Kenya’s First Documentary to Vie for Oscars

A few years ago, the Kenya Film Commission formed a committee that meets every single year to select a film, from a number of submissions, to submit to The Oscars. Film commissions from different countries around the world look through different entries to do the same.

Nairobi Half Life was one of Kenya’s first entries to be submitted to The Oscars.

And now The Letter is Kenya’s first documentary to be submitted to the 93rd Academy Awards for Best International Film.

It’s one of the 90 films that have been selected in the same category.

From the 90 international films, members of The Academy will select 12 films. From here, the 12 will be whittled down to the shortlist – which is the prestigious list announced for voting, before the night of the Oscars where the Best International Film will be announced.

Synopsis

The 81-minute film is an intimate family portrait that reveals the indestructible nature of female power.

Karisa’s city life is interrupted when his grandmother back home is called a witch on Facebook. Returning to his rural village to investigate, he finds a frenzied mixture of consumerism and Christianity is turning hundreds of families against their elders, branding them as witches as a ploy to steal their ancestral land.

Karisa’s grandmother, Margaret, is a respected elder of her church, and spends her days cultivating her fields to feed her family. His uncles claim that she is worshipping the devil, and demand she be exorcised by their Pentecostal priests.

Karisa’s strong-willed aunties, however, are doing everything they can to protect their mother. As he delicately navigates between his disputing relatives, the love for his grandmother must overcome the imminent danger of the accusations against her.

The inevitable universal theme of how land is divided when an elder dies is entangled by the chaotic mixture of traditions of the past with the newly imposed influence of western values and religion. The understated power of women, alongside the resilience of family and community shines above all else, despite the growing threat of greed and inter-generational alienation.

Production

The Letter was made by the husband-and-wife team of Christopher King, a filmmaker, and Maia Lekow, a filmmaker and musician.

Born and raised in Nairobi, Maia’s roots stem from the Kenyan Coast, her father’s ancestral homeland, where the film is set. She met Christopher while studying in Melbourne, Australia and they both settled in Nairobi in 2007 to set up a film and music production company, Succulent Square Production, collaboratively creating a stream of albums, video-art, music videos and performance tours.

In 2013, the film’s production process began after Chris and Maia saw an advert where East African Documentary Film Fund, Docubox, had put out a call for filmmakers from East Africa to apply for a development grant.

Docubox, the first film fund in the region, was founded in 2013 by award-winning filmmaker, writer and producer Judy Kibinge.

She says, “It was initially founded to support documentary film-making, but we’ve been supporting short fiction films of late as well.

“We started off by making an open call looking for 12 strong films to support and grant USD 2,500 (Sh276, 425) for the trailer in 2013. The Letter was one of the 12 selected from 35 applications that were submitted.”

After submitting the trailer, Chris and Maia were then one of the six who were shortlisted to receive a further USD 20,000 (Sh2.2 million) grant for the entire film.

“That’s when we set out to research the story of the female freedom fighter Mekatilili, an elderly priestess from the coast of Kenya who led an armed uprising against the British in 1913,” recalls Maia.

Fighting the confiscation of her people’s ancestral land by the colonialists, Mekatilili was eventually imprisoned and persecuted as a witch.

As the duo spoke with many elders about the oral history, they were saddened to hear of violence happening against the elderly in the area, due to an outbreak of witchcraft accusations.

“With local press reporting more than 10 murders every month, these accusations were said to be used as a cover-up for hundreds of family disputes over land, inheritance and religion. Many elders have been displaced, others killed, and many more threatened with anonymous letters,” Chris adds.

With regular press reports going largely unnoticed in the 24-hour news cycle, Chris and Maia felt an urgency to share this story through a character-led, feature documentary, to help instigate some important conversations. Maia says, “While a range of grassroots projects and government initiatives are supporting displaced elders, we felt the need for a better psycho-spiritual understanding of what was causing these families to turn on themselves.

“We saw the killings as a modern manifestation of the violent colonial past in the area, worsened over time by a disconnected post-independent government, rising evangelism and cut-throat capitalism. In family structures across the world, land is usually owned by the elder, the most respected member of the family, and we knew this story must be told intimately, through the interpersonal lens of a single family.” In 2015, they met Karisa Kamango, who had recently received information from his cousins about an accusation of an elder in their family.

“For us, this was interesting because we had two years of footage, many interviews and cultural exchanges, yet we hadn’t found a personal and intimate story, which is what we really looked for,” says Maia. Together with Karisa, Maia and Chris went back to Kaloleni, where they were “met warmly by Karisa’s grandmother and spent a lot of time with his family”. Born in 1925, the couple was enamoured by Margaret’s fearless spirit, despite the hurt and disbelief of the dangerous accusations against her, made by the children she helped raise.

“A respected member of her Anglican Church, Grandma would nevertheless walk down the hill every day to prepare her land for the next harvest. Her field being the place she knew best, the place where she could escape gossip and judgment and do what she has always done best – harvest and provide for her family,” explained Chris.

“What also made Grandma’s story important to us,” Maia added, “was the presence of her strong-willed, independent daughters and wider church community, who would come to her rescue in a highly volatile environment.”

Each person in the film faces extreme personal risk by openly discussing the taboos around witchcraft, and it’s both Maia and Chris’ hope that the bravery of this family can help break the silent cycle of violence that continues to wreak havoc among families across the region.

The team

Chris and Maia co-directed and co-produced The Letter. As a musician, Maia didn’t see her voice playing a role in the film. But after much experimenting with Chris and editor Ricardo Acosta, she struck a nerve in the fables and lullabies of the region.

Writing most songs with guitar and vocals, Maia then teamed up with Emmy-winning, Toronto-based composer Ken Myhr who helped her build an intensely orchestral sonic landscape.

The film’s executive producers are Judy Kibinge and Peter Mudambo, both from Docubox, as well as Cynthia Cane from the United States. They also worked with Angela Wamae, a Kenyan editor.

The Oscar submission

“The Oscar submission was thanks to a push by a wonderful cohort of filmmakers we work with. We applied to the Kenyan Oscars’ committee that comprises 10 different creatives, who are on a board chaired by Krysteen Savane – a Kenyan producer.” Maia says, “I feel that The Letter was a really strong film with a story that everyone can connect to. It’s about a Kenyan family and it had a Kenyan crew.”

“It’s such a great honour for Maia and I not only to have this Oscar nomination, but to be the first Kenyan documentary to be submitted. We are truly honoured,” countered Chris. “We are now trying to think of the next steps to lobby people in the Oscars’ world to get to watch the film and get to vote.”

The premiere

The Letter premiered at the International Documentary Film-festival, IDFA, the largest documentary festival in Europe in November last year.

Since then, it has competed in international awards and has been screened in various prestigious online festivals like DOC NYC, Docs Barcelona, Film Africa U.K., Encounters Documentary Festival in South Africa, Melbourne International Film Festival, AFI Docs, Dok.fest M√ľnchen in Germany, Tall Grass Film Festival and the Denver Film Festival.

The film is also in competition for a number of awards including the Horizonte Competition, One World Media Awards, Durban International Film Festival, Santa Fe Independent Film Festival and the New Orleans Film Festival.

“We are bringing it home for the final run, where we shall be releasing the film in cinemas on December 11 till the beginning of January.

“I think The Letter is an excellent film. I can’t wait until Kenyans are able to see it — it will change their view of documentary films.

“Most people think documentaries are boring and purely educational, but the drama in The Letter is surreal. You’re looking at characters allowing you to follow their lives for years on end. It’s about watching someone’s life in such depth,” says Judy.

“As filmmakers,” Chris pointed out, “we can’t offer solutions, but we have tools to create a powerful forum for conversation. No matter whether you are accused of witchcraft or not, we have a responsibility to take our future in our own hands.”

“Nothing can justify the killing of another person. How do we move the conversation beyond the question of witchcraft, and ask instead, “What we are doing to protect our elders, and honour the traditions that we come from?”

Chris and Maia are already in development of another film, How to Build A Library, about the story of a dilapidated colonial library in downtown Nairobi, and the two inspiring women who are reinventing the space to make it relevant to Kenyans today.

kmuriuki@ke.nationmedia.com

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