Review by Belle Mcintyre Looking Back, Looking Forward: 20 Years of the New York African Film Festival, is dedicated to commemorating 50 years of African Cinema. It began at Lincoln Center from April 3 - 9 and continues at the Mayles Cinema and BamCinematek in May, where selected films will be shown.
The four films which I saw were all wonderful in different ways with diverse styles but the thread that connects this group seemed to be the tension between tradition and modernity represented by opportunity and freedom.
Nairobi Half Life, directed by David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga begins in a village in Kenya and centers on Mwas, a charming, clownish, naive young man who amuses everyone by acting out the stories on the CD’s which he sells. But he harbors dreams of becoming a real actor and when a travelling theatre group comes through his village he sees a way to follow his dream. He gives all of the small money that he has to one of the actors who promises to help him out when he comes to Nairobi. When he finally gets to Nairobi after borrowing money and agreeing to make a possibly shady delivery things take a decidedly darker turn.
He is robbed of everything and taken advantage of until he winds up in jail. There is a scene of disgusting hilarity in the latrine which is reminiscent of one in Slumdog Millionaire which illustrates Mwas’ ebullient goofiness and sets him apart. There he is befriended by a gang member who introduces him to the joys and excitement of being part of something resembling a dysfunctional family.
The life of crime and easy money is intoxicating and Mwas has auditioned and won a part in a small theatre production. We now have a case of life imitating art as his character in the play is a thief, although an honorable one, in that he does not actually steal anything. The gang breaks into the homes of rich people and puts all of their valuable things in a pile with a hand written sign reminding them that they cannot ignore the fact of so many poor who have nothing. (A sort of Occupy Wall Street message).
In Mwas real life, the gangs crimes are escalating and becoming increasingly risky and dangerous, involving guns. After a police crackdown the gang members meet violent ends. Only Mwas escapes. But he meets his violent end as the character in the play.
This is the directorial debut by Gitonga, although he was an assistant director on The First Grader. The actors who play the gang members are all new to film stage actors. Their characters are richly realized in their humanity and idiosyncracies. The film was a co-production with the German director Tom Tykwer as a competition prize. It is Kenyas most successful film and was their submission for the 2012 Oscars.
The writing and the pacing and the cinematography are all of a piece and successfully conjure up a milieu of random uncertainly with the possibility of violence at any moment. The picture of Nairobi which we see is relentlessly bleak, violent, corrupt, lawless and anarchic. In a Q & A with the director which followed, he was asked if there wasany criticism of such a raw and unflattering depiction on Nairobi. And he answered that everyone pretty much knows that this is the truth of the place and it was not a controversial issue. You will probably not be tempted to visit.
Image Courtesy of African Film NY