Dommie Yambo-Odotte

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)–When 45-year-old filmmaker Wanjiru Kinyanjui was making her debut film in the rural Kiambu district of central Kenya, she faced extraordinary challenges.

Villagers, the German-trained director and scriptwriter says, swamped the set and upset the shooting schedule.

“The villagers falsely believed we had a lot of money,” she told Women’s eNews. “They kept on demanding higher fees for locations; especially a giant fig tree that was the centerpiece of ‘The Battle of the Sacred Tree.'” Others were angered when the film crew photographed local women who were naked.

“They called us devil worshipers; the ultimate hostility slur,” says Kinyanjui.

For the single mother of two daughters, it was all part of a day’s work. She pulled the film through to its release in 1995 and went on to win widespread acclaim for it.

Since then she has made 15 more films with themes tied to children’s rights, women’s liberation and African identity. “I love what I do; entertaining people through an expensive art,” says Kinyanjui.

Her story is shared by a handful of other tenacious women in Kenya who have been churning out films, winning international recognition and leading an industry that is struggling to win more government support in areas such as fighting copyright violations–movie pirates make cheap copies of videos in neighboring Zanzibar and sell them to the public in stores at lower prices, depriving filmmakers of income–and more support from a public that flocks to blockbuster imports from America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.

In Kenya, over 80 percent of all content on local TV, both private and public, is foreign. And, nearly 100 percent of movies shown in theaters here are foreign, reports ComMattersKenya Limited, a Kenyan media consultancy firm.

Women Battle to Raise Profile

The two women who lead the industry’s top trade groups, Jane Munene, chair of the Kenya National Film Association, and Njeri Karago, chair of the Kenya Film and Television Professionals Association, have been battling to raise the profile of Kenyan television and film.

Last August, they scored a significant victory, when Raphael Tuju, minister of broadcasting, directed local television stations to carry 60 percent of local content. This has not taken effect fully but is slowly being heeded.

One station, Nation TV, is airing a locally made comedy on Saturday evening called “Kayakayaya” and a series on Sunday evening called “Wingu la Moto,” Swahili for “Cloud of Fire.” These and a few other shows on other stations have created jobs for hundreds of professionals.

“Women filmmakers have given a good account of themselves and have treated their stories with the sensitivity their unique perspective gives them,” says Ogova Ondego, a Nairobi film critic for Africa Film and TV magazine.

But like filmmakers the world over, these women face the challenge of producing work that is commercially viable.

Njeri Karago, a 44-year-old producer for film and television, has not flinched for the dangers inherent in that challenge. Although she says she makes money, she also takes big financial risks.

Karago returned to Kenya in 2001 after 12 years in the U.S. film industry, where she rose to vice president in charge of film development at Black Entertainment Television, based in Washington, D.C. She says she wanted to bring her international experience back home.

To finance her first local production, “Dangerous Affair,” a film about relationships and the life of young people in Nairobi, she mortgaged her home and land, to help meet the film’s $180,000 budget.

 Njeri Karago (with dreadlocks) and actress Nini Wacera on the set of Dangerous Affair.

Fortunately for Karago, the film released in December 2002 was popular and commercial. (Karago says film was profitable but will not provide precise figures.) The movie was screened at the prestigious Nairobi cinema house. The leading TV stations, Kenya Television Network and Nation TV screened it as well. Upon video release, thousands of copies were sold.

Enthusiasm for Local Productions

And it sparked a fresh wave of enthusiasm for local productions. All newspapers here covered the movie in detail from its shooting stage to release. All the news outlets reviewed it as well and profiles on those involved were written in the leading papers. The leading TV programs “Artscene” and “Showbiz” covered it in detail.

Karago teamed up with director Judy Kibinge to write the script. Karago produced while Kibinge directed the movie the film.

Their second production, “Project Daddy,” is about a woman’s search for the right man with whom to have a child and was far easier to finance. The film featured 25-year-old Wangeci Murage in the role of the female lead and was released in July.

Karango says she can not reveal the names of her backers, but ComMatters indicates that one organization and two individuals, all from Kenya, backed the film that had a budget slightly lower than their first film.

“They realized that I believed in what I was doing and brought in their money,” says Karago.

Getting it made was only half the battle. Theater managers, Karango said, were still afraid to show a local movie when foreign films were the big crowd pleasers.

Last month, Karago quickly organized an alternative-screening venue at the less popular Kenya National Theatre; 7 out of the 10 shows were sold out. Now it has been released in video format and is selling in stores throughout Africa.

Dommie Yambo-Odotte, a 45-year-old director who has won awards in Japan and South Africa, focuses on issues such as women’s role in politics and economic development.

She also struggles for funding. One of her most cherished projects is a feature film that she began in 1997, but which is currently stalled by inadequate funding. “Forgotten,” is about East African women who aided the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

“Research for this project was a turning point for me,” says Yambo-Odotte. “This is an issue that affected many women in Africa. I am determined to finish it soon.”

Miriri Duncan is a Nairobi based journalist who covers business, development and gender issues.

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