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Wisdom overload: One-on-one with Kevin Njue, the maker of the ’18 Hours’ film

Film maker Kelvin Njue. COURTESY

In 2013, Kevin Njue was making movies from his hostel room in Kenyatta University. It was something he always wanted to do. For Kevin, film making is not just about telling a story; it should impact society. He describes it as his way of giving society a platform to be aware of their rights.

Kevin’s 18 Hours is a movie that was inspired by a Daily Nation story that ran in 2016. The whole movie is about a “rookie” paramedic who tries to save the life of a man who is denied ICU access at Kenyatta National Hospital. Shortly after it was released, the winning streak began — the highlight being that it was the first Kenyan movie to ever win the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards.

Media Critic Kenya’s DAVID MWENDA caught up with Kevin for a wide-ranging conversation.

Do you think the movie 18 Hours created a conversation on health?

Whether it created an impact or not, I believe the movie was our greatest achievement because we got to interact with a lot of officials from the Health ministry, the then minister for Health, several health bodies and policy makers. We were instrumental in pushing for the new health policy. Most importantly, we were able to tell citizens that emergency healthcare is their right.

You are a firm believer in film being instrumental in creating change and improving people’s lives. Do you think Kenyan film is getting to a point where we can make movies that impact on policy and move the nation forward?

Of course; not just in film but in any form of art. And if you look at history, it is not just for entertainment but for sparking change. As you said, I believe that films can improve Kenya. 18 Hours was our first one. So, moving forward, we look forward to other issues.

Is your art a form of activism?

I do not think about it that way, actually. Initially, I had not labelled it. For now, I’ll say that if art can be used to influence the way we interact, I think I am doing that.

Your first film was Sticking Ribbons. What was it about?

Yes, that was a short film we did many years ago (in 2013). It is about a recovering drug addict and what she can do to start a new life after undergoing therapy.

Do you feel like it launched you into the movie-making business?

Of course, yeah. We did that when we were in Kenyatta University and, yes, it did launch us and gave us the belief to make a second, third and fourth film. It also gave us a chance to go and say things we wanted to say.

You talk about 18 Hours being a film that was able to influence health policy. Let us talk about film and policies being made by government. You have been very critical — if I can use that word — to the Kenya Film Classification Board and Kenya Film Commission. Do you think we need more policies or do we now need to use our policies to improve film?

Yes, I am critical. That word is right. Two, being critical does not mean that people fight and point guns at each other. It is helping each other understand what needs to be done and get it done.

I also do not think it is about creating new policies per se but improving them and making them relevant to the current situation. I think that is the most important thing.  As for the two bodies, I think it is important for them to understand their mandate and stick to it.

In the past year or two, the two bodies they have been focused on a tug-of-war on who is doing what. I think they should change that conversation and make it about changing policy and getting films distributed.

You talk about a tug-of-war between the two bodies (KFCB and KFC). Do you think the two should be merged?

I think that is the best way to look at it. In my opinion, we don’t need two bodies. We need one which should be streamlined to handle the duties and responsibilities each has and put them under one banner. If that is what causes them to speak in one voice, then yes; I would recommend that they be merged so that everyone can speak with the same voice and everyone can be on the same page.

Do you think actors and film makers and all stakeholders need to be on the same page so that we do not have government making policies out of a vacuum?

Uhm… For film makers, it wouldn’t be necessarily on the same page in terms of ideologies rather than what needs to be done to get to a higher level. At the same time, there should be an acknowledgement that people are different; that people think differently. This way, government will have people to go to and thus won’t operate in a vacuum.

You were named among the Top 40 Under 40 men in Kenya in 2018 by the Business Daily. Do you think that business and more so corporates should look at film as a business and not just a fun thing?

That is my hope, and every film maker’s hope: that people can start seeing it as a business venture. In other countries, people make money from it and it is treated like a business. It is about getting investment: making and losing money. I hope business leaders and entrepreneurs get into the business now when it is younger so that they can give their input into the business.

There is a lot of competition between the Kenyan, Nigerian and Hollywood film industry when it comes to mainstream media and airplay. Do you think mainstream media should invest in making content that is almost 100% Kenyan?

It is in the interest of those media industries to lead the way. Not for the benefit of anyone else but themselves. If they can make top quality content for Kenya and also for exporting across the globe, they will be the first to benefit from it.

I would say most of them do not want to invest into the local industry, for reasons best known to them. They then result to buying Mexican and Nigerian content and they are considered relatively cheaper than to produce your own original content.

When we buy Mexican content, we are probably the fourth or fifth buyer. It already showed back in their home and they have made money from it.

So, when they bring it here they will sell it close to peanuts and that can be the case for the same when it comes to Kenyan content. They can use the same logic when they want to acquire original content. They need to understand that there will be a cost to it and it will be relatively a bit higher. They will also need to understand that they will be the first to gain.

Let us talk about you now. I consider you almost a very private person. You rarely talk about your personal life. What made you keep it private?

(Sigh) I think it is just the need to live your life off your career. For me, if there is something I would be happy to share about, then it will be about movies and discussions about movies. When it comes to personal life, then you know a bit of that stays personal and that is how I think things should be. But they do not necessarily go that way. People should know about what people do in their career and not in their personal life.

You love movies and you love conversations about movies. So, let me ask: What are your current favorite movies?

Wow, that is a tricky one. Over the last few months, I have watched several Kenyan films. I have watched Disconnect, Super Modo, Rafiki . . . I have pretty much watched every Kenyan film that has been released last year or so.

For me, picking a favourite would be a lengthy discussion. I’ll look at it from pretty much a lot of angles as a film maker and that perspective will be hard. So, let’s just go with 18 Hours as my favorite film right now.

Number 2 goes to 18 Hours?

Number 2 is all the other films that I watched last year.

Come on, pick one.

That is what I am saying. It is hard to pick one.

With the age of the internet, it becomes easier to distribute content. Why is it hard, then, to find Kenyan content online?

True, the whole digital era is making things easier. But then, it has changed the focus from just distributing; because if it just distributing, you can put it online on YouTube, Facebook and other platforms. The main idea now is monetising that content. I think that is how you should look at it.

Some of the artists are hesitant to put their content on YouTube and other platforms. Artists need to look at ways to get revenue for next projects.

What would you tell a young Kevin who was starting out in the acting industry?

(Chuckles) Start earlier.

Just that?

I think if I started earlier, I would be a few steps ahead of where I am right now.

 Any projects we should be looking forward to?

Yes. We are working on a new project. It is still in the works but we will be releasing it later in the year.

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