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Why famous global filmmakers prefer South Africa to Kenya

By JAMES KAHONGEH
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Monday December 23 2019

When the movie, Out of Africa, was shot on Ngong Hills and Constant Gardner in Loiyangalani and Kibera, everyone thought Kenya would become a destination of Hollywood stars.

Everything was perfect: the weather, the terrain, the talent. But goodwill and lack of policy to guide the industry were missing.

Many thought Kenya would become a film powerhouse.

Crews from Hollywood would camp here for weeks and months, shooting jaw-dropping films.

Hollywood mega projects such as Constant Gardner, Netflix’s science fiction series Sense8, Out of Africa and The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, were filmed in Kenya.

Hunter boyfriend

Out of Africa, a romantic thriller directed by Sydney Pollack, was a filmmaker’s dream project.

This movie tells the story of romance between Danish settler Karen Blixen and her hunter boyfriend Denys Finch Hatton, who is buried in Ngong Hills.

It was 1985, and when Pollack yelled “Cut!” to his crew during the making of the movie, Kenya appeared to have entered the global filmmaking map with a bang.

Writing on IMDb (Internet Movie Database) in 2006, a critic recalled: “As it ended, the audience sat motionless and quiet for several beats, then burst into applause as the credits rolled… We’d just seen the Academy Award winner.”

The movie would live up to its billing to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Pollack.

According to a 2015 travel article in The Telegraph, the safaris and the country’s epic scenery filmed in Out of Africa “captured the imagination of cinema audiences all over the world and sold Kenya as a destination in a way that no holiday brochure ever could”.

With its breathtaking sceneries of sandy beaches, savannah grasslands and plush farmlands, few African countries would beat Kenya as a filmmakers’ go-to place.

Add to the mix is the tropical weather throughout the year, the Great Rift Valley slicing the country in half, dramatic mountain ranges, wildlife, ancient coastal towns and dreamlike inland water masses.

A filmmaker would not ask for a more idyllic setting.

Yet with blockbusters interspersed with smaller unremarkable projects, Kenya’s film star has flickered in and out over the years.

The country’s acting talent pool is, by many calibrations, unrivalled in the region.

Kenya’s top cream actors and actresses, however, seem to be flourishing elsewhere.

Edi Gathegi, with Blacklist, Nikita and Beauty and the Beast to his name and Oscar award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o have had their breakthrough outside the country. 

So why has Kenya failed to cash in on its vast natural and human capital?

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The 2019 Kalasha Awards winners dance and cheer on stage during the ceremony at Safari Park grounds on December 1. Kenya Film Corporation CEO Timothy Owase says it is not fair to compare Kenya and South Africa. PHOTO | NMG

For a month, the Nation has engaged stakeholders to understand why the industry keeps blowing hot and cold, the hurdles it faces and if there is any hope.

This is the heart-rending story of the industry.

From punitive fees imposed on filmmakers to inefficiencies and a litany of other compliance bureaucracies, filming in Kenya is not for the faint-hearted.

The rough environment has inhibited growth of the local industry and seen international filmmakers shun the country for others, notably South Africa.

Kenya Film Commission Chief Executive Timothy Owase, however, thinks it’s not fair to compare the situation in the two countries.

KFC is the government agency mandated to promote film in Kenya.

Mr Owase says Kenya lacks the infrastructural capacity to accommodate mega filming projects.

According to him, South Africa offers more incentives to filmmakers than Kenya.

“I don’t see this as a problem. It is an opportunity to develop our infrastructure,” Mr Owase said, criticising the media “for hyping the matter to look like a crisis”.

“International producers choose to film on location in a country if it matches their story. If the story is destined for South Africa, filming in Kenya wouldn’t make sense.”

He argues that filmmakers do not need a policy to work.

“Assuming that we don’t have a functioning policy is a fallacy. How have we been able to come up with the productions in our media?” he asked.

Mr Owase says that with a budget and proper business plan, filmmakers “should be able to navigate the marshland of bureaucracies”.

Award-winning film producer Betty Kathungu-Furet disagrees.

Outdated guidelines

According to Ms Furet, an attempt to make Kenya a preferred film destination in the absence of the long overdue policy is futile.

‘‘This policy was developed more than 15 years ago and has never seen the light of day, resulting in confusion,” she said. “We’re operating on outdated guidelines developed in the 1950s. How can we be competitive when other countries have progressive policies?”

Mr Eugene Mbugua, an award-winning producer, agrees.

“The government does not offer competitive incentives to filmmakers unlike elsewhere,” he said.

The two said incentives contained in the proposed policy would motivate local filmmakers and attract external investors.

“Film is big business. It employs a full spectrum of businesses, from cast and crew, hotel industry, administrators, fashion and design, construction and transport,” Ms Furet said.

She, adds, however, that even after policy adoption, Brand Kenya and the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) have their work cut out to market our film aggressively.

The problems do not end with lack of policy. Filmmakers say  the many fees are a hurdle.

“The environment in Kenya is legally restrictive. Licence fees, especially to beginners with minimal budgets, are punitive,” Mr Mbugua says.

But even for international behemoths with nearly inexhaustible outlays, building a mini-Kenya in another country for a scene is cheaper than filming here.

Such was the case with Inception, a 2010 epic film starring Leonardo Dicaprio. It was originally meant to feature a scene in Mombasa.

The production crew ruled out the coastal town, arguing that it was cheaper and less legally restricting to depict Mombasa away in Morocco, more than 8,800 kilometres away.

As a result, Kenya lost a share of the $160 million (Sh16 billion) budget for the movie.