Judy Kibinge: African Filmmakers Don’t Have to Be Followers, We Can Be Leaders!
Judy Kibinge is an award-winning Kenya writer and filmmaker. With a background in advertising, Kibinge is the founder of Seven, a production outfit based in Nairobi. Her films include The Aftermath and Dangerous Affair, which has been described as ‘one of the most important films in Kenya’s film history’. She has also produced a number of documentaries, including A Voice In The Dark and Bless This Land. In our interview, Kibinge tells me why she thinks African filmmakers need to be leaders and not followers.
Belinda: How would you describe the current state of African cinema?
Judy Kibinge: Like many African filmmakers, I make both documentary and narrative films, and whilst initially better known for my narrative work, thanks to films like Dangerous Affair in 2002, which really redefined for aspiring Kenyan filmmakers the kinds of stories, we were “free” to tell. I have been recognised a lot in the last four or five years for films like Peace Wanted Alive, Coming of Age and Headlines in History, which are all documentary films. I find it difficult to generally talk about African Cinema because conditions are different in different countries. What’s happening in Nigeria isn’t what’s happening in South Africa, Egyptian Cinema is worlds away from Kenyan cinema, and to try and summarise it like that is to really simplify a fairly complex market. In Nigeria, I think what is beginning to happen may be the model for the future: Nollywood began as a frenzy of low budget videos, created by businessmen more than filmmakers, and now I feel that a very competitive market has begun to demand better quality and you see very well crafted and shot films beginning to emerge like Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine. Producers are beginning to really understand the need to do better. The old Francophone begging bowl model is unsustainable even though the films that come from that region are beautiful, and artistic, whose eye and whose tastes do they pander from? Who’s paying for those “high art” Francophone films? Who’s watching them? I think that filmmakers are beginning to really think about the stories they want to tell, how they are going to sustainably finance their creation, and so on. I’d therefore beware of a forced generalisation but would say and see this stage of African as a period of TRUE AWAKENING. Or maybe I’m just trying to sound romantic.
Belinda: And how you describe the current state of the film industry in Kenya?
Judy Kibinge: It’s very exciting. There are different kinds of filmmakers and different kinds of films are being made, which is great. I’ve begun to see a lot more people experimenting with shorts, more documentaries and more features. Ten years ago, we were lucky if one feature got made every four or five year. Now, there are a few each year, of varying production values. Riverwood, which is Kenyans answer to Nollywood is very vibrant and like Nollywood driven by the businessmen. They have pretty much cracked the distribution system for vernacular films in particular. They understand their market and have come up with methods to tackle piracy and somehow have their audiences understanding that they need to buy originals – and originals are available. These films are made for lower budgets and successful ones like The Race have had real and constant returns. On the other hand, there are the bigger budget films that the press writes about, films that do the festival rounds – From a Whisper by Wanuri Kahiu, Soul Boy by Hawa Essuman, Togetherness Supreme by Nathan Collette, Ndoto za Elbidi by Nick & Kamau wa Ndungu. These films aspire to be shown on the big screen, are shot more cinematically, have high production values, but the filmmakers really don’t understand their markets or have a distribution systems they can plug into. I include myself in that bracket of filmmakers.
Belinda: Is the international film market/industry now more open to narratives from the continent by Africans and on their terms?
Judy Kibinge: I think the international film market is always interested in new narratives be they from Africa, Asia, India, Korea, and Eastern Europe or wherever. I don’t think Africa is a special case. It’s the African filmmaker who has to start producing these films consistently so that we hit a critical mass of films that get our own local audiences used to buying and supporting and looking forward to our films. We can’t build an industry by solely focusing on satisfying an international itch, as gratifying as receiving global recognition and accolades is. I felt Viva Riva was and is a great film in that it has made the west sit up and will probably allow the filmmaker greater ease in accessing his next funding, and its also woken up international interest in African film. But can Viva Riva make back its money in its own region or continent? That is the question that really matters. A great case in point is the Oscar Winning film Tsotsi that reputedly did not achieve high ticket sales in South Africa, whereas Ralph Zimman’s Jerusalema, which didn’t get an Oscar managed to cover the cost of its production within its own market. Kunle Afolyan’s The Figurine made half of its $400,000 budget back within its own market, Nigeria in just a few weeks. When such film go onto DVD, the filmmaker can realistically look forward to asking a few million dollars back, because Nigerians love their own movies AND have a huge population and in the diaspora that will buy the film.
Belinda: Funding and distribution are still two very challenging areas for African filmmakers, why and how can this be corrected?
Judy Kibinge: Riverwood handling it very well, but larger budget films struggle, caught between the dream of cinema audiences and dwindling audiences, and the price competition when they go straight to DVD. Funding, South Africa has shown us all how a strong film commission is vital to the health of a strong film industry. Their mandate includes funding and training and South African filmmakers have multiple opportunities open to them thanks to a commission and industry that has lobbied government and I believe also private sector banks to look at films as investments with possibilities of huge returns. When you watch award winning independent features and shorts from Europe, America and Canada you are immediately aware of how many funds are available to filmmakers in their own countries, even those countries with vibrant industries. So government without a doubt has a role to play and will do that more once they realise what a huge economic opportunity a vibrant film sector is for the country and exchequer too. When we DO receive film funds they aren’t exclusive to our own countries, we are competing with the world for them. For instance, we applied to and didn’t get funding from last year’s Jan Vrieman documentary fund, with what we felt was an incredibly strong treatment, one which recently won the East African ZIFF documentary pitch. But when they wrote back explaining that only six percent of all applications manage to get selected, you realise that it might not be your skills as a filmmaker, but the opportunities for funding available to you. But let’s also examine ourselves and what WE can do. We too, as filmmakers have a role to play by joining and supporting our film associations and thus having strong bodies with which to advocate for the kinds of support we need. Our governments here in Africa are changing from the sleepy bearcats to occasionally open-minded ones. We need to take advantage too of the huge IT leaps being made in Africa and draw confidence from these huge leaps and realise we don’t have to always be followers, we can be leaders too. Maybe the answer to distribution will come from mobile phone content providers. After all, this continent uses its phones in the most innovative ways on the planet – Kenya invented the first mobile phone banking system, for instance, and that model is now being exported to the Western world. We just need and therefore use technology differently. So lets be open minded – the solutions are somewhere out there.
Belinda: How has setting up your own film company helped you to establish yourself as a filmmaker within Kenya and gain international recognition for your work?
Judy Kibinge: I freelanced for six years and have run a film company for five. The first five years were spent in a complete daze, totally traumatised by new terms like audited accounts and balance sheets and company secretary and all the things that you don’t have to deal with either as an employee or a freelancer. After the fourth year, you emerge, dazed, feel your hands, face, body to make sure your limbs have not been wrenched off you in the spiral through the 1000 days it takes to determine whether a business will sink or swim. I kid you not: it’s hard to be a filmmaker AND run your own production company; there are bills, rent, salaries and expenses. But on the other hand you are able to begin to build a credible brand and also begin to own your own work, shape your own projects and products. I think you can do this as a freelancer too, but having an office allows you to be able to bring in some of the corporate jobs that keep you going when you are not working on a creative film – which sadly, is most of the time. I am not sure if having a film company enables dreams or erects obstacles in front of them. The jury is out on that one! I think to be truly successful, my company would need to be home to a larger, but still select group of producer’s directors and editors who call it home and within it find a space to innovate and grow in, and also contribute to company overheads. Having a film company hasn’t helped, aided or prevented international recognition, but it’s been a place to get up and go to dream and plan and work from everyday and that can’t be a bad thing. I think sometimes, freelance filmmakers can waste a lot of time dreaming because there’s no fear of survival keeping them going. When you have a company, you have to justify your existence and so you keep producing so not a year goes by, ever, without having something to show for that year. You also feel a sense of pride that the thing you are building is something slightly larger than yourself. But I think you can achieve just as much far more even, without a company. In the end it all boils down to the films you make.
Belinda: What more can African filmmakers do to up their game?
Judy Kibinge: We as African filmmakers aren’t exposed to enough wonderful global independent films. They are hard to see or find. I have been very fortunate in last two years to have had some opportunity for the first time in my filmmaking career to see really see great art house films, and this will influence my next films I am certain. Sometimes there’s snobbery amongst African filmmakers who feel “we must find our own voice, we don’t have to watch other people’s thing”. I think that’s bollocks. Some of the best read people in the world are writers and novelists, and as African filmmakers, maybe we need to form small friendly film clubs and exchange the few DVDs we have amongst us so we begin to enjoy talking to each other about films and global film trends, so we become part of a larger brotherhood and sisterhood of filmmakers. We need to read more too. I think that reading informs so many things – films, structure and so on. We also need to be more aware of the world around us, the uniqueness of our stories. I have been watching Eastern European films lately and for instance watched a short Polish film about Killing. The landscape and the characters, I was totally glued. No wonder it won so many awards. But in our own backyards we have stories and backdrops and characters that would enthral not only our home-grown audiences, but the world. We need to have confidence in or surroundings to up our game.
To keep up to date with Judy Kibinge’s work, go to: Judy Kibinge – Vimeo
Photo credit: Andrew Njoroge