The amazing story of the world’s oldest pupil, Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, is coming to a screen near you right out of Hollywood. Two Hollywood movie makers have decided to honour the man with a biopic.
But Kenya has no reason to celebrate this. The film titled The First Grader will not be shot at a location in this country. Instead, the Hollywood producers are headed to South Africa.
Mr Maruge, 88, grabbed world headlines in 2004 when he arrived one morning at Kapkenduiywo Primary School in Eldoret to begin school at the age of 84 after the government introduced free primary education. He was to be displaced later in the 2008 post-election violence. Mr Maruge has since joined a school in Kariobangi, Nairobi.
The extraordinary story of sheer determination that was touched off by the programme will now be filmed in South Africa because the Kenya Government will not offer any incentives to the movie makers.
And industry insiders say there are 17 other movie projects, one which will feature famed actress Julia Roberts, whose best shooting location would be Kenya but are headed south.
Producers Richard Harding and Sam Feuer told Lifestyle that they decided to shoot The First Grader in South Africa because they were seeking to save some money while at it and Pretoria gave them enough incentives.
Have no choice
“We didn’t choose to shoot in South Africa, but considering the incentives and money we can get from South Africa, we currently have no choice but to do so,” Mr Feuer said. “A tax incentive is very important, especially in this economy, and we rely heavily on government incentives and programmes to make films.”
Mr Feuer, who has another project for Kenya – The Translator – said they would only come to Kenya to shoot a few scenes to give The First Grader some authenticity.
“We are planning a second unit shoot in Kenya that will capture the beauty and the life to give the film more authenticity. We would love to shoot it entirely in Kenya, but as of now, the government has not made any commitments regarding incentives,” Mr Feuer added.
The producers met with Maruge and he loved the idea of a biopic. “He just wanted us to use the movie to inspire the world,” Mr Feuer said.
The loss to South Africa has a huge bearing on not only the fledgling local film industry but also tourism.
A government delegation led by the Kenya Film Commission (KFC) was in Los Angeles, USA, recently for the annual Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI) locations expo.
This was a three-day event where film industry players from across the world met with Hollywood producers to woo them to their countries.
It was at this event that the producers of The First Grader announced that they had decided to shoot the film in South Africa.
Kenya was represented by a team of 10 delegates drawn from the Kenya Tourist Board, Kenya Film Commission and independent movie makers such as Jenny Pont, Mario Vanz, Robin Holster and Alison Ngibuini. The Kenyans hoped they would appeal to Hollywood to stop the exodus of the films destined for Kenya to South Africa.
South Africa, unlike Kenya, had an entourage of film industry players on a full-fledged charm offensive to woo Hollywood to their country. The efforts have paid off and continue to do so, as films such as Ali, Blood Diamonds and 10000 BC were shot there.
The South African delegation included the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Gauteng Film Commission (GFC), Durban Film Office (DFO) and Cape Film Commission (CFC).
But KFC officials say Kenya is exploring ways of introducing a 20 per cent tax waiver to filmmakers, although some local industry players have dismissed it as too little, considering that South Africa is offering a 35 per cent waiver.
Jenny Pont told Lifestyle that Pretoria is even offering some funding for the films that will be shot there. “What is 20 per cent?” Ms Pont asked.
Maruge’s is not the only big movie that Kenya is set to lose. Another one based on the life of Kenya-based British journalist Dan Eldon, who was killed by an angry mob in Mogadishu in 1993, seems also headed south.
Another one, Emma’s War, about Emma McCune, an expatriate British foreign aid worker in Sudan who married guerrilla leader Riek Machar and adopted hip-hop star Emmanuel Jal, is also in the works. Emma was killed in a car accident in Kenya and was buried in Sudan. The film will most likely be shot in South Africa.
David Maingi, the chief executive of the Kenya Film Commission said the 20 per cent tax incentive would be in the Budget in the next financial year. But it might be too little too late.
“It has taken us three years to fight for the tax incentive and I am happy that it is about to yield fruit,” Mr Maingi said.
While regretting the loss of The First Grader to South Africa, he said the government’s hands are tied because there is no incentive in place.
He hopes the incentive will come in time for him to wrest other films such as Emma’s War and Dan Eldon’s story from South Africa. The Kenyan producers blame government officials who went to the US for not aggressively marketing the country as a film destination of choice.
“They just set up the Kenya stand and left. Nobody stuck around and they did not have any incentive to offer the filmmakers,” Ms Pont said.
“The producers know about our beautiful locations and so they did not need to be told about that. All they wanted was a tax incentive,” she added.
Mr Maingi said a 20 per cent rebate would work wonders for Kenya and he expects foreign film producers to start shooting here soon.
“If someone brings in $100 million (Sh8 billion), they get a rebate of $2 million (Sh160 million). This is a win-win situation because they will then spend the rebate on other things and we can get tax there,” he said. He said there are other incentives for filmmakers, such as zero rating of film equipment brought into the country.
“We are in talks with Kodak, who say they want to open a post-production facility in the country, and this will be a big step for us since it will be the hub of the horn of Africa,” Mr Maingi said.
He added that the government would rationalise the licensing of filmmakers and the local authorities’ levy to maintain it at a maximum of Sh10,000 a day.
He said in Malindi, which is a brilliant filmmaking place, the charge is Sh100,000 a day, while in Nairobi it is just Sh7,500. “We want to ensure that one cannot go beyond Sh10,000,” the CEO said.
But Mario Vanz said he had mixed feelings about the tax question adding that while other countries are giving more rebates, Kenya is coming up with a minimum which might not fly with the Hollywood producers.
“Considering our economy, 35 per cent may be too much, but 20 is very small,” he said. Kenya stands to lose a lot if this haemorrhage is not stopped soon.
“There was a direct impact on tourism when the film Out of Africa was released some 22 years ago, and if South Africa is allowed to showcase their entire region in these movies, then they will have more tourists headed there,” he said.
Mr Vanz cited a recent promotional piece on Kenya that ran in Germany, Russia and Asia saying when big movies show beautiful scenery, people tend to want to go and experience it.
He said there was need for Kenya to attract foreign filmmakers and reap the benefits like other African countries such as Burkina Faso, where the continental film festival, Fespaco, is usually held.
Mr Maingi said there is a lack of government interest in filmmaking while South Africa sees it as important as its ICT sector.
“I think KFC should be under the Ministry of Tourism, or Culture but not under the Ministry of Information,” said Mr Maingi, who is also seeking Sh150 million for the next five years to market Kenya as a filming destination. But filmmakers blame the government for being slow in dealing with the matter.