How come you are not watching Afro-Sinema-o? Soon, this could become a standard greeting, considering the rate at which Nigerian movies are mesmerising Kenyans.
Whether one is eavesdropping on conversation between househelps in the estates or junk food addicts in middle-market fast food eateries, one is unlikely to miss the one word that has become the standard exclamation: “Chineke!?”
The word, a reference to a traditional Nigerian deity, is also used to show surprise or to punctuate conversation. In fact, there was a time when the Nigerian accent was catching on, but as happens with all fads, it was quickly abandoned when it lost its class distinction.
With the exception of the World Cup, which kicks off in South Africa in about three weeks, Nigerian movies are likely to be among the most watched on Kenyan TV screens this year.
And stations with their pulse on what the public is watching have already started shelving Mexican soap operas in which all the characters are referred to by their two names all the time. A typical conversation in the soaps goes something like this: “What has happened to you Alexander Alexandro?”
“Maria Cardozo, it is Philipe Gonzalez who was trying to shoot Carlos Mendez just now.” To which Maria Cardozo replies: “Has Philipe Gonzalez gone crazy? Did he want to kill Carlos Mendez because he is in love with Julia Alvarez?” And Alexander Alexandro replies: “But Julia Alvarez is in love with Carlos Mendez and not Philipe Gonzalez. And the sooner Philipe Gonzalez accepts that, the better it will be for him and everybody else.”
Since the time of Wild Rose, Mexican soaps have been part of popular entertainment, but in recent years, they have been edged out by Nigerian films. Some of the reasons Nollywood movies have become such a hit in Kenya have to do with the fact that Kenyan filmmakers have starved movie lovers of high quality, authentic films they can identify with and even export.
Sadly, there have been few local films targeting the mass market. Many are donor-funded and are mainly meant for “civic education” on such issues as Aids awareness and family planning. With such films, the message is more important that the medium and the film are meant to teach rather than entertain, yet many adults are not looking for lessons from their TV sets but for something to keep them entertained.
Although there have been numerous successful filmmakers since Anne Mungai produced Saikati, no Kenyan film has entrenched itself in the public psyche over the years. However, it is probable that what the public needs is not one classical film, but many low-budget ones that can reflect their lives and give them the raw material to animate their conversations, which have hitherto been dominated by the shenanigans of politicians.
Subject of scorn
That is what Nigerian film-makers have done. Initially, the films were the subject of scorn because they had a standard theme of witchcraft, in which the villain was transformed into an animal — always a dog or snake — while the hero was rewarded by being cured of their maladies before joining a church.
That monotonous story line has changed over time and the themes have become not only more sophisticated and more urban, but also more intriguing. And they usually combine great love stories played out against the background of immense wealth and violent family conflicts, all of which are ingredients of enduring creative works.
Kenyan filmmakers may not know it, but there is such a huge appetite for the modern Kenyan film, even abroad. This is evident from the awards short feature films from Kenya have been winning abroad and the inquiries from people who want to know more about Kenyan films. It is, therefore, not too much to infer that time is ripe for the definitive Kenyan film to make its grand entry into the world stage in much the same way that Tsotsi did for South Africa and Slumdog Millionaire for India.
And though it is difficult to talk about Kenya without talking about poverty, filmmakers need to go beyond Kibera and the comic depictions of the rural poor to produce a film that can appeal across class and age. While at it, we must also encourage the Facebook generation to give the country its first animated film.