Kenya’s increasing debt relations with foreign nations, such as China, has left many sceptical about the possible repercussions this addiction to aid and debt might have on the country. They have expressed concern over a weakened economy, unable to monetise its own potential in a sustainable manner; they have worried about how donor conditions will further strangle any ideas of a free and independent Kenya. Truly, the issue of Kenya’s co-dependency is concerning. In the film industry, it should be no different.
Kenya’s cabinet secretary in the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology (ICT), Joe Mucheru, recently launched a script writing competition where the winners will win up to Ksh. 2 million and participate in a co-production with China. Whilst the competition seems like an opportunity, it also stands as a mirror to the self-deprecating choices that policy makers and executives in the industry participate in. One of the pitfalls of such agendas is that they do not help to counter dependency from foreign donors who, in most cases, offer much more funding than the government. As well, they undermine the weight of investment needed to produce competitive films in order to stand out in a saturated market.
The last two years have seen a promising growth in the films being released by Kenyan filmmakers. However, under scrutiny, politics involved in the funding of these movies has been divisive among filmmakers. By going with the notion that whomever funds the film owns it, then many of the films we consider ours may not stand the test of co-dependent practices. Some of these most recognised releases include Nairobi Half Life (2012), Supa Modo (2018), Watu Wote (2017), and Rafiki (2018), to mention a few.
The former three were produced by One Fine Day, in order “to give African filmmakers an opportunity to write and produce their own stories”. The company, in collaboration with Ginger Ink, Kenya, enable the filmmakers “under the mentorship of experienced filmmakers reach an international audience on the big cinematic screen.” Through their work, Kenyans have come to identify with some of the films which have, like Supa Modo, been Kenya’s submission to the Oscars.
The issue of co-dependency here comes in what some may see as a paternalistic relationship between the foreign mentors who are supposedly always the ‘experienced’ ones, and the African ones who are always the learning ones. In a way this co-dependency mirrors a neo-colonial re-enactment of a colonial-master relationship, whereby the foreigner is the master and the African the inferior learner who must be led by the knowledgeable foreigner. Of course, with respect to agency and autonomous decision-making, these paternalistic relationships have appeared valuable to both ends.
On one hand, these occasions of co-production and collaborations have given the foreigners an opportunity to achieve community service by helping African filmmakers who, in many ways, lack similar opportunities and resources. An art that crosses borders, film has been a potent tool in the sharing of stories across the globe. To the African, the opportunity to work on a foreign co-production has also appeared as a gateway to achievement; an opportunity to have what the government has failed to give. It is seen as an opportunity to gain approval from those whose opinion has been embedded in our psyche as the pinnacle of absolution, from poverty, from oppression.
Rafiki, for instance, premiered in Cannes to much acclaim. The film was funded through the contribution of the European Union, Netherlands Film Fund, among other international foreign bodies. Rafiki was a remarkable achievement in challenging the oppressive policing of art in Kenya, which was ironic because it became an even bigger success when the government institution, KFCB, rejected it. However, like many foreign-funded films, Rafiki’s journey was not void of the recurring ritual which, as if by default, sees Kenyans as secondary recipients of the films only after foreign stakeholders have seen them abroad.
Even though these notions of co-dependency are not entirely new to filmmakers, avoiding them does not always feel like a choice. In fact, to many, finding foreign donors seems to be the only way of ever getting your own story told. And when the government’s art institutions have failed to provide considerable and sustainable alternatives, foreign donors have poured their influence in the country’s most notable avenues. For example, Pawa Initiative aims to use art, culture and media in a socially conscious way for the better of Kenya. According to Ford Foundation, the organisation received a grant of $150,000 in 2017 and $1,600,000 in 2018. The East-African Documentary Film Fund (Docubox) is among the few funding venues in Kenya. The initiative also received $85,000 from Ford Foundation, in 2015. The organization, most recently, was involved in handpicking sponsorship recipients to attend the Filmakedemie Baden-Württemberg in Germany to learn filmmaking. Whilst these opportunities are valued by filmmakers, they have also had their own side-effects. Spaces become competitive and for the younger generation, it distorts confidence on ambitious filmmakers by subtly reiterating that you can only learn with a foreigner’s assistance, but not enough on your own, among your own people.
An added co-dependency symptom is the visible scramble for African partners by some of the leading foreign institutes in the country. A while ago, I attended an event whereby German stakeholders pitched about their prospective opportunities for African filmmakers. From the crowd, a French cultural attaché reminded the German speaker not to forget about the French and British initiatives in Kenya also making efforts to help Africans. It was a rather accurate portrayal of the scramble for filmmakers in a neo-colonial era and one explaining why most screenings in Nairobi, especially, are often held at, or by, the Goethe Institute (German), Alliance Française (French), and the British Council (Britain); all of whom lay claim to nurturing African artists.
The Kenyan Government itself has not repelled donor grants and foreign intervention. The Kenya Film Classification Board further echoed this need for Euro-American partnerships, over African ones, by partnering with the French Embassy in Kenya, the European Union, and UNESCO for the 2017 International Film Convention, Kenya. The results of which, after several KFCB meetings and conventions through the past year, have lacked in significance and sustainability. The same might be argued for the Kenya Film Commission which partnered with the European Union and French Embassy to organize the Kalasha International Film & TV Festival & Market, 2017.
Co-dependency is not only an artistic issue but a political one, mirroring our experience in a history of unequal relations with the rest of the world. It is a punishing aspect of the film industry which numbs lessons from other film industries such as Nollywood, whose economic contribution of an estimated $3.4bn has been nurtured by building sustainable relationships with its local audience and stakeholders. This co-dependency sees many pitfalls in government and social institutions which in the past have failed to capitalise on the gifts and talents in its own compound. Progressively, it is both an artistic and political effort that must be replaced with a nurtured sense of patriotism and self-acceptance.
-Written by Ruguru Phoebe, on HINYA.
(The writer is a filmmaker and African politics enthusiast.)