Showtime! Film in Kenya (Part 1)

As a budding industry, film in Kenya stretches from small local productions to Hollywood blockbusters, but where does it stand now and where is it going in the future. By Caitlin Nordahl

The beautiful, bright colours, perfectly exposed and crisply focused, draw you in. More than that though, you are struck by a story that you can quickly understand and the firm tie you immediately feel for a titular character, a little boy named Leo.This is a good film trailer, and when it comes to Kenyan films, it’s part of the exception rather than the rule. Most of the others are sort of forgettable and don’t convey the plot strongly.

But the trailer for Leo is different. As the last image fades to black, there are a few seconds of the lead song from the soundtrack, provided by Kenya’s own Sauti Sol, which fades into Maasai chanting and then to nothing. Immediately you want more.

Jinna Mutune, the film’s director, exudes enthusiasm, and as she describes Leo, her first feature length film, it absolutely pours out of her through words, gestures and an indefatigable smile.

“It’s a simple story about a little Maasai boy and him believing he’s a super hero and how he lives out that dream in a modern African metropolitan city, which is Nairobi,” she explains. “It’s a story really showing a child opening up to the possibilities of dreaming.”

Mutune grew up in a middle class family in Nairobi, and getting across her perspective of the City in the Sun was important to her. “There’s the city aspect of it – this whole city culture, tribe, corruption, and developing city side of it – all of these things mixed together. So for me it’s an attempt to show that world – I don’t think I succeeded a hundred percent, but it’s a beginning,” she continues, certainly speaking of her career and artistic view, but also, it turns out, of the industry as a whole.

Film in Kenya

The first feature length film ever made was in 1906. The first movie made in Kenya was the 13-minute Theo in Africa, about former US President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 safari, which was screened in 1910.

After that, Kenya was often used as a location for “Safari-Adventure” films, featuring stars like Clarke Gable and Ava Gardner. Then, after Independence in 1963, documentaries came into fashion. Eventually, international filmmakers saw the potential of the Kenyan landscape as a backdrop for dramatic films, launching a new era of movies made here, including the illustrious and award winning Out of Africa.

So why, with a history that is perhaps thin but still far-reaching, does Peter Mutie, CEO of the Kenya Film Commission (KFC), describe film as a new industry in Kenya?

“One or two films in a decade does not constitute an industry. For me an industry becomes an industry when it is producing – and producing en masse – viably.”

And, according to Mutie and the KFC, the film industry could bring in KSH 40 billion and employ 250,000 Kenyans, although for the 2009-2010 financial year those numbers were closer to KSH 2 billion and 4,000 people employed. So there’s work to be done and room to grow, and it’s widely accepted that expansion in the industry is linked to foreign productions. That’s where people like Jim Shamoon come in. As the Managing Director of Blue Sky Films, with his partner Mario Zvan, Shamoon works in the production services business. Basically, they manage the local aspects – location scouting, hiring local actors and crew, getting necessary equipment, etc. – for foreign productions coming into Kenya.

Shamoon’s been involved in the industry for years and watched, not to mention helped, it get to the point where it is today. With his financial, career and emotional investment, he’s something of an authority in the field and has it broken down, in terms of original productions, into “tiers”.

At the top, Shamoon puts production service companies. Granted his own business falls within this tier, but he is quick to recognise that there are somewhere between six to eight others that he includes at the top.


Next he cites the “local content big producers.” Here, he’s talking about companies like Cinematic Solutions Ltd., which was behind The Rugged Priest, and Hot Sun Films, which produced an award winning short film called Kibera Kid.

After this, Shamoon moves on to productions made for television and sold to the larger channels, using Alison Ngibuini’s ‘Al Is On Productions’ as an example. Ngibuini launched Kenya’s first original soap opera, Mali, in October 2011. Just under companies like this, he places the Kenyan media houses producing content for their own channels.

Shamoon puts Riverwood down at the bottom of this pyramid, but actually holds that segment of the industry in high esteem, saying, “That really is the future of our filming – the Riverwood guys.”

The first feature length film ever made was in 1906. The first movie made in Kenya was the 13-minute Theo in Africa, about former US President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 safari, which was screened in 1910.

Down River Road

Riverwood, a play on Hollywood, Bollywood and even Nollywood (of Nigeria), is a collective name for the quick turnaround film businesses that line River Road in Nairobi. A notoriously dangerous and seedy area, it is perhaps strange it’s become the hub for local Kenyan productions. But that’s the role River Road has laid claim to.

Here, producers (ranging from extremely amateur to professionals) spend incredibly small amounts of money and still come up with feature length films – although the quality of said films relates, as you’d expect, to the amount of money spent.

These films make their money back by going straight to DVD and being sold, often alongside pirated movies from the US and other larger film industries, in over 60,000 locations that are part of an elaborate distribution network, according to Shamoon.

While many people are dubious and dismissive when it comes to Riverwood productions, Shamoon considers them vital to the future of the Kenyan film industry.

“Everyone here will evolve to the next level at some stage,” he says about his tiered view of the industry, defending the role of Riverwood. However, he stresses that for this to be made easy, and therefore to develop Kenyan film in general, there needs to be an enabling environment.  Towards creating this, a new National Film Policy is in the works.

“You know the old film policy was from 1952…[it] doesn’t reference video, television, Internet,” Shamoon explained before trailing off in a laugh.

Mutie, who said the policy would be ready within the next few months to a year, put forth some of its basic tenants, saying “[The policy] will introduce a number of requisite scenarios that are good for the industry. For instance we need to strengthen our capacity, both human and resources, we need to scale up training on various aspects of filming – scripting, photography and all that, [and] we need to establish a film fund.”

Shamoon, who was part of the committee that wrote the current draft of the policy, has his own prioritization, but one thing they agree on is the need of a film school in Kenya.


Mutune, as a 19-year-old, was a girl on a mission. She wanted to make films. It was an early passion and she knew that was what she would do with her life. However, there was a problem for the young Kenyan – no film school.

Compared with North America, Europe and South Africa, Kenya’s universities that teach film are focusing more on the technical aspects and less on the creative. While the situation in-country has certainly improved in recent years, many Kenyan’s who are serious about studying film still end up going abroad.

Mutune followed that path, taking her passion to South Africa. This ended up being a formative decision for he though, and one she certainly does not regret.

“One of the things I appreciated about South Africa is that they understand about branding themselves, using their culture to sell who they are – and that’s what they gave me. Before I got there I was writing wannabe Hollywood scripts,” she said.

As taking advantage of and using your culture is undoubtedly a good lesson to learn, there is no reason why a Kenyan film school cannot promote the same ideas. In fact, the lack of development of Kenyans for the topnotch positions on a film set, like directors, directors of photography or gaffers, is really standing in the industry’s way, according to Shamoon.

However, most people in the industry see the problems this is causing and in the draft of the new policy, a film school is meant to be established as part of the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication.

Until then, young talent can continue going abroad to study, and hopefully come back with an understanding of how international industries work.

After her schooling was finished, Mutune went to Santa Monica, just outside of Los Angeles, for a film internship. While she took advantage of the opportunity to learn, the crashing economy apparently did not support film interns. At that point, Mutune fully committed herself to the idea behind Leo. She moved to Boston to live with her brother as she got a script together and started the tedious project of getting funding.



…PART 2 coming soon…

First published in the February 2012 issue of Destination Magazine

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