The inspiration for InformAction came from human rights film-making during and immediately after the 2007-8 Post-Election crisis, when Kenya was focused on justice, a new constitution and political transition. InformAction is now a unique county-based organisation screening films to communities in all corners of the country with a three-step method for change: Watch. Discuss. Act.
I was a TV and print journalist running a small Nairobi-based media business, Voxcom Ltd, when the 2007-8 election crisis changed everything. As Kenya searched for post-conflict justice options and political solutions, I made a film with one of Kenya’s best-known civil society activists, Maina Kiai, who had just resigned as director of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, KNCHR. Getting Justice: Kenya’s Deadly Game of Wait and See was broadcast on primetime NTV. But before it was shown, we were told to remove some of the interviews with survivors from communities hit by the conflict – the most compelling content – on the basis that Kenyans ‘didn’t need to be reminded’ of the worst aspects of the crisis. Specifically, there was a demand to edit out all references to rape, as it was ‘gruesome’ and ‘upsetting’. Although that battle was eventually won – the film was broadcast to millions unedited – the attempt at censorship unwittingly inspired a more direct and enduring way to remind people about whatever the state wanted them to ignore.
The InformAction concept was to change the traditional metropolitan-based civil society approaches by using film to make information visual and accessible. To do this effectively, InformAction had to go well beyond the television screen and international film festivals to reach the audiences in Kenya that really mattered. We set about building up a countrywide network of contacts who could facilitate community video shows and discussions, and developed a ‘docu-dialogue’ style that focused on what the public had to say rather than the politicians. InformAction now operates through mobile field teams embedded in the counties, using a car, a camera and a projector to get ordinary people to speak out and take action. This is the day-to-day work of the ‘field bases’ – a veritable army of human rights activists – operating in Coast, Western Kenya, South Nyanza, South Rift, Central, and North Eastern.
The initial funding visit as ‘InformAction’ was to Willy Mutunga, then director of Kenya’s FORD Foundation branch, who advised setting up a limited not-for-profit company to avoid anticipated restrictions on activist NGOs, supported by the private Voxcom media business. We started with an outdoor sound system and a huge portable movie screen to get the films on the road. Our first recruitment was veteran activist and former detainee, Tirop Kitur, in Kericho; followed by alliances with Muhuri leader, Khelef Khelifa, in Mombasa; and Betty Okero in Kisumu. The inaugural road-show screening was in Kisumu, early 2010, with a large participating audience of displaced and conflict-affected women and youth.
To make the films appealing across the country, we used local leaders with a history of human rights activism and the necessary charisma to grip an audience. How to anchor and script the films was important. A good script with images impacts audiences on an emotional and social level in a way that is just not possible to achieve in a workshop. Films make facts and concepts easier to recall and encourage creative thinking; images anchor memory. They have the power to uplift and motivate people from extraordinarily diverse situations if they watch something that feels like their own experience. They feel recognised.
Film is also an important form of evidence. InformAction was the first to produce video evidence in the newly constituted Supreme Court during the 2013 contested presidential election; and recently trained an expanded network of nearly four hundred Citizen Journalists to monitor the 2023 elections.
The documentaries have also been a way of providing a record of Kenyan activism – a history often over-looked. No Man’s Land: Ni Yetu, made by Japhason Lekupe in Maralal in 2012, is an insider-look at chronic state neglect of a region, which has proved to be one of the most popular films for screening – communities share more fundamental concerns than differences. Disputed Fields, narrated by Tirop Kitur, threw light on the deadly dynamics at play over land ownership in the Rift Valley through his struggle as an activist under the one-party state. In Unfinished Business: What it means to be poor in the land of Presidents, looked at politics and poverty in Central Kenya. InformAction’s SK Wandimi and cameraman Anthony Mathenge talked to the poor and landless, including former Mau Mau fighters, to understand what three out of four presidents – at the time – had given or taken away from the Kikuyu community since the fight for independence.
The next big methodological leap was to link screenings to protest. There had been much discussion after the 2013 election about the difficulties activists had in effectively organising, and nervousness about demonstrations in the regions – a hangover from the old constitution. Could InformAction usefully make a film on how to do a successful protest?
The challenge was taken up in the Kisii field base in January 2014, filmed by veteran InformAction cameraman Denis Osoro, as a ‘how-to’ visual pilot project for other field bases to organise regional demonstrations. Working with leaders of unrecognised IDPs in Nyamira – ‘we told them it was their demo and not ours’ – an impressive mass of people marched through the streets with whistles and song to present a petition to the county government demanding equal compensation. It was an important catalyst, and also moved film production out of Nairobi into the field. Kilio Cha Haki (A Cry for Justice) was produced by the Kisii team, narrated by field director Geof Mogire – a teacher and trade union rep – and distributed to the other field bases. This film is still regularly used in screenings across the country to motivate communities to organise protests and petition the county government.
Asha Muktar, field director of Isiolo base, is from the original group of videographers trained by InformAction in 2012. Working as a journalist at the time, she says “I didn’t know then I had the activist in me”. During the two-week course – dubbed ‘guerrilla filming’ – she learned how to do interviewing, framing, basic editing, and techniques for secret filming to expose egregious abuses. Her first film, No Humanity Here, is one of InformAction’s most-watched documentaries. A brave expose of the security crackdown in Eastleigh in 2014, it has extraordinary footage of ethnic profiling, abuse of detainees, and police extortion.
“I used guerrilla tactics in the police stations and Kasarani stadium and hid my camera under my buibui. People were being held in terrible conditions in cells under the threat of deportation. I established contact with a woman who was taking them food. I got in there and showed inmates how to film themselves using their cell phones.”
From the Isiolo base, she covers vast marginalised regions. Many people don’t use smart phones because of lack of electricity and network – but Asha believes film has a magic for mobilizing that social media lacks. “You might get more traffic on social media, but you’ll get less action. As a mama who has left fetching the water to come and discuss a film, you want to achieve something and be with others. You say, the time I have put in, let me get a new road”.
Since devolution, the field bases have seen a significant shift from classic civil and political rights to a public focus on service delivery and accountability. The cost of living crisis arrived with uncomfortable questions: have activists focused on civil and political freedoms to the detriment of socio-economic needs? This is presently one of the most important debates for civil society, advanced by AfriCog in its ‘Civic Action in a Hostile World’ report. InformAction Director Winnie Masai points to the success of assisted petitions and protests in the counties. The short, punchy Kericho film Uncompleted and Abandoned: Fighting corruption in the Counties showcases successful community action over the terrible state of the Kiptaldal road. Abandoned and water-logged, the track was impassable, affecting school children, health services, and trade. On 22 October 2020, InformAction helped mobilise residents to stage a large, peaceful demonstration and present a petition at the MCA office, demanding accountability over the Ksh6.7 million allocated to murram the surface. Two months after the protest, graders were sent by the County Council to complete the road. There have been similar successes in other field bases, including over the Kingirwa irrigation project in Meru, which resulted in resignations and charges of fraud at ministerial level.
So what makes a good film for Watch. Discuss. Act?
The trademark style and evolution of a whole genre of InformAction films resides first in the people on the ground who contribute to them, but has been crafted by the skill and dedication of foundational video editor Fabian Rodriguez, who came to us from the Mohamed Amin stable. He says a good InformAction film is shaped by the guerrilla style, using a handycam with very limited props, providing content that connects communities across the nation – ‘we let ordinary people’s voices dominate the films’. The films are mostly produced in Swahili, sometimes local languages, with all voices subtitled in English so that they can ‘be played deep in the rural areas and be understood by many’ as well as posted on social media platforms. They always carry a message of challenge and change that is timeless.
Nigerian human rights activist, Chidi Odinkalu, when interviewed by InformAction for the Getting Justice documentary, talked passionately about the need for citizens to address a crisis instead of following directions from politicians to ‘accept and move on’. He used the famous Milan Kundera quote: ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’.
Film is a gift for that struggle.
All InformAction films mentioned in the article can be seen on InformAction.tv website and Youtube.