Young, Black and Uber-Talented: Kenyan Filmmaker Silas Miami is Off to the Oscars
Silas Miami on Supa Modo as Kenya's submission to the 91st Academy Awards and the future of artmaking in Africa.
Kenyan-born, Cape Town-based artist, Silas Miami, is the future of African art. He is a filmmaker, musician and photographer with an eye like no other. His most recent feature film, Supa Modo, set and shot on location in Kenya, was submitted to the 91st Academy Awards (the Oscars baby!) by Kenya alongside Rafiki, a tremendous feat given his young age. Silas is also the author of an award-winning photographic monograph, Onthou Atlantis, a stunning collection of visuals with ebullient colors. He's also released an EP, Withdrawal Symptoms, written both in English and Swahili, which has had great airplay in Kenya.
We caught up with him to talk about how he's fast becoming a trailblazer in the creative industry, his hopes for future African artmaking and how he thinks the continent can grow.
We're going to start off with Supa Modo. Just briefly, tell us what the film is about and also what inspired the project itself.
The film is about a 9-year-old girl who has terminal cancer and who desperately wants to be a superhero. It follows her journey and how she brings her community together to make her dreams come true and explicates the beauty of what happens when people come together to make a little girl's dream come true.
Why was it important for you to tell that story?
My co-writers and I wanted to remind Kenyans what we were about and who you were intrinsically. We're a community that goes to the ends of the world to make sure that we're all okay. We'll always make sure that we're all valued and that we feel like we belong and those values have kind of been eroded at the moment.
Do you think that the finished product that is Supa Modo is the version that you had initially dreamed up?
The broad strokes, yes, but we made very many changes. We wanted to make it extremely sad and somber. When we realized that the hack was trying to tell this really serious story of a young girl who has a death sentence upon her, through the prism of humor, it worked out pretty well.
Supa Modo is Kenya's submission to the 91st Academy Awards in the category of Best Foreign Film. How did you feel the moment you realized that that had happened?
I dropped my phone and started weeping like a child. It felt like every ounce of energy, blood and sweat we put into the project had been validated. I know we don't seek validation when we put out the work, but it's great to know that people appreciate the effort and the story and that it means something to someone and to our country.
It's been a while since that moment. Does it still feel surreal or have you accepted that this is what happened and eased into that reality?
You know, if you've been in this industry long enough, you know that you're only as good as your last work. So I'm grateful that Supa Modo has been selected, but I very easily moved on to the next project. I also want to imbue the same heart into my next project.
There is the sentiment that Africans aren't telling their own stories and so someone else (inevitably Westerners) do. What is your take on that?
I don't think there's a simple answer to that. Making films is incredibly expensive and the people who usually come with the money are or have Western interests. Supa Modo is a German-Kenyan co-production. South Africa is particularly unique though in that there's a lot of support from government and support that is freely given which is wonderful, but, in other African spaces, it's a little more difficult to make films.
Why do you think Nigeria and its Nollywood has managed to flip the script?
The trick with Nigeria is that the people bought into their own stories. I think the challenge here is to try and get buy-in from African audiences who believe that their stories are worth watching. Africans don't believe in their stories as much as they should. But now we're telling our audiences, "Look, we're experts at this. We've developed expertise and we know how to tell these stories. Come and watch your stories. We promise to tell them well."
I'm thinking of the South African film Inxeba: The Wound. There was a huge furor around that and a desire to censor creative expression. What did you think about that?
I think that socially we have somewhere to go in shedding a lot of the harm that has been done to us pre- and post-colonially. Some of the belief systems that we have entrusted our lives in, have kind of modeled a way of life that is, however, rapidly changing. There's this rejection to the change that I'm sensing.
And the same with Rafiki as well, a Kenyan production, right?
Yes. We need to interrogate our relationship with queerness when bringing it into the frame. Rafiki, for instance, was banned in Kenya for centering a queer narrative. Stories of Our Lives was also banned in Kenya for centering a queer narrative. Queer stories barely get traction within the continent. I think there's a larger conversation that's opening up. But that's the reason we do what we do, so that we can have these uncomfortable conversations.
What kind of stories do you personally want to tell?
I think the base answer for that is I just want to tell stories that wouldn't otherwise have been told, stories of the disenfranchised people in our community. And, you know, I happen to occupy certain parts of that. I'm a Black man existing in the world, that comes with its own challenges.
Being African and Black, did you ever to have to convince your family that artmaking was something you wanted to pursue and pursue seriously, not just as an extracurricular activity?
Yeah. I certainly tried to convince my mother but she swiftly kicked me out of her house. I mean, we're on wonderful terms now and she's one of my best friends. But at the time, it didn't make sense to her. To the previous generation, art was completely de-centered and eventually led to you either getting a drug addiction or pregnancy and so you ended up being a cautionary tale.
What are some of the things that excite you about the art that is being produced on this continent at the moment?
I think some of the most exciting stuff that I'm seeing is contemporary African content that has no link to trauma whatsoever which is just so glorious because for a long time our narrative has always been trauma. And don't get me wrong, the trauma is very visceral. It's here. It's present. We deal with it every day. Some of us stop dealing with it and that's also a valid response to it. But we are more than our trauma.