More than a month after it hit the screens, I watched David “Tosh” Gitonga’s Nairobi Half Life, that much talked-about Kenyan film, which threatened to get an Oscar nomination.
I waited until the dust had settled so that my views would not be clouded by the hoopla that greeted the film’s debut.
I knew my money was good when I found the cinema was full — on a December 30, late night show. I also set myself to catch anything in the film that the over one dozen reviews I had read of it in the local and international media had not zeroed on: There was plenty.
I have always been puzzled why the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, does many things like witchdoctors, conniving women, despicable husbands, and intolerable mothers-in-law fairly well, but has failed to do violence convincingly.
It is not uncommon to see a generally well-made Nigerian film with policemen brandishing third-rate wooden pistols for weapons! So while violence is abhorrent, doing it badly smacks of the worst type of amateurism.
The Kenya film does violence very well. However if, like me, you grew up on Quentin Tarantino (my generation of hardcore film-goers all remember where we were when his Pulp Fiction came out in 1994), equalling his brand of in-your-face violence is difficult to do. Nairobi Half Life is the African film that comes closest.
That said, there is something most filmmakers, even in Hollywood, just can’t handle — urban filth. Nairobi Half Life aces it.
In a scene where Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) is thrown into a Nairobi jail and is forced as the newcomer to clean up the unusually filthy toilet, many people in the audience covered their faces.
I did too. And when, faced with the sub-human task, Mwas starts singing, he closed the actorial deal right there. So NHL sets a benchmark for gritty urban realism.
I think that one of the most intellectually sophisticated moments in the film comes when Cedric (Mugambi Nthiga) and Mwas hide in a large crate when the owners of the house they had broken into return unexpectedly.
Mwas gets into a tearful emotional moment about his double life of being a hardcore Nairobi criminal 80 per cent of the time, and performing in a respectable play in a middle class theatre 20 per cent of it.
He weeps about how he is “tired of this double life”. Cedric, a rebellious son of a rich man, also lives a double life. He is gay, but has to present himself as straight. So he thinks Mwas’s double life is the same as his, and reaches out to hug and kiss him. Mwas is shocked, and jumps out of the crate, off cue.
That, I thought, was not a commentary about homosexuality in any way. It was an editorial on the gulf between the realities and fears of the working and poor class, and the Kenyan middle class.
Thirdly, NHL is a disturbing portrait of the alleged role rogue police play in Nairobi’s criminal world. The common narrative is that the police protect criminal gangs in return for a share of the loot.
If the thugs don’t share, they are arrested or end up in the Ngong Forest. Sometimes, if there is an outcry, the police might shoot up a few criminals to calm public fear.
The film makes these points, and goes a little further. The squalid police cells, we presume, are possible because the political leadership is not paying attention.
And that neglect extends to the welfare of the police, who have to fend for themselves. This they do by preying on the public whom they are supposed to protect, and the criminals too. They are also partly victims of the system.
The point seems to be that there is no one protecting Kenyans, as the unnerving scenes of carjackings show. I took the point to heart.
The journey home from the movie that night took me twice as long, although there was no traffic. Why? I was scared out of my shirt.
The result was that I followed only streets that were well-lit and ended up taking a spaghetti route back to the house.
The film works because first, it forces you to close your eyes at some points and, secondly, to look over your shoulder all the time for the first 24 hours after watching it.