Soul Boy, a Kenyan feature film on life in Kibera that began as a workshop feature has started earning accolades, just a month after its world premiere.
The film by Ghanian-Kenyan Hawa Essuman and co-directed by German filmmaker Tom Tykwer won the Audience Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival, The Netherlands, this month, just a few weeks after its world premiere at the Göteborg International Film Festival in Sweden.
Mr Tykwer is known for the films Run Lola Run, Perfume and The International.
Soul Boy is getting favourable reviews from all who have seen it, ahead of its premiere in Kenya this week. The film will be screened at Southern Border Mtoni Valley in Kibera on Thursday. This venue of its first screening is significant as it was shot in Kibera.
The film critically examines Nairobi’s contrasting worlds: the rich and the poor, the happy and the sad, and tradition and the modernity.
It captures all the things that influence and confront the contemporary society through the eyes of a teenage boy from Kibera who has a huge task of recapturing his father’s soul from a Nyawawa, a female spirit with a knack for snatching men’s souls.
Gambled on soul
Abila (Samson Odhiambo),14, goes through many trials and tribulations to help his father who has gambled on his soul. With the help of a 14-year-old girlfriend Shiku (Leila Dayan Opou) to whom he has been estranged, Abila traces the beautiful but dangerous Nyawawa to the darkest corner of Kibera and pleads for his father’s soul.
His girlfriend comes from a different tribe, something that often puts their relationship on the rocks. The boy’s search for his father’s soul is driven by a belief in myths and fairytales which are still very much alive in modern society.
Soul Boy also demonstrates how different and complex realities are presented; how they are valued and how the protagonist overcomes them. The passion, with which Abi attempts to rescue his father represents our desire for fulfilment.
Abi has to successfully undertake seven challenging tasks to save his father’s soul. The first is to “disappear from public gaze in the guise of another, the second, “pay someone’s debts without stealing from anybody else and the third,“help a sinner get out of trouble without judging him.”
"The fourth task involves exploring a new world and the fifth, using knowledge to save someone’s life.”
In the sixth task, the boy has to “discover something that can’t be understood and understand the difference” and finally to introduce himself to “the giant snake, the one which you are most afraid of”.
Each task comes with a risk and a reward. Abi clears all the hurdles and heads back home to find the family kiosk open and his father, whom he had left ill and delirious, huddled in a corner, serving his customers. Everything is back to normal.
In an effort to rescue his father, the protagonists “finds” himself as well. He discovers that his friends are always bragging about their exploits along the railway line and showing off their stolen cell phones. In the end he knows what he wants out of life and the means by which to achieve his heart’s desire.
The film would not have been launched at a better time as it seems to capture the state of the nation: a nation struggling with the tribe question and the attendant conflicts.
Kibera, having been one of the hotbeds of the post-election violence in 2007/8, suffered the vagaries of political and ethnic tensions when the nation seemed to have lost its “soul”. Through the youth, there is hope for a better future and a “return to business”.
Soul Boy began in September 2008 when Marie Steinmann and Tom Tykwer teamed up with Ginger and Guy Wilson from the Nairobi-based production company Ginger Ink to set up a project which would build on the work of their One Fine Day association and the British NGO partnership Anno’s Africa – both of which have specialised in developing creative opportunities for those working in developing countries.
The project also involved the film equipment manufacturer Arri München, the Göteborg International Film Festival and Goethe-Institut Nairobi. It was meant to develop a film workshop in Nairobi.
Secrets and myths
Tom Tykwer led a small team of professional filmmakers and local apprentices to shoot the feature film in Kibera after Kenyan writer Billy Kahora outlined the idea for a film. The result of this project was a film that “translated the secrets and myths of this multilayered social microcosm” into a fairytale.
Soul Boy is the film debut of Hawa Essuman, 30, who had been working in local theatre. She is developing her second feature film, which is set at the Kenyan.
For a number of years, Marie Steinmann has been working in Nairobi’s slums on the arts workshop “Art Education for Children” organised by Anno’s Africa. It is from this initiative that the German association One Fine Day was established.
“I wanted to take part, but the only thing I know is film,” said Tykwer. So the idea for a film workshop was developed, from which a genuine film experience could at last be established.
Soul Boy is considered an authentic Kenyan film addressing pertinent issues of the Kenyan society.
“Of course there have been films about Africa, such as The Constant Gardener by Fernando Meirelles,” says producer Ginger Wilson.
“These films are aimed at an international audience. They are stories about white people in Africa, seen from that perspective. Whilst that is all fine and perfectly good cinema, in these films Kenya is used as a backdrop and is seen from an observers point of view.
"This is not what Kenyan films are interested in communicating; Kenyan stories happen to be from Africa, but not ‘about Africa’ – they are about the realities, relationships and concerns of normal daily life.”