In Kenya's film-making industry the spotlight is rarely on scriptwriters. They are the unseen hand that lays the foundation on which an entire body of work is based. If they do a good job, others such as actors and directors are thrust into the limelight.
But Abel Mutua is not your typical scriptwriter. As an actor in one of Kenya's best-known and long-running TV shows, 'Tahidi High', he is a household name. Now as a scriptwriter, he is never away from the spotlight thanks to the weekly topical story narrations on different digital media platforms where he has carved a niche for himself.
On the day of this interview, he was making the final preparations ahead of a movie premiere today (Friday) at the Nairobi Cinema. The film, titled 'Click Click Bang', is a re-enactment of one of the true stories he has told on his YouTube channel where he refers to himself as 'Mkurugenzi' and his over 300,000 subscribers as 'Wakurugenzi'.
His scripting journey, he says, started by chance. “It was during my days in 'Tahidi High'. In 2009, the then head writer Naomi Kamau was moving away from the show. I saw an opportunity, went home and wrote a script. Unfortunately, when I presented what I had done, Ms Kamau was not impressed.”
Abel however insisted on the script being filmed. Ms Kamau reluctantly obliged but with a caveat that he would have to contend with whatever feedback the audience would give.
“After the show aired on TV, the backlash from our viewers brought me back to my senses. It was a nasty experience.”
Undeterred, Abel embarked on a learning journey under Ms Kamau. A career was born and he has never looked back.
Does scripting pay well? I’m curious, to which he answers in the affirmative.
“It does pay. One of the greatest advantages we have in this field is that it is not yet crowded. People haven’t seen the potential that artistic writing has and so there are vast opportunities,” says Abel who has seven mentees.
'Click Click Bang' is his second movie script after another one titled 'A Grand Little Lie' last year.
“I have, however, scripted for several TV shows including 'Tahidi High', 'Mother-in-Law', 'Sue na Jonnie', and 'Maempress',” he says.
Abel takes pride in the 'Tahidi High' as his most successful scripting work but regrets that 'Sue na Jonnie' could have easily occupied the front-row seat were it not for the pay-to-watch model adopted by Maisha Magic.
Holding no hostages
How does he measure the success of a script? His mantra is simple; the audience is the king.
“I usually measure the success of my work based on the feedback I receive from viewers. It wouldn’t matter to me if I made huge sales out of a film and the feedback is not as vibrant. I always look forward to what people will say once I put content out there,” he states.
The generation of scripting ideas for Abel is not a big hassle as he focuses on stories “that have a human touch”. His scripts, he says, are based on real natural stories from his own life experiences as well as from observing the lives of those around him. “I don’t lean towards imaginative writing,” he emphasises.
Close to 13 years into his career, Abel says he has never experienced the pressure of the audience demanding more than he can deliver.
Says he: “My intention has always been to walk together with those who appreciate what I do because, in all honesty, I can’t force anyone to consume my work. I openly tell people that if what I’m offering is not entertaining enough, they are free to watch what is pleasing to them. I can’t hold them hostage.”
On what has changed in film scripting over the years, Abel is blunt. “Between the time I did my first ever script in 2009 and the period just before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the industry experienced very little growth. This is partly because of the film consumption culture in this country and to some degree due to the lack of policy support."
“However, when the pandemic struck, there was a turnaround. While previously scriptwriters focused on long-format writing, people now write short skits, film them and upload the content online. This has given rise to a new crop of scriptwriters who do not necessarily have to go through the complex hassles of doing detailed formal scripts.”
Now 35, Abel advises upcoming scriptwriters not to go seeking jobs but instead take charge of their skill and do their own thing.
“Do not look for a job. Look for a small team of related film-making professionals and start your own thing. That way, you’ll be able to take charge and learn hands-on,”
Abel admires Tyler Perry's model of film scripting, saying he has learned from the Hollywood star the art of converting a fan base community into a business.
“I admire his model of putting together a fan base community and turning it into a business. I have experienced this first-hand from what I call the 'Wakurugenzi effect'.
“I’ve never had to place movie adverts through the mainstream media or hire marketers. I just talk to 'Wakurugenzi' via my YouTube channel and that’s it. For this particular film premiering on Friday, the 850-seater capacity Nairobi Cinema was filled in a record four days and I didn’t do this through any marketing agency. It was just between them and me.”