‘River road is Nairobi is the hub of East Africa movie scene’

2013-09-13 11:00

Unscripted stories, thread-thin budgets, handheld cameras… Local moviemakers could learn a lot from ‘Riverwood’, the name given to Kenya’s burgeoning film business.

The director rushes forward to wipe the dripping perspiration from the actor’s face. The heat is an oppressive 38°C. The room is stuffy and dusty.

‘Action!’ he shouts.

‘Rolling,’ says the cameraman, as he bends over his EOS5 camera.

Bustling traffic noises from outside drown the actor’s lines as he battles to portray an emotional character involved in a family feud.

‘Cut,’ the director says after the long monologue. Satisfied, he hands the actor a glass of lukewarm water.

The film crew consists of two people. The cameraman doubles as sound engineer, and he sets the lights, does the grips and organises the props. The director is also in charge of production work and acts as the art department.

Bystanders are commandeered to hold the microphone or buy batteries and fetch lunch on the way back through the gridlocked traffic. It might sound like slapstick comedy on a shoestring budget, but this is how hundreds of wildly popular films are made in Kenya.

After the day’s filming in Nairobi, the set moves to the countryside for a two-day shoot. The next day, the editing process begins. It takes no longer than a week, because the ever-increasing consumer market constantly demands new titles on the shelves.

The director designs a DVD cover and large posters to announce the release of his movie. There is no premiere, no press release or marketing campaign. There’s no time – nor is it necessary.

Posters at the entrance of the alleyways that lead to River Road, a bustling thoroughfare between the affluent and poorer areas of the Nairobi, do the trick.

River Road also serves as the main thoroughfare into the Kenyan capital used by daily commuters from nearby villages. Sidewalks on both sides are packed with shops in a maze of doorways and alleyways, advertising a plethora of movie titles mixed up with anything from radios and cellphones to MP3 players and toasters.

Nestled between the cramped ‘boutiques’ are digital editing facilities that double up as a means of copying films to DVD. The pirating hub began with the copying of audio cassettes, then VHS tapes, then CDs, then DVDs and Blu-ray discs. Any movie, from international blockbusters to films from Nigeria and Kenya, is pirated right there, quite openly, and sold on DVD for 150 Kenyan shillings (about R17).

In Nigeria and Kenya, movies are not screened in cinemas but are distributed on DVD. Copyright is non-existent and even overseas distributors turn a blind eye. As soon as a new movie appears, anybody is free to buy a copy off the shelf, duplicate it and sell it at a reduced rate.

The director doesn’t blink because, as long as he gets his movie on his shelves first, he takes the largest share of the market. This means the movies have to be made at a furious pace. The industry produces 20 to 50 new films every week, amounting to thousands of films that sell an estimated 500 000 copies a year.

River Road has become the vibrant mecca of East African filmmaking, earning the lucrative industry the nickname Riverwood – after Nollywood, Bollywood and, of course, Hollywood.

South African filmmakers can learn from the Riverwood model. Kenyan filmmaking has become the art of the masses, and is more than just a form of entertainment. It also creates jobs, records oral history, of the literate and illiterate alike, and is a tool of communication for Kenya’s 48 tribal groups.

Best of all, as Timothy Owasa of the Kenya Film Commission says, the industry pays for itself while serving the community.

The films tell stories about family, trouble with the neighbours, growing up, mistaken identities, farming, celebration, life and love.

Riverwood doesn’t compete with television channels that usually have a whole nation to target as viewers. Each film focuses on a specific language group only. And a professional crew isn’t required. Friends and family act out stories that are recorded with home video cameras, edited, burned to DVD and sold on River Road.

Rural communities from all language groups get involved. Villagers are filmed acting out their stories – often this means they farm in the morning and take part in productions in the afternoon.

Budgets are limited and the houses of friends and family double as film sets. What the Kenyans sacrifice in technical quality, they make up for in entertainment. Some of these ‘actors’ have become extremely popular and have made a career of their talents.

After production, the filmmaker returns to River Road and does the post-production, the ‘pirates’ make DVD copies and return it to the villages to distribute.

In comparison, filmmaking in South Africa is extremely expensive as films are made mostly for cinema. The ‘big screen’ makes the production process long and very expensive. Big budgets mean very few movies see the light. Home movies are technically not good enough to fill a cinema screen.

Kenya’s commitment to moving pictures doesn’t end there. The sprawling Kibera slum just outside Nairobi is home to one of Africa’s most dynamic film schools. Internationally funded, the Kibera Film School only enrolls students who live in the area. They are taught the skills of the trade and given the opportunity to express their feelings about their difficult living circumstances and how they cope within its constraints.

The NGO Hot Sun Foundation runs the school. Local and international lecturers volunteer their time to teach eager kids the art of filmmaking, scriptwriting, production and technical aspects during a five-month course.

The school shows very good results – 60% of the previously unskilled learners are now graduates working in media and the film industry.

The potential audiences in South Africa might be the same demographics as in Kenya but the films we produce might as well be from different worlds.

At the Cannes film festival earlier this year, Luzuko Dilima, one of the producers of banned-then-unbanned South African film Of Good Report, said ‘European standards’ are to blame. Kenyan films include themes such as domestic violence, the supernatural and religion, reflected in a realistic and honest way. It’s the kind of topics we in South Africa don’t touch, because our movies are mostly made for cinema, and cinema is predominantly white.

That might all change with an agreement signed between South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation and the Kenya Film Commission at the Cannes film festival earlier this year. One of these days we might welcome our Kenyan colleagues to places such as Bushbuckridge, Verneukpan and Mthatha to work with us in telling our own stories to the world.

A Riverwood film might not win an Oscar next year, but it is a remarkable model – despite self-funding, shared actors, sweltering heat and gridlock traffic, corruption and a dire lack of resources. Move over Hollywood and Nollywood. Riverwood is the place to watch.

• Marike Bekker is a filmmaker and freelance journalist. Liza de Villiers is a filmmaker and photographer.

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