David ‘‘Tosh’’ Gitonga: A filmmaker’s mind


David Gitonga an award-winning filmmaker and Director of Nairobi life and disconnect during the interview at Nation Center, Nairobi on June 9, 2022. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

Filmmaker David ‘‘Tosh’’ Gitonga lives on the edge. In a matter of hours, he could be thrust from a neat plan to complete chaos.

On the day I am meeting him for this interview, Gitonga is evidently distraught. A camera he has been expecting from Germany has delayed, two days from the start of a filming project. He insists the shoot must go on, except his wince gives away his anxiety.

Gitonga has directed, among a host of other highly acclaimed films, the 2018 Academy Awards nominated ‘‘Nairobi Half Life’’ (Best Foreign Film) and award-winning romantic comedy ‘‘Disconnect’’.

But these triumphs are only half the story. A chat with the filmmaker is a doorway to his mind, his thought process, fears and hopes for Kenya’s film industry.

On working on Nairobi Half Life.

It was my first film ever. I had never worked on a short film before this project. It was a daunting experience in many ways. I did not know what the reception would be like. But every successful filmmaker has the first film they ever made.

Nairobi Half Life was not extraordinary in any sense. It was about making a decision on a quality film and sticking to that throughout the process.

On his biggest anxiety before taking up any project.

Filmmaking is about revealing your inner self and telling your most intimate secrets. It is almost like conducting an orchestra. You always wonder: what are people going to say about your magic or madness?

Sometimes you get the most unexpected reactions from the film. While you embark on a project, you are conscious of the impact it must create, even when you know you may never get recognition for it. It makes you feel vulnerable. Yet you must give it your all.

On managing relationships with the producer, cast and crew.

I am a collaborative director. I rely a lot on other project leads. The success of any project requires that we work as a team. I keep an eye on everything to spot where mistakes are. Owing to our lack of a proper film school in Kenya, occasionally I facilitate training for these units by bringing in international trainers.

In my current project, the executive producer, production designer and director of photography are all from South Africa. This allows our local professionals to learn through demonstration. The standard and quality of a production is non-negotiable.

On what to do when things go wrong on set.

Anything could go awry. When you are in a hole, stop digging, some people say. You could choose to stop filming because something is not working out as planned and solve it first. You could also adapt and fix glitches on the go.

When you put an obstacle on the path of an ant, it does not stop moving. It only changes its course. This is my mantra: to keep going. When you aim for 10 in a project but score eight, you should look back at the amount of work you put in and appreciate yourself.

On finding an investor who believes in a story to finance it.

A film is a product like any other in the market. For a film to do well, you must first conduct a market feasibility study. You must also market it aggressively. You must sell the film to get back the investment.

How much will you be making after releasing the film to theatres?  What are your projections? What are the distribution channels? For a filmmaker to get funding, they have to answer these questions and demonstrate to financiers that once they invest in the film, they are going to recover their money and even make profits.

On recouping money invested in a film.

Film is business. It is not a hobby. It is also expensive to do film. You start to spend money from the moment you start planning for a project, during the actual filming and the entire production process.

Whatever your team does, they must create an environment that makes it possible to recover every penny spent. You cannot afford to drop the ball. Any project has to be handled from this pragmatic approach.

On whether he has actually made money from filmmaking.

If it were not for passion, it makes no business sense to keep spending money on projects that do not pay back. But I can see where we are going. There is a clear pattern. We are in the painful phase of filmmaking. It is a matter of time, though.

The focus right now is to break even in every project I undertake. In cases where I have not made money from a film, these have opened doors for other opportunities for me.

On where the industry is at the moment.

It gives me pride to see local shows doing so well on Showmax and Netflix. There is more optimism in the industry. Our directors and producers are hungrier for better stories.

On whether Kenya’s film industry is exclusive.

It was before, but not anymore.

Most productions coming up today are by people I never knew existed in the industry. There are also more shows in our market. What this means is that producers have to assemble teams for their productions. It is, therefore, not possible to have the same professionals featuring everywhere. This is growth.

On the claim that Kenyans do not watch Kenyan movies.

This is untrue. What Kenyans demand is fine quality. An audience that consumes movies on Netflix, HBO and Amazon cannot settle for anything less. Local filmmakers must step up. They must also develop more quality films and put them out there for Kenyans to watch.

On changing consumption habits.

With more than 2 billion smartphones in the world, how people consume film and the avenues of consumption has changed. This is an opportunity for Kenyan filmmakers to make their case. When the demand for local films goes up, filmmakers will create more films on the Kenyan story.

On why the Kenyan story matters to the world.

Any story is more exciting to watch when you have no idea about the culture from which it comes. You are more curious to learn. Life is a story. Our identity is a story.

Even when they travel out of their country, people always consume content from home because that is what defines them. We must, therefore, be able to tell our story to the world authentically.

On how filmmaking has shaped his outlook.

You are always on the lookout for the next story. Filmmaking is like a school. As you delve into different themes, you learn about occupations, people’s thinking, their life and world. You do not live in a bubble.

You experience and appreciate everything happening around you. You live other people’s lives. This impacts heavily on how you interpret your own world.

On the legacy he is building.

I want to be part of the team that creates a space where African filmmakers and other creatives can be themselves, tell their own stories and earn a living out of it. Filmmaking is about self-sacrifices.

Sometimes you have a small budget from which you must develop a decent film. It is for this goal that I go through some of my difficult experiences.

On what engrosses him away from film.

Filmmaking is a stressful affair. Earlier in my career, I would party hard as an escape. I got some most of my story ideas from these settings. Lately, though, I have shifted my attention to golfing. I love to travel too.

Fitness is a top priority for me, so biking is high up in the list of my activities. I also like to be in my own zone through reflection. I want to be a better person.

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