Photo courtesy of the filmmaker

In her Debut Film, Angela Wamai Confronts Trauma and Seeks Healing

The Kenyan filmmaker chose to explore the heavy subject of sexual abuse for her first feature but that hasn’t stopped audiences from engaging with the film’s pressing themes.

In Shimoni, the accomplished debut feature film by Kenyan filmmaker Angela Wanjiku Wamai, a former schoolteacher, Geoffrey (Justin Mirichii giving a revelatory, intensely layered performance), struggles to reintegrate into society after he is released from prison. Dispatched to the village where he grew up, Geoffrey, who was put away for committing a terrible crime, must begin to reckon head on with the demons from his past.

Shimoni – loosely translated from Swahili as "The Pit" – is a stark but involving drama, shot in ravishing takes and presented with Wamai’s distinct eye for detail and precision. It is a style that she traces back to her successful career as a film editor. Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, Wamai attended film school in Havana, Cuba before returning home to set up her professional career. An alumnus of Talents Durban, the Durban FilmMart’s joint development programme with the Berlinale, Wamai has earned editing credits on acclaimed titles such as New Moon directed by Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann and No Simple Way Home by Akuol de Mabior.

Despite the bleakness of its themes, and its confrontation of ethical complexities – or because of these – Shimoni has been a hit on the festival circuit since it first premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The film has had well-received turns at the International Film Festival, Rotterdam and at Fespaco, where Wamai received the Bronze Stallion, the festival’s third prize. It makes its U.S. premiere this weekend at the AFI’s New African Film Festival.

OkayAfrica spoke with Wamai via Zoom about the difficulties of making Shimoni, and the cyclical nature of trauma.

SHIMONI Trailer – 2023 New African Film

How did the idea of Shimoni begin taking shape into a practical film?

It was birthed from this idea of a danger that cannot be avoided, and is demanding to be confronted head on. I worked on the writing for a long time because I was also trying to fundraise at the same time. I only seriously started writing in late 2017, early 2018. By 2019, I had worked with a screenwriting mentor for about six months. In 2020, we got some funding from a local investor but then COVID happened and we couldn’t do anything. We didn’t start pre-production until 2021. Because it is a micro-budget production, we had to figure out a smart way to make the film without killing ourselves in the process.

This meant having a short production process bookended by really long pre- and post-production activities. People were taking on dual or even triple roles, just to make it work. For instance, I knew I could take on the baggage of editing the film. We had about two months of rehearsals and pre-production, six months of post while we shot for about 15 days. It was crazy but we were able to finish in May last year.

An image of a man wearing a clerical collar looking unnerving or menacing.Actor Sam Psenien is part of the cast of Angela Wamai’s debut feature, ‘Shimoni,’ which was shot in the Kenyan village of the same name.Photo courtesy of the filmmaker

It makes sense that you talk about rehearsals because there is a precision with the film that suggests you know exactly what you want to say with each scene.

That is one of the things that comes out of working with a micro budget, you have to be extremely thorough and precise. My style is minimalism, and I guess this comes from my editing background. I do not like cutting, the less I cut the happier I am. I knew we needed to get exactly what we needed ahead of the shoot so we worked with the actors, particularly the lead, Justin [Mirichii] for a long time doing rehearsals.

It is a difficult story, and he needed to be vulnerable. We spent a lot of time just figuring out his emotional palettes in every scene, breaking them down and trying to understand his motivations. We also worked on the storyboard for a long time. The DoP [director of photography], Andrew Mungai, was involved with these conversations. The sound person, as well, so when we were shooting, we knew exactly where the characters were at each moment in time. That is where the precision comes from.

Shimoni captures rural living so acutely; the sense of community, but also the inability to stay out of the next person’s business.

As a filmmaker, I want to avoid cities because we have seen Nairobi enough, let’s move on! I grew up in the city so whenever my mum tells me stories about growing up in the village, it feels like a really nice place with lovely, ordinary-seeming people. But when she really gets into the stories and the gossip, I am like, “Oh my God, so dramatic!” I was interested in how the villagers are so close and connected, and have meetings, and come out to help one another. But there is also this other side that is totally ratchet, and they all know each other’s business. That duality fascinates me.

For ‘Shimoni,’ director Angela Wamai worked with actors, including Justin Mirichii, for two months doing rehearsals to get exactly what she wanted for the shoot.

An image of a man sitting in the dark, wearing gumboots, looking forlorn.For ‘Shimoni,’ director Angela Wamai worked with actors, including Justin Mirichii, for two months doing rehearsals to get exactly what she wanted for the shoot.Photo courtesy of the filmmaker.

The church is also particularly influential in rural communities like the one where Shimoni is set, and you do not run away from this.

The film is about sexual abuse. And we cannot ignore the Catholic church’s history, or complicity in this scourge. But beyond religion for a moment, it is often easy to speak out about wrongdoings elsewhere while ignoring similar behavior in our own immediate circles. I wanted to explore the concept of public versus private crimes. With the public crimes, the church is willing to confront them, and we have the Bible and the ten commandments to guide us. But when it comes to a thing like sexual abuse, no one wants to deal with that, and so it stays private.

This I find disingenuous because if I hurt you – physically or emotionally – it is the same thing, you are hurt. I wanted to make that commentary about the church in Africa because I feel like there is an inertia when it comes to dealing with sexual abuse. But I also wanted to avoid the cliché of having the priest be the central perpetrator. Because whether it is the priests being perpetrators or the silence of the church enabling perpetrators, I feel like it is the same hurt.

The story is quite bleak, I must say, do you fear you are going to lose audiences?

I still am quite worried because I know people who come to the movies want to feel some sense of closure, and it is debatable if this film has offered this closure by the end. I spent nine years researching Shimoni, and I recall speaking with a particular survivor about his experience. He was abused at about age eight, and when I spoke with him, he was in his forties, but he was still not in a good place.

His marriage was falling apart, and there was still a lot of trauma there. Thinking about him and all of the other stories I came across, there is a tragedy there in the silence that we embrace as Africans. When we tell people they must never speak about their trauma, that is like negating its existence and denying it ever happened. So I felt it would be very insincere to insert a neat, happy ending.

Photo by Sundance Film Institute

Nine Highlights of 2023 New African Film Festival

The festival, which is run by the American Film Institute, has a crop of outstanding, must-see African films on offer this year.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the New African Film Festival (NAFF), which is presented by the American Film Institute and Africa World Now Project. The event, which takes place in Washington, D.C, and is currently on until March 30th, features African movies from a wide range of countries on the continent, showcasing some of the most talked-about films currently playing.

Featuring 30 films from 22 countries, including six U.S. premieres, this year's festival is a solid example of a Pan African film festival at its best – playing host to a number of films making their U.S. premiere. From Egyptian American filmmaker Sherief Elkatsha's music documentary Far From the Nile, to Angolan filmmaker Ery Claver's urban fairytale Our Lady of the Chinese Shop; from Kenyan filmmaker Angela Wanjiku's drama Shimoni, to the Cannes-selected documentary A Daughter’s Tribute to Her Father: Souleymane Cisse, in which filmmaker Fatou Cissé explores the life of her pioneering filmmaker father.

But the festival is also a great chance to catch up on those African films that have been fast-gaining attention at film festivals across the world. OkayAfrica presents our round-up of highlights to look out for at this year’s New African Film Festival.

Bobi Wine: Ghetto President

BOBI WINE: THE PEOPLE’S PRESIDENT Trailer – 2023 New African Film

Bobi Wine brought Ugandan politics and red berets to the red carpet of the Venice Film Festival last year, hoping to attract a broader interest in his mission to end dictatorial rule. Bobi Wine: Ghetto President opens the New Africa Film Festival, and continues his mission to bring attention to the issues going on in his home country.

Billed as an ‘observational documentary,’ the film brings Wine’s story – how he rose from the informal settlement of Kamwokya and became a music star – together with his pursuit of justice and democracy in Uganda. It traces the start of his grassroots political campaign, and centers the support he receives from his wife, Barbie, in all his endeavors. While Ghetto President details Uganda and Wine's specific struggle for democracy, the film resonates far beyond his homeland.

Mami Wata

MAMI WATA Clip – 2023 New African Film

C.J. Obasi is currently living his best life, as Mami Wata continues to thrill audiences wherever it is shown. One of seven filmmakers who debuted their films at Sundance that the LA Times is following for the year, the Nigerian director has been finding much success with his third feature. Obasi wanted to bring the legend of the Mami Wata folklore, a terrifying mermaid goddess popular across West Africa, to the big screen after he saw a vision of the mythical water spirit. His black and white fable has been lauded by early audiences who’ve seen the film, and it won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematography at Sundance.

Our Father, The Devil

OUR FATHER, THE DEVIL Clip – 2023 New African Film

Cameroon-born director Ellie Foumbi’s outstanding first feature film earned her a Film Independent Spirit nomination for best feature and it’s absolutely clear to see why. A mesmerizing performance from Babetida Sadjo ensures audiences remain on the edge of their seats for the entire film. Sadjo plays a former child soldier, living in a remote French village, who has to confront her violent past when a priest comes into her life. It’s the kind of film that lingers long after the credits have rolled, and an essential watch for any African cinephile.

No U-Turn

NO U-TURN Trailer – 2023 New African Film

Twenty-seven years ago, Nollywood filmmaker Ike Nnaebue set out on an elaborate journey, attempting to get from Lagos to Europe, first by road to Morocco, and then by boat to cross the Mediterranean. He got as far as The Gambia when he made a U-turn. The experiences he had up until then, and the lessons he learned on his aborted mission fill this personal documentary, which premiered in Berlin last year, where it was a hit in the Panorama section of the film festival. Nnaebue’s film centers on his story, but he also attempts to understand the minds of young people who wish to make a similar journey, leading to many insights about migration.

Bravo, Burkina!

BRAVO, BURKINA! Trailer – 2023 New African Film

Walé Oyéjidé’s various creative talents are brought together in this film, his debut feature. “It’s the best sandbox in which to play,” he told OkayAfrica when the film premiered at Sundance earlier this year. Bravo, Burkina! builds on what Oyéjidé hinted at in his short film After Migration: Calabria, which tells the story of two refugees settling in Italy. A sumptuous film, full of vibrant color and textures you can almost feel through the screen, the film makes good on the Nigerian-born director’s aim to pay homage to the many cultures he’s experienced and people he’s met on his journey in life so far.

No Simple Way Home

NO SIMPLE WAY HOME Trailer – 2023 New African Film

Akuol de Mabior made history last year when she became the first director to bring a film from South Sudan to the Berlin Film Festival. The model-turned-filmmaker, who was born in Cuba and raised in Kenya, had the idea to make a film about her family’s story for quite some time before she decided to take a leap and do it.

Her father was John Garang de Mabior, former rebel commander of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, who became vice president when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, following 22 years of civil war between north and south. But he died 21 days later, and so the film follows his widow, and de Mabior’s mother, Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, – a leader in her own right – as she continues her late husband’s push for peace. By the end of the film, you’ll feel like you’re part of de Mabior’s family.

Public Toilet Africa

PUBLIC TOILET AFRICA Clip – 2023 New African Film

With its provocative title, Public Toilet Africa, or Amansa Tiafi, is a labor of love and protest for Ghanaian filmmaker Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah. He wrote, directed, produced, and edited the film, which presents a commentary on societal ills that are usually left to operate in private. The film interweaves strands of different storylines, tethered by the revenge mission of Ama, the film’s protagonist, who was given as “a gift” to a white family when she was young and grew up to be their domestic worker. Committed to pursuing social change through film, Ofosu-Yeboah considers himself an offspring of Mambéty and Sembène, and this film shows how much he has to say.


CESÁRIA ÉVORA Trailer – 2023 New African Film

Filmmaker Ana Sofia Fonseca keeps the legendary Cape Verdean singer's memory alive in this documentary, which features never-before-seen footage and intimate moments captured on film. She began making the film in the aftermath of Cesária Évora’s passing, evoking a side of the Grammy-winning singer only witnessed by those close to her.

The film pays tribute to Évora, who rose to international fame in the mid-’90s with her melancholic morna ballads, and shares stories from those who knew her best – from her manager José da Silva to her granddaughter, Janete. Beyond her music, Fonseca paints a rich portrait of Évora as an artist with a deep love for the people around her, and reminds us just how much we’ve lost in her passing.

Under the Fig Tree

UNDER THE FIG TREE Trailer – 2023 New African Film

French Tunisian director Erige Sehiri’s film may not have earned an Oscar nomination for best international picture, as many critics thought it deserved, but it still is a win for Tunisian cinema. Immersing the audience in a day in the life of a group of fig pickers – many of them played by first-time actors – the film reveals, over the course of the hours that pass, the individual passions, predilections, and problems that exist for the pickers. Come for the swirling shots of leaves and branches, stay for the larger discourse on the role of men and women in society.

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