I am lucky to have been in the Kenyan film industry long enough to document and make a few observations on the key trends over the years. I am a film -maker and -trainer and above all a seasoned film scholar, whose research and publications have revolved around African film, with special interest in the Kenyan film industry.
In these three broad areas I have experienced the growth and expansion of audiovisual industry in the country. As a filmmaker, I have carved a niche for myself as a film producer of several films from 2012 to date, as I am in the post-production phase of my latest project, Jabari (2023). My first credit as a producer was in Our Strength (2012), a short drama produced just before the 2012 general elections. The film’s goal was to speak to the electorates about the strength in diversity in all aspects of life including ethnicity, and the need for tolerance.
As the first general elections after the dreadful 2007/2008 post-election violence, the elections could have reignited cooling embers. This film was an exploration of the power of film as an important medium to reach wide and diverse audiences in all parts of the country and call for peaceful election and accommodation of one another, despite the differences in our opinions and preferred candidates. I decided to work with my university students. We made a didactic film which was later translated (through sub-titling) to several indigenous languages including Kiswahili, which is spoken by a majority of people living in Kenya.
From this film, I first learnt of the value of expansion of film training opportunities in the country. In my early days as a researcher in the Kenyan film industry, I wrote a conference paper on the role of our universities in the development of the film industry. The paper was presented at a 2005 conference hosted by Kenyatta University at the Kenya School of Monetary Studies. Included in the conference theme was the role of the universities in the attainment of the MDGs; and I was able to position filmmaking at the centre of development and demonstrate how its training at the university level would unleash the potential in the creative economy in the country.
My later research work and publications, including my book, African Re-creation of African Impressions: A Focus on the Kenyan Films (2011) have covered various aspects of the region’s film culture. However, this 2005 paper set the foundation upon which more universities opened up to film training at bachelors and higher academic degree levels. Moi, Maseno and Kenyatta Universities were among the early adopters of this trend although these trainings were then hinged within literary, theatre, arts, drama and dance departments. However, more universities have joined in and later on developed courses more specific to the wider cinematic industry such as BA film Production and BA Animation, with some training on gaming. USIU-Africa, Multimedia university are among the universities training in these areas.
While I focus on the university training of film making and, in some cases, film studies, I take cognizance of the fact that middle level technical training institutes have played a major role in the training of filmmakers in the country. All these point to the impressive growth I have witnessed in the process of film training, an area I myself have also engaged in over the years. Initially, film training was a reserve of a few TTI’s which could afford the rather costly training. The government run Kenya Institute of Mass Communication (KIMC), Mohamed Amin film school and Andrew Crawford Productions are among the most outstanding early film training institutions in the country. However, from the early 2000s, universities and more TVET institutions have embraced this discipline. Graduates from these institutions have continued to be absorbed into the local and global film industries, enriching the Kenyan film space with more professional filmmakers. While early Kenyan filmmakers such as the late Sao Gamba had to spend seven years in Poland, studying Film Directing, filmmakers can now take anything from three years and have a feel of several departments in filmmaking such as cinematography, acting, scripting among others. Thus, the industry is now richer, with more diverse professionals, ready to take up more daring innovations with their film projects.
Kenyan filmmakers are now daring to venture into the larger film markets, thanks to the diversified distribution channels. In my earlier publication, The Status of Filmmaking in Kenya (2005), I observed that an industry must first work on churning out numbers before they can afford to sit back and discuss about quality of productions. Not so long ago, Nigeria’s Nollywood film industry was characterized by films whose quality could be improved, yet currently, some really good quality films are coming from that same industry, which in the 1990s was quite different. Kenya’s industry has moved away from scanty production of films per year to a vibrant industry that we see today, characterized by a number of films in globally accessible VOID platforms such as Netflix as well as MyMovies Africa and Enta, among others.
The number of Kenyan films being screened at international film festivals has also risen. Kenya’s annual official selection and entries into the Oscars is another pointer that the country’s film industry is making its global presence felt. With this upward trend in training and the resultant professionalism in the industry, it is not surprising that, to help with capacity building for practicing and aspiring filmmakers, several organizations are increasingly coming up with short courses and workshops that target various population groups in the film industry in the country, especially amongst the youth. Such organizations have played a major role in offering sponsored training outside the formal learning institutions discussed earlier. With an advantage of focus, brevity and often facilitation by industry professionals, such workshops are more easily accommodated by filmmakers who may not have the time, or even the requisite formal academic qualifications for college and university education.
Maisha film lab, initially housed in Kampala, an initiative of a renowned Hollywood filmmaker, Mira Nair, has been consistent in offering sponsored training for East African emerging filmmakers. As an alumnus of this film lab, I made my first film in its three-week training workshop and made some of my first film industry networks from there. Bringing Hollywood filmmakers to East Africa was of significance for the trainees. Maisha Film Lab later embraced local mentorship too and worked with local filmmakers to facilitate the workshops. Other than Maisha Film Lab, One Day Films (now Some Day Films) Goethe Institut, and Jenga CC are among the other organizations that have offered hands-on trainings that have greatly improved the capacity of filmmakers in the country.
The role of the film festivals in capacity building for filmmakers cannot be gainsaid. I have been participating in several film festivals and I have learnt much from the guest filmmakers who grace these festivals as workshop facilitators. They sometimes have open sessions with filmmakers and talk about their experiences and journeys in the creative industry. I owe a lot to my participation at workshops organized within regional film festivals, some of which have remained consistent over the years such as the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) and Festival Panafricain du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadougou (FESPACO).
Unfortunately, locally, festivals have not been that consistent. It is easy to enumerate festivals that have sprung up and gone down, or sometimes become docile after a while or which skip planned editions in the country. This is an area in which we need greater consistency as a country, given the significance attached to networking and partnerships that emerge during film festivals.
The Kenya Film Commission (KFC) has currently sent out a call for film festival proposals for support and I think this is a step in the right direction. KFC has outdone itself in the recent years through its support for the film industry through: Relevant partnerships that have provided fertile ground for the growth of the film industry – this I have personally experienced as an employee of one of its strategic partners; capacity building workshops, which I have experienced first-hand as a long-serving facilitator; film production funding for local filmmakers; regular stakeholder workshops – which I have attended; organizing of the annual Kalasha Film Awards – which I have experienced both as an award winning producer and a judge or invited guest/partner; successful organizing and hosting of Kalasha Film and TV Market; to mention but a few. The current focus on film festivals points to a vibrant area that needs greater support and growth as the industry grows.
Kenya national schools and colleges drama festivals have been held in the country for decades since pre-independence. Yet, the introduction of the Film genre in the festival since the year 2012 has tremendously invigorated vibrancy and realigned the festival to current trends in the creative industry. I have been part of this initiative and I was honoured, I think literally, when I was selected to be part of the inaugural bench of judges for the film genres in 2012. I have since remained part of the festival as a workshop facilitator, award winning film producer, author in the festival’s magazine, Edufilmer, judge in several annual festivals including 2013, 2015, and the tenth anniversary festival, 2022. In my article in Edufilmer (2013), I mentioned that the fact that students and pupils are being introduced to filmmaking at that young age is an encouragement to them to view the creative industry as a possible career path. That future is today, and we see more students opting to study film at higher levels of learning. I can attest to that, given my position as a chair of Department of Cinematic Arts at USIU-Africa, where the number of students pursuing film, animation and gaming is on a steady rise. The interest in filmmaking, among the youth even outside academic circles is equally prevalent as I have witnessed as a film producer whenever I call for auditions for a film project.