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From Nairobi to Cannes – Wanuri Kahiu calls on female creatives to “persist in passions and dreams”

Born in Nairobi, Wanuri Kahiu is emblematic of a new generation of African filmmakers. Her films have received international acclaim and been screened at more than 100 film festivals around the world. Kahiu’s first feature film “From a Whisper,” based on the real events on twin bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, won Best Narrative Feature in 2010 at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles as well as five awards at the African Movie Academy Award including Best Director and Best Screenplay. In 2018, Wanuri’s second feature film “Rafiki,” initially banned in her native country due to its depiction of a same-sex relationship, made history as the first Kenya to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Kahiu is also a leading figure in the “Afrobubblegum,” an artistic movement she co-founded which aim to promote “a fun, fierce, and frivolous image” of Africa.

Published on 12.11.2020

What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Wanuri Kahiu: When I was sixteen, I walked into a TV production studio and I was instantly attracted. At that moment, I realized that I wanted to be a filmmaker or something related to content production. First I did my undergraduate degree in management, which had nothing to do with films. Later, I completed my Master’s degree in filmmaking. During my undergraduate studies, I have completed extra courses on films. At the age of 16, I knew what I wanted to do, and once you figured out that, the desire is always there and you won’t forget it.

Your film Rafiki was initially banned in Kenya. How do you think that creative expressions like Rafiki which sheds light on marginalized groups such as LGBTQ can bring about societal changes?

Wanuri Kahiu: We know the fact that Rafiki brings about change because it allows people to be seen, to be included, or to feel that they deserve to be seen. We often don’t see  marginalized groups and are not aware of their existence. I think that is very problematic because it cuts out such a wide section of humanity. The film is important because it does change hearts and minds. Some LGBT communities were able to use that film as a tool to start conversations with their family so that they could live their truths. The film gave people the courage to express themselves.

I think it is fundamental and helpful to mobilize ideas and discussions around the freedom of expression. Without the freedom of expression, we can’t talk about woman’s rights, handicapped rights, LGBT rights… there would be so many other human rights that are trampled on. The only thing that we can do and continue to do is to advocate like how I did through my film.

Your film Rafiki was funded by the Netherlands Film Fund. What kind of support can the public and private sector as well as the public provide to filmmakers?

Wanuri Kahiu: I think that if we want to see an inclusive world reflected in artistic creation, one thing that the audience can do is to buy tickets to watch films. If it’s on Netflix, watch it on Netflix – let it stream. It is necessary to do this for the data. If the data suggests that there is no interest in content on marginalized communities, the platforms may take them down. So whether you want to watch the particular content or not, if you want to support the diversity and inclusivity on the screen, just buy the ticket. You don’t have to watch the film on Netflix, just let it play. This is an important way of showing support. Data is crucial for the next steps for filmmakers. Studios decides whether to produce a film or not according to data and indicators. It becomes “financial censorship.” So what the audiences can do is to actively support filmmakers through buying tickets or watching it on streaming platforms.

What motivated you to create AfroBubbleGum and how does it influence your storytelling?

 Wanuri Kahiu: AfroBubbleGum is the advocacy of African joy. If we do not see images of black people enjoying themselves, having joy in their life, if all the images we see about ourselves are about despair or suffering, then how do we know we deserve joy and happiness? There has to be a change. So that we can say, look at our access to joy, to love and hope. There is a very clear need to improve black image for the world and especially among African people so that we know that we are more than capable and confident when we tell our stories and histories that are full of joy and resilience.

What are the challenges to female filmmakers? What measures could be taken to help women in this industry overcome gender inequality?

Wanuri Kahiu: I don’t think there is a helpful network set up for women joining the industry. It’s very hard. She has to prove herself in many ways while a male director won’t need to do that. So the important thing is to find female allies, mentors and collaborators who really support female filmmakers.

“You Are Next” funded a project in Palestine that provides digital audiovisual training to young women. Any advice to women who want to pursue a career in the film industry?

Wanuri Kahiu: There’s nothing but action. If you are interested in writing, then start writing now. If you are interested in filmmaking, take actions now. Everything is possible, even during this pandemic. We can even shoot with our phones. My recommendation is just to do it and to persist in your passions and dreams.

What are your thoughts on mentorship to empower women?

Wanuri Kahiu: I think employment is the most important way because people learn on the job – especially in the film industry, and more broadly in the culture sector. In Kenya and East Africa, since we have such an informal film industry, people have always learned what to do from those they work with. People acquire skills and experience by working and by making mistakes on the job. In the creative industries, employment is a mentorship in itself. It’s a job, and it is an education at the same time. Mentorship is helpful but employment is of great importance and has a much larger impact.