Writer and filmmaker Wanjeri Gakuru takes us on the road from Kenya-focused newsreels to the ‘cathedral effect’ of contemporary Kenyan-curated cinema.

It is 1958. 

Kenya is powering through its sixth year under a State of Emergency. The deep suspicion and restricted movement of the indigenous population hasn’t stopped the necessary business of constructing an open-air theatre for the settler communities’ entertainment. 

The workers can be seen – in a YouTube British Pathé film clip – weeks before the grand opening dutifully preparing the space. It is a short silent film. It opens with two Kenyan men kneeling before a series of mounted speakers that stretch behind them in neat, equal intervals. Another man watches over them. Theirs is delicate work. They are painting the speakers at Thika Road Theatre (later renamed Fox Drive-in) in correct numerical sequence.

Drive-In Cinema In Nairobi (1958)

That was post-colonial Kenya, so it is safe to assume that the stories and protagonists projected on the mighty white wall were very likely mirroring the lives and interests of the colonisers. Kenyan filmmaker, Simiyu Barasa’s 2010 documentary, The History of Film in Kenya confirms this. It illuminates 100 years of storytelling that disproportionately used the country as a prop and its people as a backdrop from as early as 1909, when American president, Theodore Roosevelt chronicled his hunting expedition. 

All the same, five years after the state-of-the-art Thika Road cinema opened, Kenya would achieve independence and boast multiple cinema spaces across the country. This included Belle-Vue, a second drive-in theatre as well as EmbassyNairobiOdeonKenyaABCShan and 20th Century cinemas. Last year, journalist John Kamau’s tragically-titled article, Nairobi now a cemetery of cinema halls made mention of smaller cinemas in Bahati, Makadara and Ruaraka town centres run by Noah Kamau—the first Kenyan to do so.  

I put a call-out on Twitter looking for folks who recalled watching films at Fox Drive-in on Thika Road as well as Belle-Vue on Mombasa Road …

These halls were built to enthral. Noted British cinema architect, David Evelyn Nye was hired to work on the Embassy Cinema and businessman Edgar Clifton is said to have invested £30,000 redesigning the building housing Cameo Cinema. According to Kamau’s article, he did so “after spending many weeks in western capitals” visiting a total of 35 cinemas in Spain, Germany and Austria.

While writing this piece, I put a call-out on Twitter looking for folks who recalled watching films at Fox Drive-in on Thika Road as well as Belle-Vue on Mombasa Road. The post got over 3,000 impressions and nearly 200 responses:- 

…and also …

“Our families carried food for days…samosas, sandwiches, matoke crisps, even tamarind chutney was packed and brought from home!” – Nivi@AmkaKenya

“We used to go there religiously with my fam (folks and 2 bros) every New Year’s Eve for the 4-movie-marathon. But maybe once in like 3 months.” – Thuita @Thuita

“Late 70s and 80s. Watched ‘Grease’ a gazillion times.” – Peter Nduati, @PeterNduati

These spaces helped make going to the cinema a national pastime. At some stage it was allegedly sanctioned by the highest office. 

Archivist @HistoryKe on Twitter shares that, “Mzee Kenyatta started mobile cinemas with the aim of civilizing Kenyans – waache kuwa washamba (they stop being backward). *Moi continued with it but it fizzled out at some point. Perhaps due to lack of funds, or just lack of support from government bureaucrats.” 

*Daniel Toroitich arap Moi is a Kenyan politician who served as the second President of Kenya from 1978 to 2002.

However, the problem of under representation remained, as was outlined in the 2011 paper, African recreation of Western impressions: A Focus on the Kenyan film, by Dr Rachael Diang’a. In this study, the Assistant Professor of Film and the Chair of Cinematic Arts Department (USIU) posits that “It is common to find negative images of the third world in colonial literature and film. Most colonial films were based on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which justified the popular ‘supremacy’ of the coloniser.”

Just watch this clip from 1955 Mau Mau film, Simba.  

It is 1968. 

Mlevi (The Drunkard) is playing in the cinemas. It stars popular television personalities Athumani Kipanga and Mzee Pembe as well as a young Oliver Litondo – he would later star in The First Grader, the story of Kimani Maruge, an 84-year-old Mau Mau veteran who held the Guinness World Record for being the oldest person to start primary school. 

Mlevi’s tale of caution against overindulgence in alcohol is arguably Kenya’s first feature film. Shot in Kiswahili, it was directed by Kenyan-Asian Ragbir Singh, in collaboration with producer Kuljeet Pal. 

The Kenya Institute of Mass Communication (KIMC) had been established in 1961, so the film was released at a time of increased interest in the local-led TV and film production. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting provided dubbing and other technical facilities but Mlevi, which is supported in part by the government, is quite hard to track down now. Sadly, according to Professor Edwin Ngure Nyutho’s 2015 paper, Evaluation of Kenyan Film Industry: Historical Perspective, the project was tainted by accusations of poor remuneration of the actors.                                    

Professor Nyutho also refers to another dark time for Kenyan filmmaking. In 1972, Standard Films Ltd. had raised £30,000 with a plan to sell company shares to shopkeepers, farmers, businessmen, clerks, teachers, labourers, schoolteachers, and others in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to keep the company going. Their inaugural film intended to “show our people as heroes against colonialism“ and involve a multiracial cast of 7,000 people.

These dreams were quickly snuffed out. Mr. Arthur Ruben, then a Senior Information Officer in the Ministry of Information and Tourism to the Permanent Secretary, denied the company a filming license, stating in a memo, “but for whom is the film aimed? Who is the target audience? In Kenya, we have been told to forget the past. If the Kenya government wanted a chronological record of Mau Mau activities, it is in a much better position to produce such a film.”

Oh, the irony. 

Later, Kenyans would be also be denied a horror film, Otto: The Bloodbath (2009) and films positively highlighting the queer community – Stories of our Lives (2014) and Rafiki (2018). The latter successfully sued Kenya’s Film Classification Board and its ban was temporarily lifted. Rafiki went on to earn over three million Kenyan shillings in box office sales.

Luckily, Kolormask (1985) by the late filmmaker Sao Gamba did not meet a similar fate. The plot focuses on a Kenyan student in a rocky interracial relationship with a British woman. Upon his return to Kenya, the lead character finds himself shedding his Western ways for more traditional values and expects his partner to do the same. This story is reminiscent of the novel Scarlet Song (1981) by Senegalese author, Mariama Bâ. Another film was Anne Mungai’s Saikati (1992), which was the first feature directed by a woman. It screened at Kenya Cinema. The protagonist, Saikati, flees an arranged marriage. Win. Both films were well received.

It is 2019

Nairobi Cinema is back from the dead. The old signage is still up but it goes by Nairobi Film Centre now.  It was acquired by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) a year ago to be part of a project dubbed “Sinema Mashinani” aimed at broadcasting free films to the public. Embassy, Odeon, Kenya, ABC, Shan cinemas are now distant memories. New entrants such as Nu Metro – later rebranded as Silverbird – have equally combusted, never to return. Far too many former cinema halls now host evangelical churches.

Most still retain their signage and consequently find new relevance as meeting points for distressed travellers and teenagers who don’t quite know how to navigate the city. 20th Century has morphed into Anga IMAX while both Belle-Vue and Fox Drive-in retain their gigantic white walls reinforced with steel truss but tell no tales. They remain dark and silent and clearly visible from the highway. A haunting.   

Every once in a while, an enterprising individual will put together a movie night at a private venue, club or open field.

Far from the silver screen, Riverwood, Kenya’s indie film industry continues to thrive. Steadily churning out feature films in vernacular, Sheng and Swahili that are accessible on TV stations and in video halls. There is now an annual Riverwood Academy Awards ceremony to honour their own, with a 300-member filmmakers’ association, with both entities working together to market and sell all the produced works collectively. 

Every once in a while, an enterprising individual will put together a movie night at a private venue, club or open field. It will be a singular film, perhaps a popular international hit or, if viewers are lucky, a Kenyan or African film, that plays for one night only. Honourable mentions go to the inflatable and sometimes wobbly projector screens of Chess Sunday, The Alchemist, K1 and Once Upon a Time. DocuBox’s Shorts, Shorts and Shorts and filmmaker, Hawa Essuman’s Manyatta Screenings by Lake Elementaita both offer a curation of films from across the continent. 

Sheba Hirst, who co-founded the NBO Film Festival alongside film director Mbithi Masya says, ‘There is a particularly transformative thing that happens when you watch a film with an audience. It’s the cathedral effect. The cinema does that. People coalescing around an idea for a short time adds meaningfulness to a story, especially in the African context.’

Mbithi Masya and Sheba Hirst.

Now in its third edition, NBO is making a big splash in the small pool of local film festivals, which include the aforementioned Slum Film Festival, government-backed Kalasha Film Festival and the long-running European Film Festival, which in 2018, through curator Nyambura Waruingi, began a deliberate push to include Kenyan programming by screening local films, holding workshops and extending the venues beyond the cultural centres.

Hirst: ‘Seeing African bodies, faces and experiencing a story of world class quality; a polished thing isn’t how we often see films about ourselves. There is something quite powerful in that.’