Under Our Skin Kenya – A Film Festival

Under Our Skin Kenya is a dynamic and inspiring film festival founded in 2019, drawing inspiration from its sister festival, Bajo Nuestra Piel. This annual event is a testament to the power of cinema in promoting human rights and celebrating diverse cultures, bringing together people from all walks of life to engage in constructive dialogues on various social issues.

The festival revolves around thought-provoking themes that serve as the backbone of its programming, encouraging meaningful discussions and raising awareness about pressing societal concerns. One of the central themes explored by Under Our Skin is ‘Expression as a Right’. This theme delves into human rights issues related to self-expression, focusing on areas such as LGBTQI rights, gender equality, social class dynamics, and the rights of adolescents and teenagers. The festival aims to provide a platform for marginalized voices, encouraging individuals to share their stories and experiences without fear of discrimination or prejudice.

Another pivotal theme is ‘Social Contract Redefined,’ which seeks to shed light on issues such as corruption at the state level and police brutality in Kenya. Drawing from real-life experiences, the festival examines the tense situations prevalent in informal settlements where communities confront those in positions of power. By shining a spotlight on these issues, Under Our Skin Kenya aims to prompt discussions about the responsibilities of governments and authorities in upholding justice and ensuring the protection of citizens’ rights.

A third significant theme addressed by the festival is ‘Injustice by Design’, focusing on understanding how injustice persists within the infrastructural framework of the country. This theme encompasses a wide range of topics, including processes of decolonization, the plight of climate refugees, and the various impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities. Through in-depth discussions and film screenings, the festival aims to raise awareness about these critical issues and inspire individuals to take action in promoting sustainable and equitable solutions.

The festival’s activities are carefully curated to maximize reach, engagement, and impact. Community screenings of both short and feature films are at the heart of the festival’s outreach efforts. These screenings take place in various locations, including community centres, educational institutions, and cultural hubs, making the films accessible to diverse audiences. After the screenings, panel discussions and community dialogues are organized to facilitate open conversations, allowing participants to share their perspectives and engage with filmmakers, activists, and experts.

The festival places a strong emphasis on interactive workshops, which play a crucial role in skill-building and capacity development for filmmakers. Additionally, the integration of educational screenings, in partnership with Kenyatta University School of Law, fosters a supportive and inclusive learning environment. This approach aims to inspire both filmmakers and audience members to become advocates for positive change, reinforcing the festival’s commitment to empowering individuals and driving social transformation.

Under Our Skin Kenya’s success is a testament to its commitment to fostering positive change through the medium of film. Since its inception in 2021, the festival has held two impactful editions in Kenya. The first edition took place from July 16th to July 25th in various locations in Nairobi, including Mathare Social Justice Centre, Baraza Media Lab, and Unseen Nairobi. A subsequent edition followed from 22-27 November 2021, in Kilifi, covering venues such as Distant Relatives, Pwani University, YMCA Kilifi, and The Terrace Bar & Bistro. Engaging over 1000 people through 26 screenings and dialogue sessions in Nairobi, as well as 10 sessions in Kilifi, made a significant impression.

The 2022 edition of the festival in Nairobi further solidified Under Our Skin Kenya’s position as a prominent cultural event in the region. Spanning seven days from 11 – 19 November 2022, the festival took place at multiple locations, including Unseen Nairobi, Baraza Media Lab, Kenyatta University School of Law (Parklands Campus), and Mathare Social Justice Centre. Additionally, a satellite event was held in Lamu from 24-26 November, in collaboration with Lamu Youth Alliance, extending the festival’s impact beyond Nairobi.

The 2022 edition of the festival showcased 22 films that delved into various human rights and social justice issues, sparking meaningful discussions and inspiring participants to contemplate the struggles faced by marginalized communities and the pressing need for positive change. With 14 panel discussions held throughout the event, eleven in Nairobi and three in Lamu, a diverse exchange of ideas and perspectives was facilitated. The festival’s appeal was evident as it drew a total of 1200 participants, 740 in Nairobi and 460 in Lamu. Leveraging social media, the festival’s impact transcended physical boundaries, reaching over 80,000 unique individuals online, thereby extending its influence and message far and wide.

Under Our Skin Kenya has spotlighted several thought-provoking films that have left a lasting impression on audiences. Some of the notable films showcased during the festival include:

Bangarang Directed by Robin Opondo.This fictional film portrays the stories of injustices that occurred during the post-election violence in Kenya, shedding light on historical grievances.
If Objects Could Speak: Directed by Saitabao Kaiyare. Taking audiences on a journey to discover the significance of an ancient object from the Kikuyu tribe, this film explores cultural heritage through digital means.
Forever Home: Directed by Artsy Solomon.  A group of nomads decide to settle on a barren piece of land outside Lodwar Town.
FEMALE PLEASURE: Directed by Barbara Miller. This powerful documentary portrays the lives of five courageous women challenging the silence imposed by archaic-patriarchal societies and religious communities, championing women’s rights.
Congo Calling: Directed by Stephan Hilpert. Offering personal perspectives on coexistence and cooperation between Europe and Africa, this documentary follows three Europeans in eastern Congo, questioning the effectiveness of Western aid.

Despite its successes, the festival has not been without its challenges. Accessing locally relevant films, particularly for satellite screenings, has been a hurdle. The festival acknowledges the need for more films that depict local issues in the context and language of the communities they serve. To address this, Under Our Skin Kenya tailors film calls to align with the specific needs of its audience and seeks to foster local filmmaking talent through workshops and masterclasses.

Another significant obstacle has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the festival to postpone its first edition twice. Navigating the uncertainties brought on by the pandemic required adaptability and resilience from the festival’s organizers.

Financing cultural festivals also poses a challenge, as the resources available are often limited. Under Our Skin Kenya recognizes the need for more collaborative approaches and increased funding within the cultural sector, calling for support from both local and regional stakeholders.

Looking to the future, Under Our Skin Kenya remains committed to its mission of empowering marginalized communities and addressing critical social issues. The festival aims to focus on topics such as eradicating female genital mutilation in Kenya, as an essential step towards gender equality and the protection of women’s rights. To support these efforts, the festival is exploring strategic partnerships with like-minded organizations.

In the long term, the festival envisions expanding its reach beyond Kenya, collaborating with regional film festivals in East Africa. Recognizing the significant role of such festivals in promoting development and social progress, Under Our Skin Kenya seeks to foster a regional network of cultural events that inspire positive change and contribute to a brighter future for all. Through its unwavering commitment to human rights and culture, Under Our Skin Kenya is poised to make an enduring impact on the hearts and minds of audiences across the region and beyond.