A Kenyan filmmaker steeped in the history of his people

Friday August 6 2010

Tom Odhiambo | NATION Yakub Barua among the Maasai elders.

Tom Odhiambo | NATION Yakub Barua among the Maasai elders.  

By Tom Odhiambo [email protected]

It is not very often that one meets an artiste who pays so much attention and allegiance to history. After all, history is a very contested terrain.

It is history that politicians refer to when they want to push agenda that are not shared by all.

But even when history is used by those in power to ‘silence’ others whilst pursuing their self-serving interest, it still has the tendency to include those very individuals, communities or countries that it may have pushed to the margins.

Historians tend to put such other ‘histories’ in the footnotes. And footnotes, at least in the sense that minor details matter, is where Jakub Barua shoots his films and documentaries from.

Barua is a Kenyan with Polish ancestry. Or one would say he is Polish with Kenyan ancestry. His mother is Polish and his father is Kenyan.

He is an accomplished filmmaker whose productions, though, have not been in public circulation in Kenya. His is the kind of artistic work that is known by a few yet is very expansive in the kinds of issues it deals with.

Barua, with his brother, Stan, are more celebrated abroad than at home. Why is this so?

Barua’s films have a big dose of history. Their contexts tend to remind the audience that whatever reality one experiences today has an antecedent that should always be part of understanding and dealing with the present.

Of course this concern with history may be attributed to Barua’s own identity. But his education was also steeped in much history.

At the screening of eight of his films at the Goethe Institute in Nairobi on July 24, Barua invited his history teacher from St. Mary’s School in Nairobi to briefly ‘account’ (or recount) for the value of history to humankind.

But an encounter with Barua leaves no doubts that his own sense of history goes beyond what we ordinarily take it to be. Barua argues, for instance, that history is in the making all the time. He notes that Nairobi’s history is so transient that it cannot simply be captured as some ‘past.’

Indeed in Barua’s films and documentaries, the content and the history itself is left ‘open-ended’, as he says. This is in order not to foster the artist’s own ‘meaning’ onto the audience.

Barua contends that an artist needs to ‘open spaces for conversation’ with his audiences rather than close them off with a preconceived ‘message.’ But how does one attain such an ideal?

Barua’s films such as Forgotten Places, Shades of Poland, My Daddy was a Cavalryman, In Memory of Me, or Valley of Shadows all seem to be ‘incomplete.’ Their ‘incompleteness’ suggests the filmmaker’s refusal to ‘end the story’, because the story of humankind cannot end.

For instance, the two-minute Valley of Shadows is a tribute to Sao Gamba, who is acknowledged by many to be East Africa’s first professional filmmaker.

This snapshot tribute records Gamba’s restless spirit, as if refusing to be tied down by the trappings of urbanisation and modernity and relocating to the countryside where he was murdered.

Among the prominent threads in Barua’s films include the ideas of the nation, race, individual and communal identity, borders and geopolitics.

Probably his most accomplished documentary-film is Shades of Poland, which interrogates the centuries of Poland’s links with Africa.

Using archival sources from libraries, museums, antiquaries, flea markets or individuals, Barua puts together a revealing film showing how Poland has related with Africa since way before European Powers decided to carve up the continent.

Definitely the term ‘shades’ would evoke the race/colour imagery, with the obvious ‘Black/African’ presence in Poland taking centre stage.

But Barua argues that this film — and the others with a similar background — is really intended to question the ‘fetishes of borders’, whether they be racial, geographical, or cultural.

He also points out that whereas Shades of Poland could be read as a narrative on cosmopolitanism — there is a couple, a black Kenyan woman who teaches English to Polish students and a black Ghanaian art dealer, who met, married and live in Poland and have two (Polish?) daughters.

Dr Tom Odhiambo teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.