He is well known in the local TV and movie sector, not just for his prolificacy (he has more than 15 movie and TV series credits to his name as writer, director, and/or producer), he is also famous for his tough-love approach to matters film making and production.
Simiyu Barasa is highly respected locally and continentally, having received Kalasha Awards (The History of Film, Lies that Bind — best actor, best actress, best Kenyan TV drama, best supporting actress Africa wide), a nomination for best drama in Africa at the Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards (How to find a Husband) and having been sought out as a judge in the 2011 Africa Movie Awards.
As he and producer Betty Kathungu-Furet prepare to launch their new film Kizingo in the counties this September, Simiyu gives an eviscerating overview of what is really happening in the industry. Kizingo is a Swahili comedy that hilariously depicts what happens when two bungling thieves lose the money they stole to two school children.
Where is the film making industry in Kenya right now, how is it doing?
It’s nowhere, to be honest. First, people are not producing content. Second, Kenyan audiences are not aware of Kenyan films apart from the vernacular ones. Third, Kenyan films are nowhere in terms of availability. We the industry practitioners have not worked hard to make Kenyans aware of our films, we don’t avail them to them, we think a newspaper interview is enough. Also, in terms of distribution, there’s no distribution network. It’s only the film makers in the counties that are setting up their own networks and hawking their work. We’re nowhere because of laziness.
If things look this bleak, then why did you and Betty decide to do Kizingo?
Because we’re film makers, and it’s our job; we want to tell Kenyan stories for an international market. We film makers keep on moaning about the challenges in the industry, so Betty and I decided that if the problem is making money out of film, then we come up with a new way of making it.
How do you plan to do this?
Furet films has a three-year plan to build a cinema watching culture in Kenya. Like how Kwani? created a culture of people loving books and poetry. It’s very simple. For you to make a product and make returns on it, you need numbers. So we’re taking cinema to people in the counties.
There’s only three cities that have cinema halls right now — Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu. In all the counties, however, there are social halls and public spaces, and these are what we want to make use of. Other countries have taken the same route. India has 10 cinema halls in each village, that’s why cinema is big in India. China made 200 new cinema halls last year.
Our plan with Kizingo, is to open it in eight regions simultaneously, the way the American film makers do it. The eight regions we’re looking at are Embu, Meru, Machakos, Kisii, Kiambu, Eldoret, Nakuru and Mombasa. It’s an experiment really, it’s never been done.
What are your target numbers in terms financial returns?
We want to break even, which means we have to make Sh1.3 million so that we have enough to keep moving. At least 2,000 people per region is the ideal target. The premier night is going to be a VIP event and will be billed at Sh1,000; it’s going to be a huge set up. Regular tickets on the following days are Sh500. It’s not that Kenyan’s don’t have money for entertainment; they sit in bars and drink up to Sh5,000 in a night. It’s key for us to make sure people pay for it, that they know that film is not free. People go to watch concerts, and they pay. So, we want to build a cinema going culture. It’s not an event, it’s going to take time, but the music industry did the same. They worked hard, they faced a lot of opposition but they made it through. There was a time no radio station was playing local music. When Kalamashaka played at Benson and Hedges, rapping in Swahili for the first time, they were laughed at and rubbished.
You spoke about laziness earlier, as one of the reasons why the movie industry is lagging behind. What is the cause of this?
Laziness because we’re not writing films, we’re not shooting films, we’re not collaborating, we are not putting in the work, we’re not being innovative. I can’t count more than three local films that have come out of Kenya in the last three years. Selling is the hardest thing. It’s true that distribution is a problem, but we just sit there and go: “Poor me, poor me”. Samora Kibagendi, a young man in Kisii, didn’t have equipment to begin with but he decided to think and innovate. He was producer, director, director of photography on his films. He went to social halls to screen his movies and now has created an audience of more than 400 people, using social media. A kid of 23 has done all this while we in Nairobi, we’ve fallen prey to laziness and self-entitlement. We abuse film makers in the counties on the quality of their work but we don’t go out to find out what they are doing, learn, collaborate and partner.
You totally eviscerate, telling it like it is, no being afraid to implicate yourself as part of the problem as well. Where do you get this tough love ability from?
I’ve gotten tired of those Facebook rants by film makers. They don’t see anything positive about the industry. In our drinking sessions — me and Betty — we attack each other. We sit and talk about films because we’re positive about them and we start to kutoana rangi (criticise each other). Also very important for us has been our county tours. It has made us see how stupid we are as film makers in Nairobi. People don’t know our films. Meeting people creating their own audiences very quietly in rural areas has been mind-blowing. There is a revolution happening and it is being led by the young people outside Nairobi who understand without using big words that film is about audiences.
Where do you get the money to make the films from?
Savings. Our plan as we are going forward is to get investor confidence. It’s not the investor’s problem, it is our problem. We don’t have investor confidence. In Nigeria, big banks approach the movie makers and give them money to make films, because they are assured they will have returns. They make money off product placement and actors endorsements. They agreed to start small and they grew it.
Where do you hope to see yourselves 20 years from now?
We’ll have retired in Bahamas (laughs). We see ourselves as finally being big film makers with a successful industry, screening all over the world, on eight continents. Fox will be talking to us, because they know that in Africa, 50 million people watch our movies. If we open in every city in Africa, and just 10 percent of the population goes to watch our movies, that target is doable. We have given ourselves five years by which we need to open in Africa. But then we have to be consistent, we have to be innovative, we have to put in the hard work and lose our pride.