By Lisa Bluett
There is sweat dripping down my back, sliding uncomfortably down my spine. I’m sitting in a jam-packed movie cinema at the annual Durban International Film Festival. The lights are about to come back on- where the cast, director and producer of the film ‘Nairobi Half Life’ will stand before a beaming audience, smiling as they anticipate the accolades.
The film is a collaborative effort supported by One Fine Day Films. The team standing before me are much deserved of the hoots and whistles they’re receiving from the crowd for all their hard work. For days on after I hear the rants and raves about how great it was to watch the film. But like a bad taste in the mouth that makes you wince, I just could not accept the general consensus that the film was amazing. So why do I feel like a traitor?
A first for director David Tosh Gitonga, the film speaks volumes. I’m no critic but even I can see it. The technical proficiency is outstanding- from the selected camera shots, scenes, and the consistency in keeping audience members on the edge of their seats. The script is humorous and the narrative boasts all the right nuances which develop the film into a well-rounded success. The main character takes audience members on a journey, reaching a profound moralistic epiphany which evokes genuine feeling and meaning in its intention. Winning the best actor award, the international judges and the audience recognised the skilfulness in Joseph Wairimu’s performance. And still, something feels horribly wrong- I’m the only person not clapping in row D.
Let me map out my dilemma: A fellow director in the crowd comments, “This film is great, it’s exactly how it is in Laos-Nigeria”. In other words, all the women are either prostitutes or Madonna figures. The only way to survive is to steal. And how you deal with that- you find a gun, join a band of thug-brothers and if you’re lucky you make it out alive, you fulfil your dreams of success despite the odds being against you. In the awards ceremony Best Actor is given on the premise that the main character’s performance “embodies the hunger of Kenyan youth hoping to carve out better lives for themselves”. My question then is, what message is the film giving out by showing that crime does indeed pay in the end, that loss is exponential in Africa in terms of the value of human life and when notions of femininity and masculinity are rigorously reinforced and left unchallenged in the way they represent the ‘modern’ African street culture.
This film made me angry- because I am a woman, because I am a feminist and because I am an African. At times the film confuses humour with drama: where I felt tears should be pouring, the crowd was roaring with laughter. In one scene a woman is hijacked while still half in the car and around me a sea of laugher erupts. Violence against women should never be a laughing matter. EVER.
There was a lack of equality in terms of representation. The lead character, Mwas, fulfils his dream of being an actor in the end but as for the woman he falls for, her dreams are simply a side note. She wants to study but has no other means than to prostitute herself and worse still, we never get to find out if she gets anywhere. She’s just shunted to the side-lines, left hanging in the ether as the credits role.
The notions of masculinity represented also call into question what kinds of behaviour our society condones from men seeking success. In the end the main character whimsically rattles out a predictable speech that disappointingly fails to address the issue at hand: violence is not the only way to get anywhere if you are a young black male living in a corrupt city. Instead of subtly offering critiques of the stereotypes portrayed in the film, my feeling was that many of the stereotypes were reinforced. Audience members were thus left with little scope to evaluate the messages coming across through the screen and could do little more than laugh frivolously and be pleasantly entertained by the thrills and spills of the film.
What I’m trying to say overall is just because a film can reach out and grab your funny bone doesn’t mean we should tolerate the underlying messages it conveys. Just because a film was well made or a performance was good which sets a precedent as an African film, doesn’t mean we should automatically applaud it. If this film is truly intended to find resonance with the youth in Africa, it requires further depth in challenging the very stereotypes it depicts. There also needs to be a fine line between comedy and drama especially where sensitivity is required in relation to violence and the treatment of women. On the level of representation, films often fall short of the advanced level of rhetoric required to overcome patriarchy and hegemonic notions of masculinity.
Perhaps cinematic codes (like an audience’s applause) need to be rewritten? Perhaps there can be a way to commend a film on its achievements stylistically without accepting what the film portrays?