When Richard Pena was 10, his aunt took him to the inaugural session of the now legendary New York Film Festival, and from then on he was hooked on movies.
He tried to see as many as he could at his neighbourhood cinema, read as much as he could about films and film-making and returned as often as he could to the annual film festival.
In 1988 at the age of 34, he was named director of the same festival, and in his final year as head of the NYFF in 2012, he was on the committee that selected the Kenyan film Nairobi Half-Life for showing.
“I thought it was a breath of fresh air in the form an urban film in a country from which we had been been accustomed to seeing more traditional films,” Pena said on the sidelines of a programme he recently presented of classic American films organised by the Columbia Global Centres, Africa (CGCA) in Nairobi.
After retiring as NYFF director, Pena joined New York’s Columbia University as a professor of film studies. Last December Pena met CGCA director Dr Belay Begashaw, who asked him if he would do a film programme in Kenya.
His brief was to discuss issues with members of the Kenyan film industry, give lecturers on film-making and show several classic American movies. Pena honoured the request.
“When I was choosing the movies,” he said, “I thought about a movie that signals a transition in the world of film-making, and Singin’ in the Rain immediately came to mind.”
He said the very popular 1953 film by Stanley Donen “tells us about the coming of sound by dramatising a critical moment of change in the history of film-making. Without sound, people couldn’t be humorous on TV; there could be no dances or songs.”
Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 film, I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang tells the story of World War I veteran James Allen who is accidentally involved in a robbery for which he is wrongfully convicted and sent to prison.
The other American films he showed were John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) that deals with racism and ethnocentrism and Howard Hawks’ noir thriller The Big Sleep 1946; both, he said, represent the various stages America has gone through in its film-making history as well as socio-political issues at play at the time.
With this in mind, Pena thinks the Kenya has not done enough to use the considerable talent of its actors to address its own social and political issues as well as to grow its film industry.
While Nairobi Half-Life has its flaws, he said, it sets a good precedent for local film-makers to explore their country’s diversity rather than just stick to one subject.
He regrets that he hasn’t seen another Kenyan film that meets the standard that Nairobi Half-Life set.
“When you look at film-makers from West Africa— as much as I don’t like their excessive localisation of film with the pidgin language and poor repetitive choice of themes— they follow one film with another.”
But he doesn’t blame the slow pace of releasing films on film-makers alone, saying the government also has a role to play—but hasn’t.
“Many countries with successful film industries normally have a seed fund for up-and-coming artists that is used to prop up their careers,” he said.
To show that Kenya is serious in promoting its film sector, trips should be organised to showcase Kenyan films in other countries.