Filming in Hot Sun: Kenya, Kibera and the Power of the Image

By Piotr Cieplak

nathan-collett.jpgOn the set of Kibera Kid, 2006

Jua Kali means hot sun in Kiswahili, but it is more than just a term. It is a philosophy, a way of life and an informal economic system. The phrase describes people who work in Kenya’s scorching sun, because they cannot afford the luxury of a roof over their heads. They use whatever is at hand to make a living, anything from scraps of metal to items deemed useless by others and thrown away. This kind of sustenance and survival technique comes in handy in times of economic and political turmoil; and Kenya has seen a few of those.

The concept proved useful to Nathan Collett, an American-Australian filmmaker who named his Kenya-based production company Hot Sun Films and its charity offshoot Hot Sun Foundation. Collett took the idea of struggle amidst scarce resources quite literally, as there are easier places to make films than in one of Africa’s biggest slums – Nairobi’s Kibera.

Kibera is relatively small. At least a million people live in an area roughly the size of New York’s Central Park. Life is tough here. No electricity, no sewage system, no running water (unless someone manages illegally to hook up to a pipeline supplying downtown Nairobi) and just a few charities trying to provide what the government should.

Many of the dwellings here look pretty much the same – mud walls occasionally reinforced with cement, bits of corrugated iron for a roof, and the omnipresent heaps of rubbish. Narrow lanes wind up and down the hills of Kibera, seemingly without logic. Hand-painted portraits of Barack Obama decorate most of the tiny shop fronts, selling everything from small dried fish to kerosene and charcoal.

All this paints quite a clichéd picture, which is difficult for an outsider to get beyond, as Kibera is not really a walk-and-explore destination. With fifty-percent unemployment, social deprivation in abundance and tribal tension, topped with the availability of cheap Chang’aa (a potent local brew), even the Kenyan police rarely enter the slum.

Things got even worse in December 2007, when post-election violence swept through Kenya, claiming more than 1,000 lives and displacing many more. Kibera was badly hit by the riots and parts of the slum were completely burned down. Most of the images of the conflict which circulated outside Kenya came from Kibera, as did reports about horrific murders, including machete attacks and the burning of people alive in their homes. Now most of the burned houses and shops have been rebuilt. As Stephen Oloo, a member of Hot Sun Foundation, says, a good thing about living in a slum is that if it burns down, you can rebuild it in a matter of days and it looks pretty much the same.

kibera-kid-nathan-collett.jpgKibera Kid, 2006

There is quite a lot of dry humour in Hot Sun’s little office in the Katwekera district, and Collett himself has learned that everything here needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. The slow and difficult pace of production can be frustrating so such distance is necessary. Collett sees all those obstacles as a part of the process, noting that “understanding comes with time.”

His first project in Kibera was filmed in seven days. The next ten months were spent either on postproduction, or on the tedious process of raising funds to finish it. Kibera Kid, (2006) is a short film and it tells the story of Otieno, a 12-year old orphan boy from the slum who hangs out with the Razors gang. When a theft goes bad, Otieno has to decide between his allegiance to the gang and saving an innocent man’s life.

The international response to Kibera Kid was very positive. The film was shown at the Berlin Film Festival and won the student Emmy in Hollywood. Collett admits that the initial reaction in Kenya “was pretty tepid.” But he adds that, “the guys from Kibera were really supportive from the beginning. People in the slum loved the film and I knew that I really had to work with them.”

After the local and international success of Kibera Kid, Collett decided to develop a long-term filmmaking project in the slum. That’s how Hot Sun Films and Foundation came into being in 2007. He stresses the importance of the enterprise’s longevity. “It’s really important for people to see that you’re around, not just come in, get your images and leave.”

The foundation has a variety of projects on the go, but its main objective is to train the young people of Kibera, develop their talent and help them to tell their own stories. Collett often repeats his mantra: “training, production and outreach.” With support and equipment from Filmaid International, Hot Sun’s aim is to produce a film every two weeks. Collett says that it is all about “getting into the habit and not being precious about it. People get overwhelmed by the technicality of this, but, ultimately, it’s about telling the story and the emotional journey of the character.” The demystification and democratisation of the filming process seems to be a trend in Central and Eastern Africa and Collett supports it wholeheartedly.

One of Kibera’s surprisingly sturdy shacks houses Hot Sun’s office. It is here that Collett and his team meet to discuss their plans and projects. Godfrey Ojiambo, Evans Kamau, Stephen Oloo, Kevin Otieno and Chris Olwenyi – all born and living in Kibera – form the core of the group, and other people come along to get trained or develop their projects. Alongside training and production, Collett and his team feel strongly about bringing the moving image to Kibera. They want to prove to the inhabitants of the slum that they can be more than just the objects of external representation – they can be producers and consumers as well.

Every week the foundation hires out one of Kibera’s video halls and shows films for free. The halls are slightly bigger shacks and can accommodate up to seventy people (standing or sitting on the ground). The usual admission charge is five Kenyan shillings (4p) for a viewing of a Bollywood flick or an old action movie. Their repertoire is indicative of the distribution situation in this region of Africa, which is dominated by American and Asian companies that show films with the lowest copyright fees.

kibera-kid-nathan-collett-2.jpgKibera Kid, 2006

When Hot Sun takes over a video hall for the night, they show films made in Kibera and, as Oijambo says, “films from other parts of Africa. Whatever we can get hold of that we think people here will like.” On top of this weekly film night, the foundation organises a monthly outdoor cinema event, which takes place in Kamkunji Ground – a central square usually reserved for political agitation, markets and rallies – attracting up to 2,000 people. Collett says energetically that, “people come for more than two hours to watch the films. They’re standing all this time. It’s pretty impressive.”

Hot Sun runs other projects as well. The one Oloo and Olwenyi are especially excited about is the ‘call and response’ video exchange programme with high schools in the USA. Short videos are posted on YouTube in which people of similar age talk about their experiences. On top of this, there is the Hip Hop Film Festival and various performance projects, which often take on the issues of post-election violence.

Life is hectic at the Hot Sun Foundation and, in line with the Jua Kali philosophy, the resources are very limited. However, according to Collett, this is not the biggest problem. “People get caught up in this life, hang out, buy enough food for the day, go and visit their friends. It’s actually pretty chilled, but they get lost in it. They find it difficult to understand things beyond one day. In Kibera people are amazing at surviving, but sometimes not so good at living.”

Thus, not everything is rosy. One of the biggest problems Collett and his colleagues had to confront was people’s lethargy, and their reluctance to be filmed and photographed. Life is complicated here and, especially after last year’s violence, people tend to float around, come in and out. Collett says that, “there is still an air of resignation and disappointment. Whenever I can, I am trying to make them do as much writing as possible and encourage them to put their ideas on paper. The most important thing is to follow things up.”

The reluctance of people in Kibera to be filmed arises from irritation at the tradition whereby photographers and filmmakers have tended to obtain their stereotypical images in a matter of minutes or hours. There is a common belief that such images fetch a lot of money for those who produce them. This understandable resentment was made worse during post-election violence when hordes of photographers and TV crews poured into Kibera and shot from behind the police cordons. Members of Hot Sun Foundation say that it is getting better now; at least people do not demand money as soon as they see a camera.

This improvement is in line with Collett’s driving idea: to make the people of Kibera realise that they can tell their own stories and do not have to depend on external representation. He and his team are now working on a feature-length script. It was almost done in December 2007 but, as Collett says, “after what happened last year it’s a very different story.” He is taking his time, but meanwhile he and his colleagues are working on other projects, by no means limited to Kibera. Collett’s new film, Charcoal Traffic, made with Ojiambo and set in Northern Somalia, has just won the Best Short Award at the Kenya International Film Festival. It is one of very few fiction films made in the war-torn country in the last fifteen years and, as Collett emphasises, it was shot in very hot sun.

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Piotr Cieplak researches film and photography at Cambridge University. He has a special interest in and has written on African and independent cinema as well as image theory and film industry in Rwanda.