The first edition of the NBO Film Festival is held over two weekends, the 26th to the 28th of January and from the 3rd of February to the 5th. The main feature of the festival is the award winning film KATI KATI – premiering at the festival on the back of its triumphant tour of festivals around the world. The festival also features other Kenyan films such as Battle of the Sacred Tree, award winning films such as Nairobi Half Life, From A Whisper, and new works including Mad Love. A catalogue of selected Kenyan short films is also be presented alongside the feature films.
We couldn’t resist doing some travel into the minds of three extra-ordinary individuals involved in it: Sheba Hirst, Mbithi Masya and Mugambi Nthiga. Despite being caught in the intensity of the days just before and during the festival, they were gracious and generous enough to share some thoughts with us. Meet Sheba (SH), Mbithi (MM) and Mugambi (MN) for a candid beautiful conversation about film and Nairobi’s first own extra-ordinary film festival. Hope you enjoy and see you at the cinema!
How did the process with NBO Film Festival start? For how long have you been preparing the festival?
SH: This was born from a conversation we had with the director Mbithi Masya about how great it would be if his film KatiKati premiered at a film festival in Kenya. I was coming from a background in organizing cultural events and Mbithi brought his experience and expertise in filmmaking. We appreciated that we needed to make our contribution to recognize Kenyan filmmakers and do our part to raise the profile of our artists. We have been planning for a couple of weeks but it feels like I have been preparing for this moment for a long time!
The team is a community of dedicated and competent creative friends with whom we have worked on various projects together. Their signing on to volunteer their skills to this project was a testament to how timely and needful this festival. The process has been enjoyable and delightfully organic.
Mbithi, you are the festival’s artistic director, what exactly does that mean?
MM: My responsibilities right now cross over much wider than the title denotes because we’re a very small team. So all our responsibilities are shared. The curating of the films, the organizational aspects of each screening. It’s all a mixed bag right now.
In the press material it is written: ”films that ‘showcase a uniquely Kenyan identity’”. Could you elaborate on that? What is ”a uniquely Kenyan identity” in this aspect?
SH: We have a distinctive way we tell our stories informed by our distinct background and experience as Kenyans like our multi-ethnicity, our politics and our industry. We are not afraid to use our specific voice to tell stories.
What makes you love film? And why do you work with film?
SH: I have worked with organizations that promote culture and further than that, provide a unique lens into Africa and its people. Film is one such lens. Film offers a perspective into this continent and her stories in a rare and special way, and that is why I want to be a part of the journey.
MN: Wow. This one we could take all day. But let’s just say, it offers the escape I identify with and enjoy immensely.
MM: I love telling stories, because I believe I learn more about myself through stories. And my favourite part of the process is making a movie! All of it. It’s a genuine joy. From the writing to the sound design.
How do you stay inspired?
I consume a lot of other people’s work. And with
I realize how much more I want to do.
What do you think makes a movie worth watching?
MN: If there is something we can identify with, and something we learn to identify with as a result of seeing it… if it awakens our curiousity, wonder and empathy, it’s brilliant.
The Kenyan film industry has given us several great productions in the recent years. What would you say are the success factors that make this happen? Creatively and practically.
SH: Of all the virtues Kenyans hold, persistence must stand right out from the rest. We keep making efforts to do better and to try. We open production companies and we find people that will buy into our vision. That has made the industry embers keep burning even in the face of much opposition. The recognition, too, from others outside the region that we as East Africans, and specifically Kenyans have a unique (and largely undiscovered) goldmine of talent and skill also elevates the industry. I must mention also that this country is wonderfully diverse and the inspiration to create is all around us. Everyday.
MM: It’s all been down to the support the filmmakers have received to learn, improve themselves and to put their ideas out there. It’s just that we’ve finally been given a chance to make our ideas happen.
MN: Both creatively and practically? Collaboration, for sure. We have great practitioners, and their work can be honest, thought-provoking and genuinely entertaining if they find the funding they need, and keep from falling into that rut where we are bereft of creativity, disillusioned and entitled. Not one film at the NBO Film Festival (or any other festival for that matter) was made without the collaborative effort of generous and creative souls, building each other, rather than taking each other down, as we are wont to do.
What are the main challenges for the Kenyan film industry?
SH: We need a much more conducive environment for the industry to achieve a steady growth. For instance, the censorship board has set a very high threshold for creatives and requires one to present their work before the creative process has run its course for approval from the board. This may lead to the dumbing down of content and a locking out of many creatives who with inspiring work. We need as much as possible, to remove these impediments to production. Further, in many of the countries that have thriving movie industries, one may notice a trend toward strategic support by the government.
MM: Legally, it’s a headache to get a film off the ground. There could be some more support from government institutions to make our work easier. Technically, we have some of the best hearts and minds working in the industry so it’s all good there.
I imagine many young people who will go to the festival will be inspired and go home thinking about life in the film industry. What would you advise them to do? If someone falls in love with the world of film, what is the next step?
SH: Filmmaking offers one the privilege to be a medium for the thoughts, dreams, memories and aspiration of others. It is therefore to be treated with care and responsibility. Watch films with a mind to learn technique. Pay attention to how the camera moves to evoke certain feelings, how it moves closer and further and you will begin to notice the science in the art. It also helps to go to filmmaking school. These schools may help legitimize what you already know or are acquainted with. Try and take part in film activities too. And watch, watch, watch!
MN: Work. Watch more film. Read more. Then create. Then read and watch some more. Then create. Keep doing this. Become an expert consumer, then you’ll be an expert practitioner.
MM: It all starts when you make something. Put pen to paper, stand someone in front of a camera and just try it out. And study. In my point of view, film is best learnt on the job.
How does working with a narrative for film differ from the theatre stage?
MN: As far as straight storytelling they’re not that different, really. Film offers one the freedom to not be constricted to one location, but one is stuck inside a literal black box. Theatre uses the power of imagination to transport audiences anywhere, and it’s present and organic and live. But film is more long lasting, and it travels more easily. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other. They’re just different. It’s why they co-exist so easily.
Do you have some personal favorites in the festival programme? Films, scenes, actors, directors or other? What should we not miss?
SH: You will see for yourself that it is next to impossible to pick a favorite from the festival billing. All these movies are unique and exceptional. We are excited to show KatiKati directed by Mbithi Masya that will premier in Kenya Thursday 26th. We are looking forward to responses for this film. Come out and see them all through the week of January 26th –February 4th.
MN: Don’t miss any of the films, at all! But seriously, if your time is limited, I would recommend seeing Battle Of The Sacred Tree, and Kati Kati. The first to see the seed getting planted, the second to see what happens when we can rest under the tree’s shade.
Are there other things going on during the film festival apart from the films? Seminars, talks etc?
SH: We will be hosting a special event highlighting Stories Of Our Lives. We cannot screen the film as it has been banned in Kenya. We will be speaking to the producers on the impact of this action on their creative journey and as well as the creative process behind the making of this film.
Can you tell us something about the New Year from a Kenyan film perspective? Highlights to look forward to during 2017?
SH: The year is just opening and there are many events and projects set for 2017. There’s the run of KatiKati at Kenyan cinemas, the Riverwood Awards, the yearly 48HFP, the French Film Festival by Alliance Française, the nominations at AMVCA and many others.
How do you prefer do watch a movie?
MN: With people, for sure. At the cinema. I believe that’s how films were meant to be seen; in a darkened room, separated from time and tedium, where we enjoy a communal indulgence in senses bigger than we are. But I’ll watch most films at home where I don’t have to listen to other conversations and the rustling of bags and popcorn.
NBO Film Festival. Elevator pitch version – what is it and why should I go?
SH: NBO Film Festival is the portal to Kenyan film and filmmaking talent and accomplishments. Plus, you get to experience art on a glorious channel of the African voice.
MM: The NBO film Festival has been established with the aim of growing cinema-going audiences in Nairobi by presenting notable films from around the world. These films are rarely presented in Nairobi through traditional film distribution channels. We hope to expand the Kenyan audiences’ appreciation of films through their presentation in a lively festival format. Go if you love movies.
The two questions we ask everyone we interview: Why do you love doing what you do? And what do you wish people knew about Kenya?
SH: It is culmination of the many paths that my life has been on. I have had an abiding passion for film and I now have the opportunity to bring films that don’t make commercial outings in Kenya. It is also an opportunity to present the films to a wider audience. I hope to connect creative output with the audience. I feel that this connects strongly to the sustainability and growth of this art.
I would like people to know how deep and diverse this country is. Not only in terms of people groups but also with regard to our arts and our unique perspective on our place in the world.
MM: It helps me learn about me. Second question: The people are the best thing about it.
(For Mugambi’s answers we invite you to read our interview with him. It’s really good stuff all of it.)
Kati Kati, a film directed by Kenyan director Mbithi Masya and written by Mbithi and Mugambi Nthiga, has garnered awards at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. It makes its first showing in Nairobi at the NBO Film Festival.
Kati Kati is an other-worldly creation. So unique and deep and ethereal that it is almost hard to imagine it being “produced”, made by people in this world with practical matters. It is as if it had been there all along in its own reality, only that now we get to see it. Tell us about this project. Highlights from the process? And do you have a favorite particular detail or scene?
MN: Wow. You describe it well. Please write us a review? : ) I think it’s our being in touch with real life that allowed us the freedom to portray the afterlife. Mbithi came from a place of grief, and I could identify with it. It’s what inspired the initial idea; and it was a great idea. We had conversations for many, many hours, over many cups of coffee and tumblers of rum. I guess we wanted to draw ourselves into the present so we could imagine what our futures would be like if we died. That’s what Kati Kati is all about. If I was to pick a favourite scene, it would be the one where one where a mother and son have a conversation, and then the scene at the very end. You’ll know why when you see them. (But I’ll need to see the film. I’ve waited patiently to watch it with an audience).
MM: Kati Kati is the 5th project produced as part of the One Fine Day + Ginger Ink Films workshop initiative. Producer Sarika Lakhani approached me and asked if I’d be interested in working on their next project. Storywise, I was in a time of mourning at the time of that call and with my co-writer Mugambi Nthiga dug into those emotions and worked through it. In total, it took 2 years from that first phone call with Sarika to our world premiere at Toronto. Highlights? It was my first film, every waking moment spent working on it was a highlight. Every moment, detail, scene performance is special to me : )
I wanted to avoid a moralistic approach to such a story and decided
to avoid representing any divine judgment. I also wanted to allow the
characters to be their own judges. Reflecting the reality of life. My
writing partner and I chose to think of death as an intermission rather
than a finish line. An opportunity to understand who we have become.
– Mbithi Masya, Director Kati Kati
Why is it that Kati Kati has been shared with audiences abroad first and not had its moment with a Kenyan audience until now?
MM: The plan had always been to premiere Kati Kati in December of 2016 in Kenya. But it was accepted into the Toronto Film Festival before we had even finished editing it. They requested to have the world premiere there. And as a first time filmmaker, that is a HUGE deal. Such moments don’t come often. So we worked tirelessly to get it ready for the festival. And from TIFF, we won a critics award in our section (Discovery – for first and second time filmmakers) which put the film on the international festival radar and the film got invited into several festivals because of that. Those festivals also happened to be in October and November. Before our planned release date. But it’s here finally. No regrets about the order it came out in though. I believe what happened was best for the film.
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When you let go and allow for the mind to lose itself in art you will soon notice that you find yourself in new ways. Film is the perfect example. Don’t miss out, NBO Film Festival is filled with magic. Thank you Sheba, Mbithi and Mugambi for taking the time to talk to us.