WANURI KAHIU, AFRICA’S RISING FILM MAKER

Jereaghogho Efeturi Ukusare

Born in Nairobi, Kenya. She currently lives between Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya. In an interview with Vogue Italia, the filmmaker describes herself as a black sheep to her conservative parents; her mother is a doctor and her father a businessman. Yet, her aunt is a famous actress in Kenya and her uncle is a sculptor. At the age of 16, Kahiu says she decided to become a filmmaker. After graduating from the University of Warwick in 2001 with a BSc degree in Management Science, she obtained a Masters of Fine Arts degree in production/directing at the University of California, Los Angeles’s School of Theatre, Film and Television. Kahiu worked on the Italian Job and Phillip Noyce’s Catch a Fire.

Wanuri Kahiu

Her first feature film, From a Whisper received a total of twelve nominations and earned five awards at the 5th Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2009. The film fictionalizes the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. It tells the story of a young girl, Tamani, who loses her mother in the attack and is told by her father that her mother is missing when she is actually deceased. Tamani searches for her mother, painting hearts across the city, she also befriends a policeman named Abu. Abu helps Tamani as the viewers discover the shame he feels for not stopping his friend who helped attack the embassy. Film scholar, Clara Giruzzi highlights Kahiu’s display of an African feminist sensibility, displayed by the egalitarian relationships in the film, and the pacifict messages in the wake of national trauma, which challenge essentialist and universalist western perspectives of Africa.

Kahui 3

In her film Pumzi, she challenges the pessimistic representation of African realities and futures by using the aesthetics of Afrofutirism to demonstrate African-led creativity. It depicts the story of a young botanist Asha, thirty five years after World War III (aka the water war). Asha discovers life outside of her post-apocalyptic underground community. In her protectionist community, members must take dream suppressants to quiet hopes of a better future. Mitch Nyawalo argues that Pumzi’s destruction parallels the economic devastation in the aftermath of the World Bank’s structural adjustment programs. The film also displays an “ecofeminist critical posture” where women are most affected by environment devastation but also are at the forefront of bettering their societies.

Kahui 4

Omar Kholief, an art scholar, writes about Pumzi’s interpellation of Western understandings of Africa; “Kahiu’s film poses a poignant allegory in that it espouses an indirect commentary on imperial essentialism of the superficial Other. This is achieved by correlating the disenchantment that gave rise to science fiction with the perceived notions of Africa as a barren and impoverished social and geographic entity.”

African Studies Scholar MaryHellen Higgins describes the film’s “untraceable sound” suggesting “motion…without any visually perceivable movement” which “breaks the quiet stillness of a devastated, dead landscape”. The sound, MaryHellen Higgins, writes is “strange” like an “approaching storm.

A picture from a scene in the movie, Rafiki

Another film of hers, Rafiki chronicles the story of two Kenyan girls who fall in love with each other and struggle to navigate this love with their families in a homophobic society. Kahiu says that she chose to adapt Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko’s novel because of its “texture and nuances” in the taboo love story. Homosexuality in Africa has long been debated, but Kahiu says that homophobia is not of the spirit of Ubuntu since it marginalizes people in the community. Rafiki has been banned in Kenya by the Kenyan government, a strong supporter of Kahiu.

Kahiu criticises the ways in which Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) tend to control the popular imagination of Africa. She has expressed that how you get money to be able to be a filmmaker in Kenya is through making films about whatever NGOs are funding – films that are about AIDs or female genital mutilation. These images, Kahiu says, reconstitute Africa as the Other.

Wanuri Kahui and Jenna Bass

Directors Wanuri Kahui and Jenna Bass

Kahiu situates her work as a filmmaker making films about Africa to combat these images. She says her films are for the next generation: “Because we have children that we are bearing, and because there are people already here now who exist (my daughter exists now), that we are that we are telling stories to: we need to be very clear about the messages we’re putting out.”

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