At the end of January, a new short film Maria ran almost concurrently at the St John Community centers and the Nairobi Film Festival.
Revolving around the intrigues a young woman finds herself in as she runs to become Member of Parliament in a constituency in Nairobi, it reveals the not-so-rosy reality of what happens in election campaigns in Kenya. Exploring vote buying, corruption, negatively-ethnicised politics and political violence, it also depicts the cartels and interest groups ‘owning’ certain places, not to forget the cynicism and detachment of regular citizens.
Shot over a six day period, the production team did a remarkable job in terms of the quality of the cinematography, sound, acting and overall quality.
It did not hurt that they had a seasoned cast, including Bernice Nthenya (Maria), Antony Ndungu (Sarapata), Mercy Wanjiru (Jozi), Mukami Njeru ( Mama Maria) and Melvin Alusa (Muhesh), among others.
Produced by St John’s Community Centre with the support of the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), Maria’s story line is cyclical, using occasional flashbacks cutting back to present day, to tell its story.
While not revolutionary or overtly game-changing in the ideas it presents, the mere attempt to give Kenyans an opportunity to reflect on the current political situation, just a few months before the election, is praiseworthy. Kenyan politics is a lot of things, one of them being extremely complex.
Any opportunity to explore the relationship between vote-buying and eventual looting from national coffers by political players, winner-takes-all politics and ethnic organising, cultures of mediocrity and impunity rather than performance, is useful.
Beyond simply making the film, St John Community Centre has also tried to go the extra mile to ensure that the movie is accessible to citizens by holding screenings in social halls around the slums and less affluent parts of Nairobi, where inhabitants suffer more during election mishaps. Following the recent screenings in late January and early February, the community centre will take the film to housing estates and settlements including Pumwani, Ziwani, Kanuku, Majengo, Kiambui, Dandora and Kibera. If funds permit, they aim to take it all over Kenya.
After watching the film, you are not very surprised that filmmaker Kamau wa Ndun’gu, was behind it, as director, as well as having been part of the script writing process. Maria’s overt goal of social change and engagement is part of his regular repertoire. “I like to make movies that educate. Movies that don’t just entertain but leave people’s lives better.” Some of the works Kamau has previously co-directed include Ndoto za Elibidi and Ni Sisi (SAFE Kenya). He was also casting director for both the most recent Kati Kati and Nairobi Half Life (One Fine Day Films and Ginger Ink). He also had acting roles in the latter movie as well as international ones The First Grader (BBC Films) and Sense 8 (Anarchos Productions).
Kamau’s story is also quite fascinating, having started out in the film world as an actor more than 20 years ago, and having experienced life on the streets as a street-boy.
Of the challenges Kamau has faced in movie making in the past, he cites the main one being raising funds to get productions going. “It’s always the budget. Because with a good budget you can do what you want, get all the equipment you want, bring as many people on board as you would like. It’s a challenge filmmakers everywhere, even in Hollywood, face.”
He hopes to counter this by getting local Kenyans more interested in local works which they will then appreciate and pay for. “I hope we can get good marketing in Kenya and sell our films locally and internationally, and in this way make enough money to make new films. We need to create a culture where it is a normal thing for Kenyans to be buying and watching local films. But it starts with us creating good films.”
Currently attached to Film Crew in Africa (FCIA) as a freelance filmmaker, he looks forward to doing more movies. “The future is open. But I’d like to do more films because it’s something you can’t run away from. I do a lot of commercials but it doesn’t have the same satisfaction.”
To find out how to access the film, get in touch with the organization on its Facebook page: St John’s Community Centre (Pumwani)