In 2016, a group of German students led by Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen came to Kenya. They had one mission; to tell the story of the December, 2015 Mandera bus attack through a short film. They collaborated with some of the best filmmakers in Kenya. The collaboration gave birth to the short film ‘Watu Wote’. The short film would go ahead and win a Student Academy Award. Last month, the short film was nominated for an Oscar Award; the most prestigious film award in the world. Martin Nyakabete was the script supervisor for the ‘Watu Wote’ film.
“This is one of my greatest achievements as a filmmaker. Whether the film wins or not, the nomination is already an achievement,” Martin says excitedly when I ask him how he feels about the nomination. Since its release, the film has won over 30 awards at several festivals including Durban International Film Festival, Washington DC Shorts Film Festival and Zanzibar International Film Festival.
When he fell in love with script supervising on the ‘Playhouse’ set, Martin never imagined one day he would work on a film that would make it to the Oscars. Back then, he was just fascinated by what script supervising entailed. “This was an entirely different department. Carol Muchiri was working with the wardrobe/makeup department, the camera department, the director, the art department, actors… every department! And I was like, ‘who is this!’ After a day with her I knew I wanted to be a script supervisor. The complexity of the job is what made it beautiful.”
A script supervisor is in charge of many things in a production. Not just the continuity aspect of the story, as most people think. Martin calls a script supervisor the ‘unsung hero’ in a production. “We are also the eyes and the ears of both the director and the editor. It’s unfortunate that most people, some crew members too, don’t understand what we do.” Hollywood defines a script supervisor as the ‘Director’s right hand’ and the ‘backbone’ of a production. (We’ll do a separate post on the duties of a script supervisor as told by Martin Nyakabete)
Anyone who has worked with Martin can tell you he loves and enjoys his job. I’ve had the honour of working closely with him when he trained me, and later mentored Silas Miami and I last year on the set of ‘Supa Modo’. When he spoke to us, we could tell he was delighted to share his knowledge with us. It was like script supervising held this big secret to life that he couldn’t wait to let us in on. His face and eyes would glow with excitement whenever he explained a concept to us.
He has the same glow in his eyes and on his face throughout this interview. Traits of a person who has never worked a day in his life, but one who gets to do what he loves every day.
After ‘Playhouse’, he did not know where to start looking for jobs. Luckily for him, his hard work had not gone unnoticed. Carol was called in for two jobs at the same time, one in Rwanda and the other in Kenya. “She chose to go to Rwanda and recommended me for the other job.” This was how he finally met Mkamzee Mwatela on the set of the Kenyan TV series ‘Stay’.
It has been a humbling journey. “Since ‘Makutano Junction’ and ‘Playhouse’, I’ve never had to send my resume to anyone or make calls asking for a job. All the projects I’ve worked on are through recommendation from people who have seen my work.” Every job is an opportunity to work harder and give his all. He’s had several instances where directors and actors have insisted on having him as the script supervisor on productions they are working on. Over the years, Martin has worked on other TV series like Pray and Prey, Groove Theory, How to Find a Husband, The System and most recently, Sue na Jonnie among others. Movies include a couple of Africa Magic Original Films (AMOF), a Media E film on epilepsy, Watu Wote, Subira and Supa Modo among others. He’s worked on adverts for brands like Zesta, Panda, Kasuku, Guiness, Madison Insurance, Co-operative bank, Dabur (Nigeria) and Betin among others.
“So, what are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in your line of work?” I ask.
“Getting calls from production companies and the first thing they say is ‘we did not have a budget for a script supervisor’.” He cannot comprehend how a knowledgeable filmmaker can decide to make a film without the services of a script supervisor. “Things are changing, however, and producers are beginning to understand the essence of a script supervisor in a production.”
He has also been a victim of production companies that won’t pay at all. “I can work without pay if the story is worth telling. But, make it clear to me from the beginning that there will be no pay and let me make the choice.”
Another challenge has been dealing with ‘diva actors’ and disrespectful crew members. “How I deal with such people is by being good at my job,” he says with the confidence of someone who is great at his job.
And so good is he at his job that last year, he was the only Kenyan mentor on the set of the film ‘Supa Modo’, a mentorship project by One Fine Day Films and Ginger Ink TV. “I got a call from Ginger, of Ginger Ink TV, inviting me to be the script supervisor mentor on the set of ‘Supa Modo’. All the other mentors were established German filmmakers. I felt so honored and this is my other greatest achievement as a script supervisor and filmmaker.”
“You also featured as an actor on ‘Supa Modo’, how was it like being on the other side of the camera?” I am curious to know.
“I was anxious. I am used to making sure that actors stick to the script and actions. So for me, there was no room for mistake. Especially because I am a perfectionist. There was also the temptation to correct the other actors’ dialogue and actions. I had to remind myself often that I was an actor, not a script supervisor at that particular time, and let my mentees do their job. As a mentor, you can only hope that you have done a good job. And watching my mentees running the show gave me this satisfaction,” he concludes with pride.
He is not afraid to admit he is a perfectionist, “Being a perfectionist has greatly helped me in my line of work. Generally, the script supervisor’s work is to ensure a film is perfect and being a perfectionist makes the work easier.” It was partly because of his desire for perfection that an interview on NTV’s ‘The Trend’ with Amina Mohammed, left him disappointed. This was three days after the Kenyan premiere and Oscar nomination of ‘Watu Wote’. He was invited together with two others to talk about the highly acclaimed film. What he thought would be a perfect and relevant interview turned out to be a complete waste of their time and an injustice to the movie.
“She had not the slightest clue of what roles we played in the making of the movie, let alone our names. You could tell she had not done any research on us or the movie. And this is something that the Kenyan media has on several occasions been accused of. They focus more on international artists as opposed to their own artists. There are those who do a great job in supporting local artists and the few who don’t should learn something from them.”
It was as if the show was just riding on the fame of ‘Watu Wote’ since it was one of the trending things at the time. They did not really care about the film.
As we come to a close of the interview, I want to know some of the people he looks up to in the film industry.
“There are several who inspire me in different ways. Someone like actor/director Gilbert Lukalia, whom I met on the ‘Pray and Prey’ set, is one of the influences in my career. Brilliant mind. He has taught me a lot about filmmaking and I only hope I can return the favour in the future. Great acting is consistency of performance and I see this in Mkamzee Mwatela. She also has a great personality on and off set. There’s Dru Mungai whom I have to thank for most of what I know about the camera department. Director Michael Mwangi ‘Kababa’ is fantastic. He has played an integral part in my career and I’ll always be grateful to him. I have also enjoyed working with director Philip Karanja, on the set of the Kalasha Award winning TV series ‘Sue na Jonnie’. He is the most humble director I’ve ever worked with. Joe Kinyua (popularly known as ‘Johnny Real’ on ‘Sue na Jonnie’) is one of the most disciplined, passionate and outstanding actors I’ve had the honour of working with. This guy, I salute.”
Martin is passionate about filmmaking. Choosing script supervising five years ago was the best decision he made. “I’ve never regretted a day in my life or wished I was doing something different. I am still a work in progress, humbled by the journey and grateful to all those who have contributed to my growth in one way or the other. I couldn’t have made it this far without their support. It has been a great journey so far and I can only hope the future is greater.”
“What gives you satisfaction as a filmmaker?” I ask as we conclude.
“The ability to solve new challenges every day. The opportunity to work with different brilliant minds. The opportunity to inspire and mentor others. And above all, knowing that I have helped bring a worthy story to life. I mean, what is more satisfying than that!”
- Always wanted to work with actor Martin Githinji (because they share a first name) and he finally did on the set of ‘How To Find A Husband’ and several others.
- One day, Alex Konstataras made a film, ‘Blind Fame’. He named the two main characters Martin Nyakabete (played by Gerald Langiri and Neville Misati). Martin was the script supervisor for the film.
- In future, he would love to become a director and an editor