Film in Kenyan Schools and Colleges

The first schools’ film festival was held under the auspices of the Kenya Schools and Colleges National Drama Festival in April 2012 at Kakamega High School featuring thirty-seven films.  This was the culmination of a four-day film training workshop in August 2011 held at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) hostels that was sponsored by the Department of Literature of the University of Nairobi and the Ministry of Education. The workshop was attended by forty-four primary and secondary school teachers from all the eight regions (then known as provinces) in Kenya who were taken through scripting for film, choice of shooting equipment, blocking, lighting, shooting and editing. 

It was then hoped that there would be at least one film from every region for the 2012 festival.  The projection was that the audiences would watch at least one film every evening after the stage performances for eight days of the festival.  Surprisingly, the schools availed thirty-seven films with a majority coming from schools whose teachers did not attend the workshop.  This was a clear sign that the idea of film in schools was ripe and the teachers were only waiting for a signal to begin.

The Quality Assurance directorate at the Ministry of Education led by Patrick Khaemba Sirengo, who was also the executive secretary of the then Kenyan National Drama Festival Committee, spearheaded the process of instituting film in schools.  On 20 August 2011 a meeting was held in Kayole One Primary School to discuss how film/video should be introduced to schools.  What had prompted this was a couple of music videos by Kayole One Primary School which were featured on a popular programme titled ‘Afrodizia’ that presented the best music videos from African musicians on Citizen television.

The primary school had instituted a performance club that would shoot videos featuring storytelling, short films and music videos.  The school shared the music videos with the public through the Citizen television programme.  The videos caught the eye of the Executive Secretary of the drama festival, Mr Khaemba, who asked why other children should not be given a chance to explore video production.  He then called for the meeting which was attended by teachers from the Coast, Kisii, Nakuru, Kisumu, Siaya and Nairobi.  They thereby resolved that a workshop should to be held for teachers of drama to equip them with film/video production skills.  This was the motivation behind the workshop at the YMCA mentioned earlier.  The entry-point of the workshop was to introduce film genres to the teachers based on what the teachers understood and which would give them impetus to experiment with their students.  At the workshop the teachers were introduced to the feature film as an equivalent of the stage play, screen dance (music video) as an equivalent to the cultural creative dance, screen verse as the film version of the stage verse and screen narrative as an equivalent of the stage narrative derived from the format of our story telling tradition.  Only the documentary stood on its feet without reference. 

Is this a film or a video festival?   This was a nagging question at the beginning.  In the initial stages of its development filmmakers used actual film reels which defined the medium without any shadow of doubt. As technology developed recording became digitized which was called video.  Today the majority of films are recorded digitally and the ones that may be recorded in reels are transcoded to digital formats.  This means that the question of video production vs film production has become more technical going beyond the medium.  One of the considerations for the distinction lies in the scale of involvement in terms of personnel, money and time invested.  Film is larger in scale and development.  Given that instituting the practice in schools considered the future projection of the ultimate end-game, it was decided that with time learners would be allowed to venture into the large-scale production that would open to them the avenues of careers in film production.  The term film was thus chosen and adopted for the schools’ festival as opposed to video which is smaller in scale and involvement.

Presently, the Ministry of Education allows schools to partner with professional film makers in the process.  There are however strict conditions set that the professionals only participate in technical guidance but not in the acting.  The schools are encouraged to ensure that the actors be from the school community.  In case it is a boys’ school and the script demands female characters then the principal of the institution is allowed to partner with the nearest girls’ school to get the female characters.  Adults play adults and so teacher-directors are advised to try and source for relevant adult characters from the community like fellow teachers and support staff if they cannot get students who are convincingly adult-like.  With these few conditions schools have for the last decade churned out a variety of interestingly good films.

The Early Childhood Development (ECD) with children aged 1-5 years has seen teachers produce films that have intricate and entertaining poetry done in cinematography over the years.  In this category the Nairobi region has been leading other regions.

The primary school film has been dominated by private institutions with Elimu Academy, a private school from Nyanza, scooping the top honours many times over the years.  Their first film titled Time was judged the best film overall in 2012.  It was a true story about what happened to children in the 2007 post-election violence at the Kericho-Kisii border, and which adversely affected the school forcing it to relocate.  Elimu Academy has won the top awards five times in the last ten years with very well-crafted film stories.  Kayole primary school, a public school in Nairobi; Nairobi primary school (public); Westlands primary school (public, Nairobi); Aga Khan Academy (private, Kisumu); Gilgil Hills Academy (private, Rift Valley); St Paul’s Nguruka Academy (private, Eastern) and Makini School (private, Nyanza) have dominated over the years.

The high schools are the major performers in the film festival with more than eighty percent of all films presented coming from them and with a majority of the films being produced by public schools.  A look at the regions reveals that the Eastern and Central regions lead the way with more than sixty percent of all the films coming from the two regions alone.   In terms of gender, the girls’ schools have done much better than the boys’ schools, while the mixed schools have been few in number. 

Since 2012 the girls’ schools have consistently led the process with prowess.  Many of the films address a myriad of issues affecting the youth.  In 2012 Chogoria Girls’ High School from Eastern region won the top honours with an intriguing screenplay titled Time to Cry directed by Phares Mwangi.  In the story a Muslim student states that she had been denied to wear the hijab at school and so there was no reason for Rosa, a Christian, to wear her Christian turban.  Rosa’s father, a devoted Akorino Christian sect adherent, tells his daughter that if she does not wear her turban God’s wrath will befall the family and he will disown her.  The film was screened at a time when there was an on-going debate about religious wear in schools.  Other girls’ schools that have impressed with memorable performance include Rwathia Girls’ High School who won the top awards with arguably the first indigenous science fiction film titled ‘Messenger’ (2013) which presents an alien who gets into a school in Aberdares and steals the identity of a form one student during admission.  During the admission process the alien bears all the identities of the admitted girl.  They share a name, admission number, name of primary school and even the names of their parents.  The principal of the school has the difficult task of finding out who is genuine among the two.

Scenes from ‘Messenger’…

The two girls with similar admission number
The girls have a similar dream of destruction

Kamandura Girls’ High School in 2014 scooped top honours with ‘Anti-Dre’, a film about Mr. Mark, a rogue drug baron who doubles as a teacher and goes ahead to recruit some of his students as drug dealers within the school.  Kangubiri Girls’ High School dazzled the viewers with two amazing films, ‘Bury My Bones But Keep My Words’ (2015) about a girl who has been warned by the mother not to get involved with frauds at school but who encounters a girl with supernatural powers.  The powerful girl inducts her into a cult.

 Scenes from ‘Bury my Bones But Keep My Words’

The girl with supernatural powers
The victim

Kangubiri Girls’ High School also presented another masterpiece story of a science fiction film, ‘Return to Planet Earth’ (2016) directed by Sophie Kariuki about a long-lost generation from a planet in the andromeda galaxy who are returning home to planet Earth four hundred years after their great grand-parents were evacuated to save them from a nuclear war.  The film which created a buzz during the festival had a story that played with time.  The visitors from andromeda are so advanced that they can recreate scenes of what happened on Earth for the purpose of learning.   They find a few survivors of the nuclear war who are living in caves like the ancient man and try to reconstruct what really happened.  their story begins from hatred that was nurtured in one school.  We see the past happenings at the school but we also see one student, who is believed to be mentally unstable, communicating with the visitors.  The mental student could see the future and communicate with the visitors but at the same time the visitors are watching the past as they reconstruct events.

Scenes from ‘Return to Planet Earth’   

The visitors in the control chamber
The pilots of the craft
Reconstructing the nuclear war
Nuclear-destroyed Nairobi 400 years into the future

Over the years, most of the themes of high school films have been centred on local happenings at school.  State House Girls’ High School presented ‘The Principal’s Daughter’ (2016) which explores the misbehavior of the principal’s daughter at school.  The boys’ schools have also tried although they are not as prolific as the girls’ schools.  Nyagatugu Boys’ High School, Giachanjiru Boys’ High School and Njiris School are some of the boys’ schools among many others have dominated the festival in the last decade.

The colleges, although not as prolific as the high schools, have tried to keep pace.  Kenya Institute of Mass Communication which actually teaches film production has consistently presented films at the festival. Nyeri Polytechnic has won the top awards at least five times in the last ten years. The universities have been represented by Kenyatta university, United States International University, University of Nairobi, Maseno University, Bondo University and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

The greatest challenge to schools producing films is the cost of hiring or buying equipment.  Only a few schools have managed to buy digital cameras and LED lighting panels.  Workstations or standard editing hardware and software are beyond many institutions without a donation from well-wishers.  There have been plans to ask the government to put up at least two editing studios for schools in every county to cut down costs for schools, especially primary schools.  The funding of schools is not sufficient for many schools to embark on film production.  Primary schools survive on free-primary-fund which is barely enough to run co-curricular activities.  Ironically, the society needs to identify and nurture talent in the young at primary school level, and yet is the most neglected financially which leaves the arena to private schools that do have the financial muscle.  This is not helpful more so with the new competency-based curriculum which involves early identification of talent as the learners pick their pathways.   Kenya will lose a lot of potential talent as a result of this.

Just like in the larger industry, distribution is critical and not yet fully instituted for the films from schools and colleges.  The local television stations approached to air the films from schools have wanted to do so free of charge.  A partnership was agreed with VIUSASA (A Video-on-demand platform) which saw the schools get twenty thousand shillings per film on the platform every three months.  This was paid but some schools missed out on the pay cheque.  The deal was cancelled.  The schools have a powerful potential if only they network effectively with all schools as outlets in the country.  This is exemplified more with the rising number of film productions yearly.  From the thirty-seven films in 2012, seventy-two films in 2013, one hundred and twenty-two in 2014 and five hundred and thirty-two films by 2023.

There are not enough training workshops to train teachers.  The Ministry of Education mounts training workshops for teachers every year but unfortunately these trainings combine drama and film which gives very little time for film and its components to be handled effectively in the five-day events.   As more institutions launch film clubs, the Ministry of Education and the Association of Film Producing Educational Institutions of Kenya (AFPEIK) should endeavor to have a platform that will benefit the schools and colleges more financially while sharing the content of their films with the public.   AFPEIK is an association that was registered to help schools and colleges manage their films after the festival.  As it stands it has a lot of work to ensure that the hundreds of films lying in the shelves are shared with the public meaningfully.