From An Independent African Filmmaker: We're Not Just Today's Griots, We're Your Freedom Fighters

Filmmaker Ekwa Msangi pens a call to action to support the work of independent African filmmakers.

I grew up in Kenya at a time when 99 percent of all television, film and music programming leaned to the West (The stats have changed a great deal since then for television and music, but film is still mostly Western produced). It’s hard to explain what it means to never see one’s own image reflected in any type of realistic way, but the closest example I can share is when I travelled abroad on my own for the first time at 16-years-old.

As I sat in an airport cafe in Amsterdam waiting for my connecting flight, a young, white busboy was clearing tables. The sight of him doing that type of work made me so uncomfortable—I literally had to leave the cafe in order to stop myself from jumping up to help him.

It wasn’t because the table was a mess, and not even because it was my mess to begin with, I just realized that I’d never seen a white man do that kind of work. Images of young white kids working at McDonalds or similar working class setups existed, but not usually in the presence of people of color. Growing up in East Africa, both on the screen and in real life, I only ever experienced white people in positions of superiority, as managers and bosses. Regardless of age or experience in their home countries, in Africa, they were immediately superior to anyone else, or at the very least, on par with anyone else.

I left the cafe feeling frustrated and ashamed that a white man clearing crumbs was so foreign to me, or rather, that it felt like some person of color should be doing that instead—that one of us was slacking on the job and forcing this “poor man” to pick up after us.

It took me a while to digest what happened, but the message message I took home was that I’d somehow been tricked into thinking that the current images and representations of Black people were correct and normal. And therefore, my answer was that I needed to change those images. Not to show all white people as servants in our place, but rather show the representation of what I knew to be true about my own family and friends that was never seen—funny, dramatic, imaginative, brilliant, and everything in between. The field had been set and now it was time to get training to wage the battle.

Photo still from 'Farewell Meu Amor' courtesy of Ekwa Msangi.

During British, French, Portuguese and Dutch colonial times, we had freedom fighters who dedicated their lives to liberating our land and our people and Pan-African leaders who wouldn’t rest until all land and people were free.

African filmmakers have been compared to modern day griots for years, but I’d like to offer what I think is a more accurate comparison: we, too, are freedom fighters. And before you get all hot and bothered about how audacious this claim might sound, I invite you to humor me for just a moment as I lay out the important and revolutionary work that we as independent filmmakers do for our communities and for the world.

As an artist, I belong to a collective where we dedicate our life’s work to freeing the minds, hearts and culture of our people, and who refuse to stop until all minds and creative resource belongs to us and is firmly in our own control.

And similar to several liberation leaders of the past, many of our causes have been funded by foreign allies and interest parties, but we won’t have true liberation until we start to invest in our own liberation. In our own causes. Until we see it as something that we must do for ourselves, and not that we’re helpless victims waiting for someone else to come and liberate us.

The stakes are hardly the same! —You might say, and it’s true, many of us aren’t running from gunfire quite in the same way. But being an artist in a capitalist world means making choices that puts my livelihood in jeopardy on a daily basis. For many of us working on the continent and abroad, if a client refuses to pay, steals your work, or any other injustice, there isn’t even the dignity of a court system that would adequately defend our rights. Being a starving artist is a reality that many artists face, or at least having to chose between having a family, having a home, having enough to eat and making the work that we need to make.

So why bother to make it if it’s so hard and risky? Because the work is needed. Because continuing to allow our children to see themselves through the lens of someone else’s portrayal is irresponsible and abnormal.

Think about how many times you’ve put on your favorite song and gritted your teeth to get through a tough day at work, or you’ve gone to let loose on a dance floor. Think about how you’ve sank down in front of your television to watch a movie and “zone out” from whatever stresses you’ve encountered.

Photo still of 'Soko Sonko' courtesy of Ekwa Msangi.

Now, think about what would happen if that wasn’t an option—or if the only option of “unwinding” was to see images of people like you being further suppressed and ridiculed. The reason that I make work, regardless of how hard or risky it is, is so that I can encourage you to keep making the work that you make, despite the hardship and risk. But in turn, I need your energy and support to help me to keep going. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

My artistic work and that of my colleagues deserves support. And if anyone in the world should be the first in line cheering me on, encouraging me, and exchanging with me, it should be my people, because this work is made for and about my people. If there is a single group of people anywhere in the world whose sole mission is to reflect what your life circumstances, your beauty and brilliance and accomplishments are and always have been and will continue to grow to become, it is us: the independent African filmmakers.

Tanzania’s first president, Mwalimu Nyerere said: “A [wo]man is developing [her]self when [s]he grows, or earns, enough to provide decent conditions for [her]self and [her] family; [s]he is not being developed if someone gives [her] these things.”

So who are your modern day freedom fighters? Do you know their names? Have you sought their work out? Have you heard of Rama Thiaw? Teddy Goitom? Ng’endo Mukii? Idil Ibrahim? Ekwa Msangi? Alain Gomis? And that is only to name but a very small handful of incredible film artists—there are so many more that I could mention.

I invite you all to learn about an African filmmaker today. Not just the ones whose names pop up in the media or on Netflix from time to time, but the ones who are trying hard to sharpen their skills and refine their thoughts so that they may speak with clarity and truth about who we are as a people, what we’ve been through and the many possibilities of where we’re going next.

Come find us, we want to meet you. We want to exchange with you. We’ve been thinking about you for a long time, you’ve inspired our work and we’re fighting hard to tell the world about you. It’s time to take matters into our own hands.

Aluta Continua!

Ekwa Msangi is a writer, director and producer who is most recently known for her award-winning commedy, 'Soko Sonko (The Market King).' She is currently in post-production on her short film, Farewell Meu Amor, starring Tony Award nominee, Sahr Ngaujah and Nana Mensah of 'An African City.' You can keep up with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Headshot by Nadia Kist Photography.
Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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