to my “everything”, my dream, the reason why I’m alive.

WE_magazine:
So there is no way for you to make a living based on filmmaking?

Wanuri:
It’s very hard. This is the first job I’ve taken for the past five years; I have been living from filmmaking but it can be very stressful. I’ve learnt for myself that creativity and stress do not live together. They do not live in harmony.

WE_magazine:
Not at all.

Wanuri:
This is why I’ve decided to take a job. I wanted to avoid the stress to find the money to pay my monthly rent. Now I can allow myself to be creative … To be creative that is the only reason why I wake up in the morning. It’s the only reason I surround myself with the people I love. It gives me joy, pleasure, pain.

WE_magazine:
What is your dream?

Wanuri:
My dream is to be able to make a living from filmmaking. I want to be successful. Successful in the sense that I will be able to raise my family. I want to make the films I love … that’s my primary vocation.

WE_magazine:
What kind of films would these be?

Wanuri:
Different types of films: science-fiction films, documentaries. My first feature film was about a real story that happened in Kenya and I adapted it into a narrative piece. I’ve always dealt with the question: “What is Wanuri’s style?” I believe my style is defined by my themes. The themes that I deal with usually deal with belonging, with diaspora; they usually have to do with being home or finding a home.

WE_magazine:
You are leaving tomorrow for Sudan to shoot a new documentary. How would you describe the situation right now in Sudan?

Wanuri:
The situation in Sudan a couple of weeks ago was very peaceful, very energetic, very hopeful. It felt like everybody was gunning for peaceful democratic change. And that’s what we hope to record. We hope to record people who are looking for change in a positive and peaceful way. And we hope to reconnect a courageous and beautiful young man with his family which he hasn’t seen for 18 years.

WE_magazine:
I was in Africa in August when in your home country Kenya the new constitution became effective. A very proud moment. Full of hope …

Wanuri:
Yes, I remember how hopeful it was.

WE_magazine:
It was. It really was … Everybody in the streets was so proud.

Wanuri:
I think it was one of the greatest moments in Kenya’s history. Especially after the last elections when we faced so much violence. It was so devastating. So it was very important for Kenyans to vote and feel that they can make a difference. And they’ve made the difference. They voted for the new constitution – a constitution we felt we needed for ourselves and for our country. It fills me with such pride to be part of a country that recognizes a need for change and allows its citizens to be part of it. That isn’t common for all African nations yet …

WE_magazine:
Do you think the political parties will go along with it?

Wanuri:
I think they don’t have a choice.

WE_magazine:
So coming back to filmmaking, what makes a good movie?

Wanuri:
A good story makes good movies. I think that story is key. Story is key, yes; and having strong and complicated characters that are not stereotypical is also very important.

WE_magazine:
What is your favourite movie?

Wanuri:
That’s a hard question. It depends on the day. Today, I think my favourite movie is “In the Mood for Love”.

WE_magazine:
“In the Mood for Love”. Good. Good to hear.
Wanuri, anything you would like to add at the end? Anything missing what you would like to say?

Wanuri:
No. Or may be I should point out the fact that it’s really important for the people to support the arts; it is the heartbeat and the pulse of the people, of a society. It’s a great way to communicate across the borders. We need the arts to unfold our full potential.
I still cannot understand why music and arts have been taken out of the school curriculums …

WE_magazine:
Why is this?

Wanuri:
Budget restrictions … When free education — primary education started they felt that they needed to concentrate on what they felt was important. And art was not considered to be important …

WE_magazine:
That’s sad.

Wanuri:
It is very sad, yes.

WE_magazine:
Wanuri, thank you very much!! It was a great pleasure!



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Anthony
Sep 8, 2015 11:56

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