If you go to the AFI FEST website, and select Film Guide from the navigation menu, you will find all of the festival’s sections laid out before you, with an image from one film highlighting each. It should come as no surprise that Nairobi Half Life has been selected to represent the ‘Breakthrough’ section of the guide. Not to discount the greatness of the other five films in the section but after viewing Nairobi Half Life it is hard to imagine any other film being as remarkable–although I am sure they all have their respective merits, and I will discover those when the festival runs November 1-8, much to my excitement. For now I will share with you the fascinating and brilliant accomplishment in filmmaking that is Nairobi Half Life.
Taking place in a wide variety of locations in Kenya, including Nairobi itself, or as the filmmakers refer to it, Nairobbery, Nairobi Half Life begins as any self discovery picture would: in a rural village outside the main city where a young man of nineteen dreams of becoming more than his small village life can provide. Mwas wants to be an actor, and he showcases his talents at any given moment, reciting lines from the film 300 in front of a crowd, while wearing his vest made out of movie posters. Mwas’ smile, his deep passion for the craft, and unwavering positive spirit instantly draw the viewer to him. Played impeccably by Joseph Wairimu, Mwas is the heart of the story, and the conflict. He ventures to Nairobi hoping to secure a new and successful life as an actor, and finds the big city is just as his mother warned him it would be, “as rotten as Babylon.” To survive he must become those which hurt him upon arrival, a thief. But his dreams are never forgotten, forging an incredible depth to Mwas’ character and creating a character arc that is extremely complicated yet portrayed without extreme elaboration or melodramatic flare. The authenticity of Mwas’ life in Nairobi, as an actor and a gang member, is shown matter of factly, but with a distinct glossy flare to the filmmaking–credit to be attributed to the backstory of how Nairobi Half Life was made (more on that below).
Nairobi Half Life does not dwell on the negative plight of Mwas. In fact, his life as a thief supplies him with friends, a makeshift family, a home, and a love interest who also dreams of escaping her reality as a prostitute for greater things. Just as his life as an actor fulfills him, gives him friends who have a different perspective on life, and hope for a better future. It is the dichotomy of the two sides of Mwas’ created life in Nairobi that entrances the viewer. By night he may be stealing spare parts with his gang of thieves, led by the one man who embraced him upon arriving in Nairobi, Oti (Olwenya Maina), and then spending the next day bargaining a better rate with the buyer of their loot. Just as easily, and within hours of his illegal acts he will be on stage rehearsing for his first stage debut alongside well-bred and educated actors. People who live a more civilized life, while fighting through art an end to the ignorance that plagues Kenya, the blind-eye to the problems, the poverty, and the corruption of government. Mwas is both sides of Nairobi, he stands for the city, having lived life on both sides of the pendulum. Experiencing him balance the two, the intenseness of his criminal life versus the untroubled life on the stage creates an undoubtable meaningful experience in watching Nairobi Half Life–you need to see it to fully grasp the greatness, the discussion it will create, and the ending–an ending that will leave you gasping as everything collides together and Mwas’ state of being is shattered and extricated.
About the making of Nairobi Half Life:
A collaboration between One Fine Day Films and Kenyan based production company Ginger Ink, partnering with DW Akademie came the creation of a two-module training initiative for filmmakers. The first module comprising of a “mini film school” of already practicing African filmmakers. The workshops were held in Nairobi, Kenya from September 20th to October 1, 2010 with 55 participants from 5 African countries. From the participants a team was assembled to shoot Nairobi Half Life four weeks later.
The script includes a mixture of Swahili, Kikuyu and a street slang known as Sheng–plus English thrown in along the way as well. Written by “local scriptwriters Serah Mwihaki, Potash and Sam Munene, under the supervision of Soul Boy author Billy Kahora and producer Tom Tykwer” (Cloud Atlas). With a cast and crew of over 80 people, Nairobi Half Life was shot over the course of 24 days. The film marks the directorial debut of Kenyan director Tosh Gitonga.
Given the remarkable story, impeccable direction by Tosh Gitonga, gorgeous cinematography by Mohamed Zain, realism in production design constructed by Barbara Minishi, and outstanding performances by all involved, especially Jospeh Wairimu (Mwas), Olwenya Maina (Oti), and Nancy Wanjiku Karanja (Amina), it is with great anticipation I await to see another film featuring any of the cast and crew of Nairobi Half Life. Until then, I will merely have to see it again at AFI FEST, and I expect to see a full-house of attendees besides me (yes, that means you).
**Festival film page: Breakthrough: Nairobi Half Life
Country: Kenya | Germany