Mugambi Nthiga: 2018 was proof that Kenyan film makers are trying their best

Film actor, writer and director Mugambi Nthiga.

What else can a man ask for after he co-scripts a film that wins at least 20 global awards in a span of one year? Artist Mugambi Nthiga’s 2018 was all about nods from various quarters due to ‘Supa Modo’, a superhero film he co-wrote. He is the full package in the film industry: he acts, writes scripts and directs movies.

So, what else can he say? Well, that he is not done yet.

He is also bitter with the various organisations that once in a while dish awards to film industry players, arguing that they do little to support the sector.

He had a one-hour chat with Media Critic Kenya’s DAVID MWENDA. Enjoy the excerpts.

Describe yourself in 30 seconds.

(Chuckles) Oh, man! This is how we’re starting? I am an actor, writer and director who goes through all the highs and lows to create things. I first got up on a stage in a non-speaking role at age five. I just came out on stage and beat a little drum while my mum and my little sister watched. They were so awed that that’s what I decided I’d to do for the rest of my life. 

How do you feel as ‘Supa Modo’ bags awards everywhere?

I feel great. It’s not every time that you get to make a piece of work that gets this amount of appreciation. We honestly had no idea Supa Modo would go this far. The film’s premise came from Likarion [Maina, the film director]. The idea had sat with him for several years prior. I’m glad I got to be a part of the team that brought it to life. And I’m really happy for him too. He had quite the year.

In 2018, I also got to direct a feature film. It’s called Lusala, and it comes out mid to late this year. We put a lot into it and we’ll be done with it soon. It’s going to be pretty good.

As for my dear blog [that won Bloggers’ Association of Kenya’s new blog of the year for 2017], that wonderful, unpredictable thing, I’ve not updated it in a while. I set it up to point people to fine film, and I am glad it really resonated with readers, who show up even now. However, I need to reconcile the fact that I am critiquing or commenting on films while trying to make my own. The middle ground is hard. I’m finding it, and the blog will be back soon.

You have been doing this for how many years now?

I would say just over a decade, and change. I first got on stage for a paid role in 2004.  I’d just completed campus, and I finally had time to get into the theatre thing. But I really started taking acting seriously in 2009. I was in the ‘States then, the recession had hit hard and I was jobless and sleeping on a friend’s couch in Philadelphia. We were all struggling. I’d studied advertising at a good school, but jobs were hard to come by. I had nothing to lose so I got headshots done and put together a resume, and auditioned wherever I could, with my “unique” accent and all. I got to work in some independent theatre productions, in a short film shot in Harlem, and a background role in Law Abiding Citizen. That’s how I built my resume.

All this time, I wanted to come back to Kenya because film and TV had really found their stride. Shuga had premiered, introducing us to actors like Nick Mutuma, Anto Neosoul and Valerie Kimani. It’s the first time we saw Lupita in her element outside of a theatre stage. It was also in 2009 that Kenya hosted the MAMA Awards. Everything was popping. Besides, my US paperwork had run out. I had no choice but to come back to Kenya. The timing was perfect.

My film career would later begin a year later, with a film called Nairobi Half Life.

Nairobi Half Life was huge. Everyone was talking about it. It revolutionised the way we do film in Kenya. Do you think we are keeping up with that momentum?

I think we’re trying our best. Look 2018 at alone: We had three notable feature films come out: Supa Modo, Rafiki and Subira. We’re going to have more come out next year, Lusala included. We also had several memorable short films come out. Did you see Wakamba Forever, for instance?

Imagine, no.

Oh my, you should. Excellent story and hilarious execution. Alliance Francaise’s smartphone competition also yielded some excellent stuff. There was a film written and directed (and acted) by Shiviske Shivisi, about a lady who’d killed 50 sexual partners, and she was the good guy! There was another spectacular stop-motion short film about the doomed love between a pair of animated socks. And that was all original Kenyan stuff. It was glorious.

Let’s talk about government bodies which are supposed to nurture the film industry. You said when you were accepting an award at the 2018 Kalasha Awards that you did not want to thank Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) for the award. Do you think KFCB and Kenya Film Commission (KFC) should work together? Are they killing creative space in Kenya?

(Chuckles) Were you at the Kalashas?

I was there.

Ah, well. I attended that, which was a glitzy enough affair. The Riverwood Awards happened a couple of months earlier, in sunny Kisumu. The organisers were kind enough to take us down to the lakeside for that. Both awards ceremonies have come and gone. You may have noticed by now that their glow doesn’t last long. Now, please understand that I am here for them, but they can’t exist for their own sake.

What innovative conversations do they spark up? How do they get more people to watch subsequent films? What have they really done for their winners after the red carpet has been rolled up?

My issue with the bodies putting awards together is, they’re mum after the big-budget festivities. It’s one night of trophy handouts and speeches, and 364 nights of us receiving little to no support from the very same bodies. Ask any filmmaker. They’ll tell you how we’d rather have those budgets diverted into making actual films. That would do us infinitely more good.

And then there’s the KFCB head using his office to silence artistic voices, create hashtags, fly first class to glamorous destinations, and garner support from the more acquiescent members of the industry. None of those activities has aided, created, promoted or validated a single Kenyan film.

And to answer your question about KFCB and KFC working together, I have no idea about that. Their relationship is as unpredictable as the finest thriller. KFC was set up to market Kenya as a filmmaking destination to outsiders; which is partially redundant because we’re capable of running our own industry with the right support. KFCB meanwhile, you know them by their fruits.

What those of us actually making films want is an industry to speak of in the present, and not in this future that’s never coming. Something efficient, inclusive, and, above all, productive.

Film actor, writer and director Mugambi Nthiga.

Do you believe in film telling stories that advocate for social justice and political knowledge?

Oh, absolutely. Film has the power to change how society perceives just about anything. It can spark the right (or wrong) conversations and allow audiences to see themselves in new ways. That is the very intention of film. To get a response — simple or profound — that no other medium can yield or inspire.

Has Supa Modo been able to bring in conversations about terminal illness?

Yes it has. Actually, it has brought up a whole lot of subjects of conversation, some which we didn’t see coming. The power of community has been the most consistent. Audiences have been moved by the sight of human beings showing up for one of their own in honest and powerful ways. It’s what really gets the waterworks going.

Generally, the film has been a mirror of the more positive aspects of humanity; more importantly Kenyan humanity, which we have been led to believe is in short supply lately. We vehemently disagree. At our most authentic and generous, we are capable of the impossible. We’re awesome like that.

You used to be a copywriter before you decided to tell stories through film. What is the one thing you learnt from your advertising career that applies in writing for film?

Get to the point. In advertising, you write to sell. Your runtime is brief and attention spans are unforgiving. It came together for me when I attended a screenwriting workshop, and the facilitator began by instructing us to know what we want to say, and say it. I was like, “Oh Gosh, this is exactly like advertising!” The disciplines were more interrelated than I knew.

What would you change about the world if you were given powers?

I’d want the power to travel into the psyches of the world’s truly evil, and change their minds for good. Sure, we’d skip through the portals opening to other worlds, and huge movie fights that would lead to mega-city destruction, but we’d all be the better for it in the end. Happy endings all around.

Let’s talk about your hair or lack of it. What made you do that? Did you just want to keep it that way?

(Chuckles) Not at all. It’s the genes. I started losing hair in my early 20s. And still, I have this awkwardly, asymmetrical receding hairline. If I let it grow, it would look horrible so I just shave it all off. The goatee is my way of compensating.

It was like an upside-down hair switch?

Yes it was. Exactly (chuckles).

What do you look forward to most when you enter your fifties?

My work being acclaimed worldwide; really, just getting to a place I can say I started waves that achieved something bigger than me. I would look forward to having a family and raising it well. I would also like to finally be comfortable with my voice; not just my physical voice, but my artistic voice as well. Whatever designated stamp the Cosmos has destined I should make on the universe, I want to make exactly that.

Film actor, writer and director Mugambi Nthiga.


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