3 Kenyan Films Changing the Narrative of Stereotypical African Stories

In his song Lwanda Magere, the legendary Kenyan hip hop artist Khaligraph Jones said, “I’m international, but please don’t get it twisted.” He argued that “international markets for Africa never existed.” It doesn’t matter if you’re are better than Kendrick or J’coke…”

For so long, Africans have had to watch from the bench as films about Africa have been made by foreign filmmakers who, suffering from a superiority complex, believe that Africans cannot tell their own stories.

Meanwhile, the African creative industry is a beauty to behold, from native songs and traditional musical instruments to rich oral traditions and a range of mesmerising African voices, creating so many different genres.

As we speak, the African film industry is experiencing a beautiful awakening. African filmmakers are coming to the limelight with stunning films and, most importantly, movies produced by an African crew, written by a native and starred by Africans.

We are not where we are meant to be due to Black skin discrimination when it comes to casting, which is a whole can of worms and a topic for another day. Still, giving credit where it’s due, Africans are becoming less focused on western films and their portrayal of Africa and the need to produce films that appeal to the western gaze and more focused on films that speak to the African audience.

A few years ago, there were very few African professional filmmakers, thus making our market open and vulnerable to outsiders. The result of that? Thousands of films and documentaries about Africa are made by people without any affiliation with the continent. The common denominator in those films is that Africa is painted as this dark, poverty-stricken hotbed of terror, plagued by drought, sickly children, and dirty drinking water. Consequently, Africans are, sadly, cast as illiterate people, enslaved people, house managers, and gardeners.

This does not in any way mean that the films are substandard. No. The movies are of good quality. But they are a gross misrepresentation of the African continent. Ironically, in many documentaries where foreigners attempt to tell the African story, the only African crew are the guides and the translators.

But the light at the end of the tunnel is the awakening of the African creative, thus giving voice to African stories told in an African way. We might not be where we ought to be in technology and high-end filmmaking, but it is a step in the right direction of owning our voices and stamping our authority in the filmmaking scene. It is in how upcoming filmmakers are willing to produce brilliant films in their native African language yet still be of good quality that can be watched both internationally and locally. Here are five such films.

Bangarang (2021) by Odongo Robbie

To understand this film, we will briefly delve into Kenya’s history post-independence. Since Kenya gained independence, there has been tribalism, low-key. We will focus on three major tribes: the Kikuyu, the Kalenjin and the Luo. Since time immemorial, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin have had deep-seated anger and hatred against the Luo community.

Kenya’s first president came from the Kikuyu community. The second president came from the Kalenjin community. The 2007/08 election was Kenya’s third election, and two major contestants vied. The late Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and the honourable Raila Amollo Odinga, a Luo kingpin. Allegedly, Kibaki won, and Raila lost. 

This spun off Kenya’s worst post-election violence. Houses were burnt, people and animals were murdered, and homes were destroyed. Livestock belonging to different communities were also not spared. The violence gained massive international coverage. Foreign news media reported on what was happening. However, due to the ostrich effect, Kenya moved on. 

Fifteen years later, a renowned filmmaker told the story of Kenya’s post-election violence in the award-winning film Bangarang. Raw, unfiltered and with first-hand experience because the cast and crew are 100 percent Kenyan, and they all experienced or were affected by the post-election violence. He owns our story. We own our story, however damaging it is. We change our future by knowing our past.

Mission to Rescue (2021) by Foxton Media

On the morning of August 7th, 1998, the world woke up to terrifying news. There were simultaneous attacks on the US embassy buildings in Kenya and Tanzania. The buildings were bombed by the Al-Shabaab militia. In Kenya, it resulted in at least two hundred reported deaths. 

On September 21st, 2013, masked men attacked the Westgate shopping mall, an upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya. A total of 71 deaths were recorded, and 174 people were wounded in the subsequent mass shooting. The Al-Shabaab militia owned up to the attacks and confirmed that they were behind the attacks.

Two years later, Kenya woke up to the devastating news that the Al-Shabaab militia had taken Garissa University hostage. The army and the police force went to their rescue as fast as they could. When everything was over,  a total of 148 students were reported dead and 75 others brutally injured.

Apart from these three major cases, there are other minor cases of the Alshabab attack against Kenyans. In all these scenarios, the Kenyan army’s response, even in the face of danger, is of utmost patriotism and readiness to defend Kenya against any attack, even if it means laying down their lives.

Mission to Rescue is a film that follows a team of Kenyan Special Operations Forces who are training for their next mission when they receive word that the Al-Shabaab militia has attacked and abducted the assistant county commissioner. Without hesitation, they go to the rescue. They know the danger and do not hesitate.

This film is 100 per cent Kenyan. We resonate with the theme. We resonate with the idea of our own forces coming to our rescue because they have done it before. We resonate with the idea of abductions by the Al-Shabab. We resonate with the fact that we have lost a youthful lot who joined Al-Shabaab because of a promise of a better future. This story was told by Kenyans for Kenyans.

Nairobi Half Life (2012)

One of the films considered a classic in the history of Kenyan filmmaking. A young man, searching for a better life, goes to the big city, Nairobi. The film shows the filthy underbelly of Nairobi. The theft, the trickery, the way life kicks you even when you are at your lowest. To a naive village boy, Nairobi is hard to navigate. You have to always be on your toes. The police are against you, your fellow youths are against you, and your dream almost always becomes unachievable as you first have to survive.

Nairobi Half Life is considered a classic because it is a film that shows the absolute truth about Kenya. We resonate with the phrase “Nairoberry” through this film. To help you understand, the word Nairoberry was coined from the names Nairobi and Roberry. We resonate with the phrase “Nairobi shamba la mawe” a slang mostly used by youths. It loosely translates to “Land of rocks.” This is because everyone is looking for a way to make ends meet, whether legally or illegally.

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