I don’t watch Hollywood films like I used to. Sure, the occasional sci-fi/ superhero movie or romcom is good for the soul. But cinema has completely changed for me. Ever since I discovered these award-winning African films and documentaries.
Now everybody knows movies are a major part of our culture. Ask anyone what they like to do for fun and they will either mention watching movies or listening to music. Or both.
Kenyan music is already killing it with NuNairobi musicians doing the most: organizing live concerts, promoting their music online, selling cool merchandise, and releasing quality albums on their own without record labels.
It’s basically a DIY movement.
And Kenyan filmmakers have decided to join the crew and create African magic.
I’ll admit – sometimes it has taken an international award for me to recognize a new Kenyan film. Of late, they’ve been winning plenty which is a clear sign of high quality.
Now as long as I see a movie is Kenyan and has made it to the cinema, I’m in.
If someone asked me which top Kenyan movies they should watch (which you probably have) here’s what I’d tell
1. Kati Kati
For anyone who cares to listen, I tell them Kati Kati is probably my favourite Kenyan film so far. It’s also the movie that publicly changed the Kenyan game.
For starters, the 2016 Kenyan movie made news when it premiered and won at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). In the following year, Kati Kati was screened during the first edition of NBO Film Festival – the brainchild of Mbithi Masya and Sheba Hirst which showcases award-winning African indie films in Nairobi.
Then everybody wanted to see it. Including myself.
Kati Kati has one unique storyline you cannot foresee even with the strongest binoculars. Produced by One Fine Day Films and Ginger Ink Films, it’s about the mystical afterlife which we rarely think about yet secretly haunts us. What happens to us when we die? And will we be able to face our darkest demons?
Other than Elsaphan Njora’s sobering acting, I fell in love with the movie soundtrack. Especially the closing track Find Us A Way by Mayonde, the director’s gorgeous wife. It always sends goosebumps all over my body, which is how the award-winning movie by Mbithi left me.
Now, who wants to watch Kati Kati on Showmax?
2. Watu Wote
You might have heard of this Kenyan short film that made it to the Oscars. Yes, the one and only Oscars. It’s a Kenyan-German production by graduates from Hamburg Media School in Germany and the Africa Digital Media Institute (ADMI) in Nairobi. Speaking of, how many film colleges in Kenya do you know?
Watu Wote made history in 2017 as the first Kenyan film nominated in the category of the best short live-action film at the 90th Oscars. And the Kenyan team proudly dazzled in their African red carpet outfits at Dolby Theatre, Hollywood while brushing shoulders with the Wakanda Nation.
How do I know this? They showed off the photos after a Nairobi Film Festival 2018 screening.
They didn’t win the Oscar but won a lot of hearts and cheers that night at Prestige Cinema. I was left mopping my eyes after realizing the short film is based on a true story. The 22-minute film about a 2005 Mandera bus attack goes beyond terrorism and Al Shabaab to demonstrate a story of humanity and compassion.
3. 18 hours
Here’s another award-winning Kenyan movie inspired by a true story. The main stars are media personality Nick Ndeda and Kenyan actor Brian Ogola – who honestly stole the show.
The two show up as a Kenyan paramedic and ambulance driver respectively. They are stuck with a road accident victim for 18 hours because they can’t find an available hospital. And we follow them on a gruelling journey as they run out of time to save his life.
18 hours brings the sad story of a failing Kenyan healthcare closer home. It hits all of your raw emotions.
I couldn’t believe the tears that burst out of me, seeing the anguish of the helpless widow played by Sue Wanjiru.
After the free movie screening at Alliance Francaise thanks to European Film Festival, we had a Q&A session with the movie director Njue Kevin and a couple of medical experts. We learnt that the family of the late Alex Madaga was compensated and there’s a health bill drafted to prevent such an unnecessary death from happening again. They even gave us ambulance contact cards to pass to our family members.
Because free emergency care is a right for every Kenyan.
With time 18 hours caught the world’s attention. In 2018, it won three awards at Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards in Nigeria: Best Film Editor, Best East African movie (previously won by Kati Kati), and Best Film Overall. And they were all received by the proud producer Phoebe Ruguru – hey namesake!
4. Supa Modo
This 2018 Kenyan movie had an unforgettable premiere at NBO Film Fest 2. I remember Prestige Cinema was so packed during the second screening that a couple had to sit on the stairs in order to get a satisfying view. Some attendees from the premiere night even came back to watch it again.
Out of all of the 5 African movies I watched during the Nairobi Film Festival, this was the one that received a standing ovation. From Kenyans. And solicited a lot of tears, including from grown men.
The family drama is about Jo, a 9-year-old girl, who dreams of being a superhero – but her health says otherwise. Starting as a crazy idea from her elder sister, her village decides to make her childish dream come true. The story that ensues is almost fantastical, but the Gikuyu dialogue and rural environment kept it grounded.
I was so proud to hear Kenyan music playing throughout the movie, starting with Don Ngartia’s Mirabelle and later Just A Band. This project also involved the creative minds of Kenyan musician Silas Miami, filmmaker Mugambi Nthiga and video producer Enos Olik.
(Fun fact: Did you know Jo’s elder sister Nyawara Ndambia is the same girl in Ayrosh’s music video for Shuga Mami?)
Supa Modo was only meant for NBO. Instead, it ended up screening for almost 2 months in Nairobi and Mombasa. Even Nigerian artist Mr Eazi who was in town caught it at the cinema. I think the raving reactions on Twitter had something to do with it.
The 2018 movie has since won over 21 awards in total, including at the local Riverwood Awards, and has screened in over 30 film festivals around the world. It was also submitted as Kenya’s official submission to the Oscars 2019.
And to think the film idea started with a dream. Like an actual sleep dream by the film director Likarion Wainaina.
And if you’ve been dreaming about it, you can finally watch Supa Modo on Showmax.
Oh, and just in case you’d like to work with One Fine Day Films, read this heartbreaking expose by Silas Miami first.
If you’re like me, you probably heard about Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu thanks to the fantastical Africa Nouveau Festival. She’s the one behind the Afrobubblegum theme: fun, fierce and frivolous. There’s even a TED talk about it.
Something else you should know about Wanuri: she directed the award-winning sci-fi short film PUMZI which screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. And her 2018 movie Rafiki became the first Kenyan film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France. Big deal by the way!
Wanuri says Rafiki was inspired by the 2007 Caine Prize winner “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko, a novel about two girls in love in Uganda. It dared her to tell her own lesbian love story of two “rafikis” in this conservative country of ours. And to make matters more intense, their families are on opposite political sides.
Like Supa Modo, the 2018 film boasts a full Kenyan cast and soundtrack. It was the first time on screen for Samantha Mugatsia “Sam” the drummer of Yellow Light Machine as Kena, and another run for seasoned actress Sheila Munyiva as the colourful Ziki.
Stylist Wambui Thimba dressed both lead actresses in Peperuka, Chilli Mango and other Made in Kenya fashion brands. And in the background of their complicated love drama is fierce music from Kenyan female musicians Muthoni Drummer Queen, Chemutai Sage, Trina Mungai and Mumbi Kasumba. Yes, it was a #SHE affair.
But my favourite soundtrack has to be Njoki Karu’s Secret Love.
This was a Kenyan first, and not just at Cannes. Despite the great heights this Kenyan film took us, the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) was quick to ban the movie for its bold theme.
This only wet our appetite to watch it.
Doesn’t it make you want to peel off your sweater?
Rafiki reminds me of Stories of Our Lives by The Nest Collective, an anthology film inspired by true stories of LGBTQ people living in Kenya. Indie Wire called it “a beautiful little film about love, about humanity”. And it came with a dreamy soundtrack by Jim Chuchu who was part of Just A Band.
The highly-praised film premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. However, it was also rejected at home because it “promotes homosexuality”.
The same fate befell the 2020 Kenyan documentary film I Am Samuel.
Even though KFCB aka the moral police banned Rafiki, the high court overruled the ban for a week in order for it to qualify for the Oscars. The only condition, it was to be rated over 18 – as it should have been in the first place. And young adults turned up in numbers to exercise their right to consume Kenyan content.
The demand was so high during #SevenDaysofRafiki that movie screenings were added in Mombasa, Kisumu and Nairobi.
I guess you can say our thirst was quenched. Where to watch Rafiki now? Right here.
Speaking of banning, I wonder why nobody banned this movie for promoting promiscuity. Disconnect is a modern Kenyan romantic comedy which premiered on the last day of NBO Film Fest 2018. It was directed by Tosh Gitonga, the same guy who directed Nairobi Half Life.
We’ll always remember his 2010 action movie for being so down to earth and showing the dark notorious side of Nairoberry.
Unlike Nairobi Half Life, this contemporary Kenyan movie is set in uptown Nairobi and features a lot of Sauti Sol music (cues Friendzone). It also features almost every popular actor you know – Brenda Wairimu, Nick Mutuma, Patricia Kihoro, Pascal Tokodi… I mean, don’t all romantic comedies do?
Following in the steps of Supa Modo, it did rounds in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa cinemas (18 and over, please). The cinematography and cast were A1. And Pascal is actually a funny man. However, the plot was a bit messy and complicated. There was definitely a disconnect.
Who would have thought we’d be watching quality Kenyan movies in the cinema the same way we watch Hollywood and Bollywood films? I managed to watch most of these award-winning films thanks to NBO Film Festival and European Film Festival. After all, it’s rare to find quality Kenyan movies on TV or on DVD.
It’s not just Kenyan film that’s winning, but African indie film too. If you ever come across the South African drama “Vaya”, Zambia’s “I Am Not A Witch” or “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind” from Malawi, thank your lucky stars. They are real films about real African issues you will relate to.
From the overwhelming attendance at these local film screenings, it’s clear we are ready for independent Kenyan films. In no time KFCB will shift their focus from censoring controversial films to boosting the local film industry by establishing film schools, funding personal projects, and promoting our films abroad. And Kenyan movies will rule our own cinemas.
When you come across a brilliant Kenyan movie worth watching, share it with us so we can spread the love. And let’s show the world how much we’re winning. Hollywood has been on top long enough