Art

Pain of Nairobians inspires global film

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Poster for Tales of the Accidental City, a film by Maimouna Jallow. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • ‘Tales of the Accidental City’ had a short run in Nairobi before it had its world premiere in March this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
  • Since then, this so-called ‘experimental’ tragicomedy has been invited for screenings in New York, Cannes, and Accra. And in July, it will be shown at the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa.

‘Tales of the Accidental City’ had a short run in Nairobi before it had its world premiere in March this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Since then, this so-called ‘experimental’ tragicomedy has been invited for screenings in New York, Cannes, and Accra. And in July, it will be shown at the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa.

Currently, from the Freiburger Film Forum in Germany, the film is streaming as part of a Festival of Transcultural Cinema which we can now watch online for free until Sunday, May 16.

After that, we will have to wait until late this year to watch Maimouna Jallow’s brilliant film about Nairobians’ love-hate relationship with their once-upon-a time ‘City in the Sun’ which has sadly become a poor people’s wasteland.

Exploring the lives, struggles, and frustrations that many Nairobians may identify with, these Tales centre around an anger management class that four disparate Kenyans have been sent to by the court for their anti-social conduct.

Jacinta (Mercy Mutisya) is a former house maid while Diana (Martina Ayoro) is a single mom, and Sarah (Tana Kioko) is a young female street hawker who accidentally landed in their zoom session and found the storytelling too juicy to depart. Then there’s Louis (Eddie Kimani), the former spokesman for Nairobi City Council. Each has a story more outrageous than the next. And all have been charged for their inability to control their emotions, especially their rage that’s been vented violently.

Meanwhile, they all are meant to be tamed and taught tolerance by Counsellor Rose, played with beguiling charm by Wakio Mzenge. But it’s a task that this trained therapist cannot easily fulfill, given the depth of the emotional turmoil that all four have gone through.

As traumatic as the script may sound, Maimouna has interwoven comedic moments with tales of love, loss, corruption, and compassion. Having both written and directed the Tales, the former BBC producer and MSF (Doctors without Borders) media consultant has been in the storytelling business ever since she founded Positively African in 2015. Since then, she has organised Re-Imagining the African Folktale Festivals, published contemporary folktales and children’s books, and performed stories with fellow storytellers all over the world.

Tales of the Accidental City was originally meant to be a play. But when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down all the theatres, she re-imagined it as a three-part audio play that worked well. It was (and still is) online and featured last year at the Ake Art and Book Festival in Nigeria.But Maimouna saw the script had far more potential than simply being a radio play. These tales said so much about the emotional depths, distress and injustices that a wide cross-section of Nairobians feel and endure, she wanted to put their stories on a wider platform. Thus, the film project evolved with support from the African Cultural Fund and the African Publishing Innovations Fund.

Still working on a shoestring, and under pandemic virtual circumstances, the screenplay now features a split-screened zoom session starring a vibrant team of gifted local actors who prove that zoom can actually be a venue for staging films as well as plays during these days of periodic lockdowns.

The foursome look quite innocent initially. Yet one blinded the eye of a child snatcher; another beat up her spouse, and another ran over the mayor’s cat as a consequence of his inability to cope with the contradictions of working in a corrupt City Hall. All are culpable, but what’s intriguing about the tales are the backstories of each of these lives which offer insights into the varied frustrations that Nairobians endure every day.

Tales of the Accidental City is Maimouna’s ingenious creation, but it also evolved as a team effort. It began with a group of talented local writers working around the theme of Nairobi as a city (like others in the region) that wasn’t really planned to serve the interests of Africans. Instead, it grew up ‘accidentally’ during colonial times, so what stories could be told about the city from local Kenyans’ perspectives. That led to the creation of four tantalising short stories by Maimouna, Sitawa Namwalie, Kevin Mwachiro and Margaret Muthee.

After that, Maimouna blended bits of all four to create a bittersweet story that exposes issues of injustice, inequality, and class at the same time sustaining an edgy air of humor and hope.