Kenyan teenager Phoebe Ruguru was always fascinated by films as a child. It is this interest that prompted her to find out how they are made and propelled her to produce an award-winning short film.
Ms Ruguru, who is a student in the United Kingdom, directed her first short film Saidia, becoming the Best Young Filmmaker in this year’s Unchosen Modern Day Slavery Competition 2014.
She is the first Kenyan to win the award, which is in its second year and is aimed at enlightening people about human trafficking and requires participants to create a short film based on case studies.
The film, which was shot in Kenya on a low budget, involved Kenyatta University film students, who helped Ms Ruguru achieve her dream of submitting her work for an international award.
Kevin Njue wrote the script for Saidia, while Bill Jones Afwani was the cinematographer in the film that tells the story of Jurgis, a slave who speaks of the traumatising experience of being overworked and underpaid in a far country where there is no one to turn to.
Congratulations on winning the Best Young Filmmaker in the Unchosen Competition. Tell us about your family and education background?
I am 17 years old. I was born in Kenya and lived with my parents in Nakuru before moving to Limuru with my mother when my parents divorced.
I am an only child, but I have a step-sister, a half-brother and a half-sister who live with my father in Nakuru.
My father is a farmer and my mother just finished her degree in sociology here in England.
I attended nursery school at a small nursery school called Sunflower and then went to Gramabe Academy in Kabuku, Limuru. I moved to St. Peter's Girls Boarding School in Elburgon, Molo, in my fourth year then to Brook Hill Academy before coming to England.
Currently, I am a student in my last year of A-Levels, studying English language and Literature, Psychology, Philosophy and Ethics at the King’s School (The Cathedral), Peterborough, UK.
When we moved to England so my mother could attend university, we applied to the school and I got in. It's free education here, a state school, so we don't pay.
What made you venture into film production and what motivated you to produce a film for the Unchosen Competition?
I have always loved watching films and was greatly fascinated by the innovative and creative ways in which films conveyed different ideas and perspectives. As I grew older, I began to understand films as a platform for reflection and a mirror of society.
My fascinations with film and theatre lead me to research the logistics behind its creation and through my involvement in drama in school, I realised that I felt more comfortable behind the scenes.
This triggered my interest in writing, where my first stage script was based on a young girl trapped in a traumatising chain of child-marriage traditions.
I gradually built up my confidence to start writing short film scripts earlier last year through guidance from people who had similar interests and experience in the industry.
In order to motivate myself to get better and practice, I signed up for a competition run by a charity organisation called Unchosen in 2013. Determined to submit, I got my friends involved to film with me and we filmed using my camcorder.
Unfortunately, due to (unforeseen) circumstances, we missed the deadline. I was very disappointed, as it was a project I really wanted to be involved in, but vowed to submit the following year.
A whole year went by and the competition came by, again. This time it involved established, successful film-makers such as Justin Chadwick, the director of The First Grader and The Long Walk to Freedom.
This time I was determined to enter and nothing was going to stop me.
Where was Saidia shot and is there a real-life story behind it of a modern day slavery victim?
I had set my mind on filming in Kenya because it is my home. I managed to set foot back in my homeland weeks before the deadline and immediately embarked on the project.
I turned to my friend Njue Kevin, the director of Sticking Ribbons, last year’s winner at the Zanzibar International Film Festival.
Njue introduced me to his team mates and a team came together to include Bill Afwani, Omamo Gekho and the Haroun Risa.
We had several challenges, including that of some actors absenting themselves, but through innovation we were able to pull it through and shot the film in a day using my phone.
It was a relieve for me when we submitted as I knew I had succeeded in giving Jurgis, a trafficked worker, the voice to tell his story. The story was provided by Unchosen as a case study based on a real-life story.
How much did it cost to shoot and edit the film?
The film budget was really small as I only paid for my transport to Kenyatta University, where we filmed it and had lunch with the crew and cast, who were all students at the university. We shot the film in one day with none of us getting paid as we all volunteered for a good cause.
We met up again for editing, where we spent again on transport and lunch, and by the time of submission we had spent about Sh10,000.
What was your reaction when you were notified of the film’s nomination for the award?
The email came days after we had submitted and I was informed that Saidia had been nominated in the Best Young Filmmaker category. It was all very unbelievable and encouraging for me and the team that made it possible to tell the story.
Being a first-time film-maker, how was it to be announced the winner in that category?
It was humbling, putting in mind that there has not been any other Kenyan winner and so I was proud to represent my country. I have been congratulated by my family and friends and fellow film-makers.
I do feel I share that award with many of those who supported me, especially Njue, Omamo and Gekho, who helped me through my first attempt at directing. As well, everyone who was with me to support me and encourage me, I share that award with them.
What are your future plans in the film industry and are you planning on pursuing film at the university?
Since receiving the award, I am ready and focused to work on more film projects and more specifically, use my voice and opportunities to raise awareness, inform and entertain the viewers.
Between the nominations and the awards ceremony, I was able to co-produce another short film, Intellectual Scum, directed by Njue Kevin and produced by Bill Afwani. In addition, I completed another full screenplay, which is currently in pre-production and set to be released next year, God willing.
In the future, I hope to create more films as part of a great team. I plan to challenge issues that affect us and those around us in order to raise different perspectives and share a fresh approach to our society.
From next year, I plan to enrol at a university to study Social Anthropology and International Relations where I hope to develop my understanding of different cultures and concepts I feel drawn to, such as equality through female empowerment, education, film and development.
What is your parting shot to other young people aspiring to be film-makers?
In order to get through life, we all dream and live on the hope that tomorrow we will be a step closer to our goals. It is, therefore, vital that we persevere when the road gets tough — that is the only way to get where we want to be.
The Saidia trailer is available on Vimeo while the full 10 minutes film will be released at the end of the year after being submitted for other festivals.