Young filmmakers hold key to Kenya’s cultural growth

Wednesday March 18 2020

These are exciting times for those of us who care about the art of filmmaking, as a form of cultural expression. The situation has never been as rubicund as it is since independence. Before the rise of the millennials, who have changed our fortunes immensely, Kenyan artists had not quite seized the opportunities in the film industry. Significantly, we had left our African story to be solely told by Nigerian filmmakers. Our presence in this area was, to say the least, undetectable.


It is fulfilling to interact with these millennials. They are young; just about 35 and below. They are innovative, adventurous, creative and aggressive. These are the youth leading us into dialogue with other cultures by foregrounding Kenyan perspectives through film. They have rebuffed the complacence of the earlier generations who may, because of a variety of reasons, not have been proactive and adventurous enough in the advancement of intercultural dialogue through film.

One has only to look at the constellation of the rising stars who are driving the industry in the country to appreciate the magnitude of their output. Among the rising stars is Sarah Hassan of the Tahidi High series, and a whole collection of movies, including the all-time hit Plan B (2019). An equally significant player is Pascal Tokodi, he of the Selina series fame and Grove Theory. I am animated partly because I am a participant in this revolution as an actor in one of the promising productions. Most of those working with me are below 35 and I think they hold the key to our future in film production. The fact that we are telling our story in a popular medium is worthy celebrating.


The themes of the films being produced are varied and diverse. Among other things, the stories reveal the impact of the Western world on our thought processes. They also explore our love lives and relationships in a world dangling between modernity and African traditional values. In a sense, the Kenyan movie industry, though at a nascent stage and limited in scope and sophistry, explores a part of the Kenyan story that had hitherto never been told.

These films are offering the modern Kenyan an alternative way of looking at things other than the view provided by Hollywood or Bollywood. The movies are also opening up space for celebrating the diversity of our cultures. Unlike Hollywood gangster images, we are provided with unsung Kenyan cultural heroes and heroines and familiar imaginary worlds. In a sense, these movies carry the pulse and rhythm of Kenya.


Curiously, the neglect and betrayal that the deprived spaces in our country have been subjected to are painted for what they are. They are forgotten worlds, which, ironically, remain rich in the values of humanity and communal existence. This is contrasted with the excesses of the affluent to give a holistic picture.

It is possible to read the silences in the movies that betray the ideological weaknesses of the scriptwriters and directors. In many ways, the films provide a window through which we see the anxieties and dreams of the African petty bourgeoisie who dwell in urban centres and jump on anything foreign to prove that they are sophisticated.

A keen viewer cannot deny the fact that the texts and subtexts of the films reverberate with our cosmological outlook. They are about our Kenyan experience, as we know it. The stories tell of the youngsters caught in an identity crisis, those forced into marriage by greedy parents, barren women who desire to get children, teenage sexual adventures, romance and love dilemmas. Some draw from our African folklore and a good number operate in the magical realistic tradition. I think this powerful dramatisation of the problems of contemporary society is useful for any youngster.


The question is, have we started challenging the dominance of the west in filmmaking? Yes, we are. I am certain that the future is guaranteed considering that we are operating on the digital platform that has opened up great opportunities. These films, to use Ngugi wa Thiongo’s words, are moving the centre. It is now time for responsible agencies to support the film-making and the entire creative industry to produce wealth.

We have to use this medium to attack and fight evils such as tribalism and corruption. We have to seriously think about a policy framework that would make the industry to regulate itself.

The writer is a researcher and a professor of literary communication at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology and a consultant on strategic management. [email protected]