New crop of film makers put coastal region on global map

Omar Kibulanga, a local filmmaker from Mombasa. Among the films he produced are, Tete Series and Kiswahili Kitukuzwe. PHOTO | POOL

For the longest time, the house of Habib Swaleh was regarded as just another dilapidated structure on Lamu Island. Stories about it were passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation and as happens with oral narrations, different versions emerged over time.

Omar Kibulanga, a local filmmaker had always been curious about the true story of the house built by one of the most significant Islamic scholars more than 120 years ago and whose legacy lives on through the institutions and traditions he established.

He decided to research its history and set the record straight using a short film. That was the start of his filmmaking journey with the short film he produced not only contributing to the transformation of the house of Habib Swaleh into a tourist attraction but also winning him an award.

He is among a new crop of filmmakers that is putting the coastal region on the global map.

“Habib Swaleh is an icon with influence on education, science, and cultural heritage across the East Africa region. He, Habib Swaleh, was born in the Comoro Islands during the 1,800s but later settled in Lamu. He was an easy pick when I decided to produce a short film series called Tete about the unsung heroes across East Africa,” says Mr Kibulanga.

In the Habib Swaleh episode, Kibulanga highlights his life and the impacts he left behind in society. The short films he says are meant to inform and educate.

Omar Kibulanga, a local filmmaker from Mombasa. His films have won him several awards. PHOTO | POOL

“Like me, most people knew of the name but had no idea he started a higher learning institution and by educating the masses, he was instrumental in putting an end to racism and tribalism in East Africa. This is the main reason I decided to release it as my first episode,” says the 32-year-old filmmaker.

He is a journalist by profession and says he has never undergone any filmmaking classes.

The Tete series earned him an invite to Soas University of London as a panellist at the Baraza Swahili Study Conference in 2021.

“I did not expect such an impact. People from London, India, France, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya started visiting the historical house,” says Mr Kibulanga.

The series won Best Documentary Award at the Coast Film Festival in 2021 and the Swahili International Film Festival last year.

The awards motivated him to push harder and produced Rukia, a three-minute short film as his second project.

“There was a Kalasha Smash(smart) competition which required one to submit a short film that was shot and edited on a mobile phone. I came up with the idea of Rukia, which highlights a woman’s mental health challenge, an issue that our society does not talk about openly. The film won third place,” says Mr Kibulanga.

Change narrative

Coming from a small village popularly known as Mombasa’s crime den, Mr Kibulanga has always wanted to change the narrative. Now with his films, he is telling a different narrative that is selling the coastal region as a filmmaking destination.

“Kiswahili is our national language. One of my goals is to see many people embracing and speaking it fluently. The movies are done in Swahili but subtitles are available to help the international audience understand them better,” says Mr Kibulanga.

This was evident in his latest movie Kiswahili Kitukuzwe, which won three awards at the 2022 Kalasha International TV and Film Festival. It won Best Short Documentary, Best Editor, and Best Sound Designer awards.

“This will remain my favourite movie. We shot it from 12pm to 5pm but editing was the main challenge. It took me the whole night. The idea came about when early last year the United Nations announced July 7 will be World Kiswahili Day and I saw an opportunity to showcase the beauty of the language.

I remember I edited it the night of July 6 and in the morning of July 7 when I finished around 8 am, I was hospitalised, I did not attend the launch of the movie which happened later that day,” says Mr Kibulanga.

But he is not alone in the journey.

Hussein Abdi (centre), an advert and film location manager at the coast. He has brought several film and advert productions including Safaricom’s to the coastal cities. PHOTO | POOL

Hussein Abdi, 30, has also been selling Mombasa, Kwale, and Kilifi as filmmaking destinations.

Using his role as location manager, he has brought several film and advert productions including Safaricom’s to the coastal cities. One of the movies, Disconnect The Wedding Planner will air on Netflix on Friday.

“I am an accountant by profession. But film production is my passion, I love showcasing our beautiful historical sites. I am proud to say I sold Mombasa as a destination,” says Mr Abdi.

He was part of the team behind the Safaricom Shangwe Mtaani advertisement of 2013 and the Safaricom Kochokocho advert of 2017.

As his reputation grows, he has been tapped by foreigners with the latest being a Sweden director who chose him to advise on locations for an upcoming film called Kadzo.

Huge gap

“I was curious about how the shooting scenes are done in movies. I got an opportunity to experience that. I am proud so far of where coastal cities stand as filmmaking destinations. I have two big projects soon coming to big platforms,” says Mr Abdi.

Mr Kibulanga and Mr Abdi agree that there is still a huge gap that needs to be filled when it comes to local filmmakers.

Among the challenges they note is that there are inadequate platforms to showcase the talents and equipment are fewer. They call for the government to extend support to local talents that are struggling.

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