As university students, Billy Jones and Kevin Njue have busy schedules. But that does not deter them from pursuing their passion of shooting films. And following their recent victory at the prestigious Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), they are hard at work planning for their next project.
Their short film “Sticking Ribbons” won them the Signis East Africa Talent Award during the 17th edition of the festival themed “A Common Destiny”. About 22 long-feature films, 33 short movies, 19 documentaries and five animation films were aired at the ZIFF.
“At Zanzibar, we were hopeful of course but as soon as we watched other films, we were a little afraid. The competition was stiff as there were films from all over the world; from Nigeria, Iran, UK and Caribbean islands. So the win was a big moment for us and one we will remember forever. We never thought we would attend a festival. It was not a dream, it is a reality,” says Njue.
The duo attended workshops to improve their skills and got to meet Biyi Bandele, the Nigerian director of “Half of a Yellow Sun”, a movie based on the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The film won the Golden Dhow award for Best Feature Film at ZIFF.
Attending the screening of their short film, Njue describes the reaction from the audience as more welcoming than they had anticipated. Top directors and producers from the US and UK considered their film a big achievement. The judges said the film’s theme was well thought out and well presented in an intriguing format.
“Sticking Ribbons” is a 20-minute short film that looks at the life of a young woman addicted to drugs who is struggling with recovery. Using the flashback technique to tell the story, Njue says what attracted many to the film was the lack of chronological order.
“We have a team of around 10 student filmmakers all from Kenyatta University. We split roles and some went to directing, producing, editing and in the cast. In terms of working on films, “Sticking Ribbons” was our first major production even though we have done a number which sit on shelves back at home,” says Njue.
The script also fitted with the festival’s theme, thus giving it a better chance of getting nominated. ZIFF was the only festival they entered the film.
“The filmmaking was a tough nut to crack, in all honesty. From running on set to ensuring everyone is available and punctual can be hard. Our project took three days to shoot even though it could have been two days,” says Jones.
Relying on goodwill from the venue owners, the professional actress Maureen Koech (the lead actress) and support from family and friends, they managed to pull it off. Jim Bishop, a Kenyan-based UK cinematographer, offered his services and equipment.
Njue and Jones have been friends from childhood and have worked on other projects together. These include one film, a television reality pilot and three theatre plays (Cash on Delivery, Who Killed My Boss? and The 2nd Coming).
Both stuck to their preferred roles of producer/writer and director. They say they work best together because they understand each other and share the same vision in terms of their film careers.
“I believe before you work with anybody, you have to have the same interests. Njue asked me if I wanted to direct the film ...I love his style of writing. It motivated me because it was geared towards building ourselves and for the festival,” says the director, who chose to do a film degree over pharmacy because of his childhood obsession with cartoons and how they are made.
Njue’s love for film came later when he watched The Notebook – a romantic film. He also loves movies by Stallone, Van Damme and Schwarzenegger. “I have so many things in my head and the only way I express them is through film,” he says.
With the prize money at hand, these student filmmakers say they are already working on the next project.
“Film to me is being able to portray the society in a good way. Africans are not portrayed in the best way. Film should be able to market us. As much as we have a lot of problems, we need to do films that compliment us and tell our successes,” says Jones.