Katy Fentress

Observing, Understanding, Exploring, Eating, Drinking

Brand Kenya

A disagreement broke out last Friday, following a short screening at Tribe Hotel of the new documentary “Kenya@Fifty”.

The private screening, hosted by the Kenya Film Commission featured a half hour documentary that compiled a selection of different movies shot in in the country over the past half century.

Using the famous line “Dr Livingstone, I suppose” from the 1939 reel “Stanley and Livingstone” as a starting point, the compilation weaves through films like “Hatari” (1962), which features a young-looking John Wayne, “Call me Bwana” (1963) in which the American government sends “an expert on Africa”, to retrieve a moon capsule, “Born Free” (1966) a romantic story about a Lion, through to more recent classics like “Out of Africa” (1985) and “White Mischief” (1987). With one exception, “Sakati” a Kenyan film by Anne Mungai released in 1991, homegrown films did not make an appearance until twenty-first century.

Call me Bwana

At the completion of the screening, organisers thanked those who had made it possible and announced that their aim was for Kenya to once again become a prime destination for filmmakers from around the world. Despite some raised hands in the audience, the speakers were firm that this was not a time for Q&A and that if people wished to ask questions they could do so in private. The admonishment was not however enough for Jane Murago-Munene, a veteran Kenyan filmmaker, whose first documentary film “The Chosen One” was shot in 1979.

Munene accused the Kenya Film Commission board of failing to properly represent the Kenyan Film Industry and of perpetuating a colonialist narrative of Africans in film. All white casts used to be the norm and many of the films on the list have in the past been criticised for perpetuating the idea that an unbridgeable gap exists between Africa and Europe. According to the scholar Noel Salazar “(Sub-Saharan) visual representations, lay at the basis of stereotypical “us” versus “them” categorisations […] One of the clearest examples of this is the classic autobiographic movie Out of Africa in which Maasai— as African male “Others”—are seen as a sexual danger towards white women.”

Born free 1

The Kenya Film Commission disagrees with this. They argue that those who are saying that are missing the point of the film. “We have a very broad target audience,” Said Christopher K. Foot, Chairman of the Kenya Film Commission. “We want to show this to a local audience, and embassies, and overseas. We want to show that we are not new boys on the block, that Kenya has a long and exhaustive film industry.” He is adamant that while such stereotypes as perpetuated in some of the movies is outdated, The movies still played a large role in putting Kenya on the map in terms of film, and therefore should be acknowledged as such. “It is a foolish notion to say we have arrived at any point of history through a vacuum. Local film-makers still cut their teeth on international film sets”

In an era in which the “brand” and its packaging are considered a means to an end, it is to some extent understandable that in their quest to “sell” Kenya to foreign filmmakers, the Board of the Kenya Film Commission decided to focus on glossy films that marketed an image of dreamy landscapes, exotic animals and savage peoples. If the objective is to sell a notion of a modern industry, films that are better produced will make the cut in favour of the ones that were produced on a small budget.


Thus Wanuri Kahiu’s 2008 film “From a Whisper” makes the cut as does “Nairobi Half Life” (2012) directed by Tosh Gitonga, both extremely well produced movies. Now that they have done such an excellent job of reminding us where we have come from, it would do well to begin to back Kenya’s burgeoning film industry with the same gusto.

This article was originally published on upnairobi.com in November 2014

Categories: Opinion, Review

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