Why didn’t a Kenyan make this film about Shabaab in Nairobi?

Thursday March 10 2016

Tight security as Kenyans queue to get into Westgate Mall on July 18, 2015. The Al-Shabaab and their attacks, most notably on Westgate and Garissa University College, are Kenyan stories. But so far, a Kenyan has not taken that story to film. Yet there is almost certainly a film on the Westgate siege on some Hollywood director’s laptop. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Tight security as Kenyans queue to get into Westgate Mall on July 18, 2015. The Al-Shabaab and their attacks, most notably on Westgate and Garissa University College, are Kenyan stories. But so far, a Kenyan has not taken that story to film. Yet there is almost certainly a film on the Westgate siege on some Hollywood director’s laptop. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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I have not yet watched the 2015 film, Eye in the Sky, but having seen an extended preview, I think it is worthwhile and I will now do it.

The Somali-American actor, Barkhad Abdi, who made a name for himself in the pirate film, Captain Phillips, and got an Oscar nomination, is in the film.

You guessed it: Al-Shabaab is part of the story. A bunch of its militants are holed up in a house in the Nairobi suburbs.

The British are running a drone operation, along with operatives on the ground, to capture the Al-Shabaab terrorists.

An insect-like drone is launched and when it peeps into the house, it sees a line of suicide vests and other terror merchandise spread out.

The fellows are planning a bloody attack, so the mission changes to stopping them.

Then a complication arises because a nine-year-old innocent girl enters the area playing, thus the big moral dilemma.

Kill the terrorists with the girl - or spare the girl, and therefore the terrorists, and thus possibly allow them to carry out their suicide mission.

KENYAN STORIES

That is when it struck me. Somali piracy was an East African story. And the Shabaab and their attacks, most notably on Westgate and Garissa University College, are also Kenyan stories.

The most extensive reporting on the ins and outs of Somali piracy, and the Al-Shabaab, has been done in the Kenyan media.

But so far, a Kenyan has not taken that story to film. Yet there is almost certainly a film on the Westgate siege on some Hollywood director’s laptop.

But if and when the film gets made, the main star will not be Kenyan.

To give it some local aroma, someone like Lupita Nyong’o might get a supporting role.

You might think this is a preamble to a quarrel about how the West comes here, steals our stories, and goes and distorts them in big films, and our people do not get to shine as lead men and women.

It is a beef that South Africans have had about the Nelson Mandela films, where no South African got to play the big man.

I actually take a very democratic view. Stories belong to humanity collectively and everyone is free to come and interpret and tell them in ways that speak to their societies about the experience.

Though the Westgate story happened in Kenya and most of the people who died were Kenyans, it does not mean someone like Steven Spielberg is under obligation to give a village girl or boy from Makueni a lead role should he choose to make a film about it.

It is easy to understand why we ourselves do not make these films.

World-class films are very expensive and there is no local bank or gambler who is about to invest $80 million for a single film when he can build two malls with that money.

ETHNICITY

Then there is our ethnic thing. If you are a Kikuyu filmmaker, you would come under microscopic scrutiny about how you portrayed the Luo and the Kenyan-Asian victims and whether you glorified only the heroes on your “side”. That stuff just drains life out of the soul.

More than all that, there seems to be something else that explains why we do not tell our stories on a grand stage.

It could be because of what we might call the “power of the original story”.

Every African people have stories of the initial man or woman from whom they came or who were involved in the great contradiction that led to their branch of the tribe being formed.

For the Baganda of Uganda, it is Kintu. For the Gikuyu, it is Mumbi. East African Luos have their Labongo and Gipir mythology.

Then we have another layer of stories that are mainly folk tales (the tortoise and hare), or grand heroic exploits like the storied Kamba prophetess and healer, Syokimawu.

Then there is a third layer of the supernatural and superstitious - the feared grand witchdoctor who made buttocks grow on the heads of all the village thieves.

These stories exercise such a tyranny on our imagination - the Nigerians have failed to escape them in their Nollywood films, for example.

Plus, in Kenya’s case, until a Kenyan tells the drama of Mau Mau general Dedan Kimathi, for example, no one will be free to spin the cinema tale of what happened at Westgate.

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. Twitter: @cobbo3