The-Nairobi based The Nest Collective is a group invested in film, music, fashion, visual arts and literature. Some of their works include award winning projects like the movie Stories of Our Lives and the web series Tuko Macho. Their latest production is the virtual reality movie Let This Be A Warning, shot in Syokimau and Magadi, that features a futuristic world with only black people. JAMES MURUA spoke to Jim Chuchu after the film premiered in Nairobi.
BUZZ: Tell me about your new movie, Let This Be A Warning. How did it come about?
Jim Chuchu: In 2015, the Goethe Institutes in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria invited me down south for a Virtual Reality (VR) workshop during the African Futures Festival. I had never worked with virtual reality but Steven Markowitz of Electric South whom we worked with on (the web series) Tuko Macho held my hand. The plan was that the workshop participants were to create films within a year and that’s how we came up with Let this Be A Warning. We were thinking at the time about “Black Worlds” which was the theme of the Berlinale (film festival) where the movies were supposed to end up.
People use this term, “Black Worlds,” a lot in art and literature circles, but we felt like there wasn’t enough thinking about what exactly a black world means and all the political, historical things that were required to happen for it to exist. So we created this piece, in the future, where a black world exists and the viewer who wears this VR head piece is an intruder who has just landed. We wanted to explore the idea of what it felt like; it felt like a mirror of what might have happened when Vasco Da Gama landed on the East African coast or all these guys who are entering these black worlds. We however tell it from a contemporary place where it is a little uncomfortable as we all know that the Vasco Da Gama’s and Christopher Columbus’s came with many things that maybe were not so good.
It was shown in Kenya and South Africa. How has it been received?
It has also been shown in a VR festival in Germany and Italy. The piece plays differently depending on who you are when you wear the VR head piece. If you are a black person, you don’t feel confronted because it’s like the guys are speaking for you, almost doing it on your behalf. When white people wear the piece it is a little more uncomfortable for them because one of the characters in the piece directly attacks white bodies. It has been a conversation starter.
How are people reacting to the VR concept in general?
Some people are concerned about the environment because when it’s your first time, you are still aware that you exist in this other space which is the real world. So it’s like you are sitting on a chair and you are watching the film and you are also concerned about what is happening around you. Some people are shy about looking around or exploring the world inside, or really engaging, because they feel like they will take it off and find someone documenting them. It is disorienting.
I also noticed that when it was screening in Berlin, the very nature of film festivals and VR presentations clash. With films, you want to do a premiere, you want to have a red carpet and you want to have a ceremony. With VR you can’t have any of that because eventually everyone has to watch on their own in a little room and start the movie at different times. There is an odd kind of shift that is happening.
Is this where cinema is going?
I wouldn’t say cinema; I’d say a part of cinema. There are things that VR can do that (conventional) cinema can’t but there will always be a space for cinema and that kind of consumption together as an audience. I don’t think that will ever go away.
Even with the prices of the equipment going down drastically in the last decade, isn’t VR still a bit restrictive to many Kenyans who might want to enjoy this experience?
I thought so too at first but I have been surprised in the past year. When you go to places like Diamond Plaza or Biashara Street and you find stalls that have these gear. I never thought a day would come when you would go to Moi Avenue and buy the gear.
The problem is not the consumption but that the content is complicated, and very expensive to produce. From the camera to editing, everything is on another level of complicated. I think that VR has a long way to go in making it easier to produce.
Do you need any new training to deal with VR?
Yes, a lot. Part of it is in how to shoot it because you are shooting a thing where there are cameras all over the rig. When you are shooting you can’t be behind the camera, your team can’t be behind the camera, when you are shooting a VR scene no one can be around the camera, only the actors. This means that I give the actors their direction then they leave. It’s like theatre where the director and all the back crew can’t be seen.
Are there many Kenyans who can do this kind of film making apart from yourselves?
There are films that have already been made and some have been made with even more complicated computer generated 3D. There is another group who have been doing VR for selling land. In terms of the “prolificness” or number of people making films, VR films are vastly going to be outnumbered.
There will be room for Kenyans to make VR films because even when we were doing the showcase we thought that it would be nice if we could have contributions from African countries and we couldn’t find any. The only kind of VR content we find is in those development films for institutions like the UN and Human Rights Commissions. There isn’t enough fiction or just stories by African themselves.