‘Shimoni’, a directorial debut feature by Kenyan director Angela Wanjiku Wamai, is competing in the Joburg Film Festival where it had its African premiere yesterday. The film was also among the Bright Future films at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).
Angela told SAPeople: “I couldn’t make it (to Joburg) because I’m doing a writing residency in Switzerland (…) otherwise I would have loved to be at the Joburg Film Festival. I was really bummed that I wasn’t able to be there”.
Her film, ‘Shimoni’, follows the release from prison of a former English teacher, Geoffrey, who is forced to take on manual jobs back in the village in Kenya where he grew up.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What drove you to depict a protagonist both victim to his childhood trauma and guilty of murder?
I can only speak to how the film started and the idea of the film. I was watching something or doing something, I can’t really remember and then I got this vision in my head of this women who was holding a paper that was burning and the flame was burning towards her finger and she wasn’t letting the paper go. So I kept asking myself “Why isn’t she dropping this thing?”. Then I started thinking about the things we hold on to and how dangerous it is to exist within them, we’re not letting go. It led me to think about trauma, how we carry these things in our bodies and how they’re consuming us either because we’re just not able to speak about it, we don’t want to speak, we don’t want to confront these things. I guess this brought me to this idea of a child or Geoffrey, this man who is living with such a big secret, in a society that doesn’t allow men to confront sexual abuse. There’s this trauma that he’s carrying about. But also I really was interested in how to feel some sort of empathy for him beyond making him a monster, he’s a person that’s gone through something very difficult. It made me start thinking how I can empathise with this person. It was a long journey to Geoffrey, trying to understand our own traumas and secrets. How do I deal with my own traumas and the wounds we carry around and how do we forgive the people who have wounded us? It’s being able to empathise and see them as humans and not as monsters. So I created this human being who’s difficult to like but you understand his pain and his hurt. You may not like him but you see him, you see the person, not the murderer, not the one who has committed such a huge crime.
SPOILER ALERT. Did you know when writing the screenplay that Geoffrey would die by suicide?
I tried other options. I tried to keep him alive but he wasn’t going to live… because maybe I just wrote him into this kind of hole. I never saw another way out. Also because of the society we’ve created and to some extension it’s also about the choices that he makes. He chooses not to be a monster. He’s already started the journey down that road. He’s already moving in that direction. He can’t stop the monster, his abuser. That monster he’s unable to confront so he confronts the monster that he can and that’s himself. Unfortunately this is the way that he deals with it. I always knew.
I also think I was trying to process this idea of death by suicide because I find it such a powerful exploration of our depressed emotions. Like when someone does that you’re like “Okay, why?” and then you start to think “What am I doing? How am I living?”. It’s a very powerful way to think about how we repress things and what they do to us when we keep repressing.
Why was it important to portray the church and religion in your film?
One because a lot of the villages in Kenya are heavily Christianised. That’s the place where a lot of people meet, in church and in church groups. Also I wanted a space where there are rules. You already know how things work. There’s the good and the bad clearly defined. Even the church committee moves between this good and bad. In the morning they are church – they are good, at night when they are planning to get rid of someone who they feel threatens their community – they are monsters. They are constantly moving between these two worlds.
Also because I am a Christian and I needed to confront how we as Christians have dealt with such abuse and our inertia. That’s the thing with the priest, he’s not a bad guy but he doesn’t do anything. He watches, he sees, he has all the information but he just simply does nothing. That’s the problem. He’s not dealing with it. When he has the opportunity to do something he lays the blame on Geoffrey. But there is an abuser in this town, in this equation and that is never confronted.
What went into filming the scene where Geoffrey lashes out and mistakingly fatally wounds a cow?
The thing with Geoffrey, Justin Mirichii, is he’s really, really, really good with animals, he wanted to be a veterinary doctor. He just has this thing with animals. They just come to him. We had a couple of days before with a cow, it was a calf. It was still on milk. So we had to cover Justin in milk to attract the cow to him. We had to pour all this milk around him. The calf kept coming. It hadn’t been fed for a couple of hours before the shoot so it was hungry. We hid some milk under his seat. He was drenched in milk. The cow kept coming towards him. And then we had to sedate the poor calf for a while.
What were your take-aways from directing your first feature?
Doing the shorts made it easier. The short I wrote without directing, ‘I Had to Bury Cũcũ’ (2018), was sort of a prologue to this film. We were exploring mood and tone. I was trying to establish a style.
The main difference was the amount of time. When you’re working on a short you have to rehearse your actors and you have to do all these things on a small scale. With a feature it’s exploded to a 1000 x 400. It’s so much bigger.
I think it would have been impossible for me to jump straight in cos I’m an editor. Without doing a short it would have been impossible. I think because of the work with the actors. You have to really understand what you’re doing with actors. The shorts gave me a glimpse into how I wanted to work with the actors and how I wanted to rehearse them.
You’ve been recognised for your editing with the Best Film Editor Award at the Women in Film awards in Kenya, will you continue editing as well as directing?
That is the million dollar question! I don’t know… The thing with directing I think it’s not very neat. I like small spaces. I’m quite introverted. So being a director is really pushing me outside of my comfort zone. I think I want to go back to editing just to calm down and get back to a space that I understand and then see what happens. What I do know now is I don’t think I’ll do commercial directing. I’m still trying to figure out my voice, to refine how I want to speak. So I’m going to take time for that and in that process because I need to eat I will be editing a little bit more.
What is the space for filmmaking like in Kenya and how is it for women in particular?
I think we have a bigger TV industry and that’s growing pretty fast. There are a lot of international platforms are coming in so the TV space is expanding really quickly. We’re still doing the soapies. The same sort of stuff. There’s more interest in doing TV films. From there I think we’re starting to birth an industry, a theatrical cinema industry. It’s still quite young. We still don’t have clear cinematic voices coming out of Kenya especially in fiction. In documentaries there are a lot more growth. There are a lot more brilliant documentaries and theatre productions that exist. In terms of fiction we still have a lot to do. Because of funding we’re not able to produce as much as we want so even if you’re a director you end up existing more in a TV space. We still have a long way to go I think and we need to define how we want to speak. We still don’t have ‘God’ people of Kenyan cinema. We currently are the ones defining this thing, who are pushing this cinematic growth I guess you can say.
One of the biggest directors is a woman, Wanuri Kahiu, she’s best known. Actually when I think about it most of the directors are women. There are more women who are pushing those boundaries and who are known. But it is still very difficult as it is in any other part of the world. The space is still very new but I don’t particularly find it repressive. We have to fight, we have to work harder but being a woman has not stopped anyone. We all have the same problems, just finding funding. If you do find the funding you can and will survive as a woman. I think it’s just also getting access to a lot of the things and just being willing to work a lot very very hard and to push a lot of doors down.
In terms of funding, do you need to look to co-produce with other countries in order to fill the funding gap?
More like to get other funding cos there’s only a little funding coming out of the Kenya Film Commission which is mainly for development. I know they just finished one cycle. But it’s not a lot so you do need to find a lot of co-productions. With the co-productions, a lot of them come from Europe, they’re interested in Africa looking to Francophone Africa. There’s the ACP (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific) – EU Culture Program for the more Sub-Saharan space and Anglophone area. But East Africa has not been accessed in terms of funding. But that’s usually the route. You look for co-producers.
Another problem is actually finding producers. There are not that many creative producers on the continent. There are a few in South Africa. There’s some really great ones in the West, like in Senegal. We have a lot of line producers who know how to run a set and to help find funding, push those doors (but) we are left at the mercy a lot of the time of producers from outside. It has its advantages but it also has its disadvantages… and we’re trying to protect how we tell our stories. But I guess yes co-production would be the easiest to reach funding in East Africa.
You mentioned South Africa, were there any South Africans involved in ‘Shimoni’?
We had a post-studio in South Africa. The colourist was South African, Francesca Verveckken, her post house is called Comfort and Fame. She was the one person on our team from South Africa. She’s based in Belgium and South Africa.
WATCH ‘SHIMONI’ TRAILER