Director behind Boniface Mwangi’s ‘Softie’: On telling African stories through documentaries


Sam Soko is a documentary filmmaker based in Nairobi, Kenya. PHOTO | POOL

How much do you love what pays your bills? Is it something you eagerly anticipate or confidently discuss? Every so often, we encounter individuals whose passion isn’t confined to their words but is vividly evident in the enthusiasm that lights up their eyes as they talk about their occupations. Sam Soko is a prime example of such a person, especially when it comes to documentary filmmaking.

I was eager to have a conversation with Soko, and it had nothing to do with passion. I was intrigued by Soko due to his unique approach to the concept of time as it's reflected in his projects. He has truly mastered the art of patience, not only in his responses to my questions but throughout the entirety of his creative process.

Consider, for instance, his role as the director of ‘Softie’, a Boniface Mwangi documentary, which spanned a remarkable five years in the filming phase, with even more significant time dedicated to the editing process. Even more impressive is his co-direction of ‘Free Money’, a project that took seven years to complete. In our discussion, we explore a range of topics, including storytelling, glimpses into his personal life, and the profound impact of his relationship with time.

Documentaries, passion, or occupation?

I am a documentary addict, and that speaks volumes about my personality. I am captivated by real-life stories and consider myself fortunate to work in this domain.

Imagine a scenario from your primary school days when a teacher approached you and inquired about your future ambitions. Did the idea of pursuing visual storytelling ever cross your young mind?

Interestingly, no. My journey into filmmaking was quite accidental – a tale for another time. Growing up, visual storytelling was often seen as a pastime rather than a profession. It’s exhilarating to see so many people embracing it now.

Who do you look up to?

I draw inspiration from the world around me and its inhabitants. I believe in boundless growth, and everyone has something to teach.

In the context of traditional filmmaking, there is typically a well-defined pre-production process that allows for visualising and conceptualising the final product. How does this process differ when working on documentaries, especially when you begin with only a case study?

Before even considering the camera, I invest significant time into understanding and bonding with the subjects of my documentaries. Cameras tend to make subjects uneasy, and trust in both the process and the filmmaker is paramount. This rapport-building step takes precedence over other processes for me.

Your work often reflects a strong sense of patience. What factors have shaped your unique relationship with time in your filmmaking?

Many describe me as patient, though I occasionally beg to differ. I view my approach as echoing a foundational element of African storytelling – where time isn’t a restriction but an enabler. Thus, patience becomes essential in unravelling captivating tales.

Free Money, who came up with the title?

My co-director, Lauren DeFilippo. Initially, I wasn’t a fan, but I was eventually won over.

Free Money had two directors. Could you explain how the collaborative directorial process functioned and clarify the specific responsibilities each director assumed?

Shared values and mutual respect streamlined our collaboration. Lauren and I maintained open dialogues, ensuring clarity in our decisions. This partnership was rewarding, and I look forward to future collaborations.

Finding a balance between your directorial vision and the producer's vision can be challenging. How did you and DeFilippo navigate this balancing act in your work?

Both of us have donned producer hats in the past, providing us with a unique understanding. Clear communication was our anchor, enabling us to navigate even minute challenges.

As a director, what strategies did you employ to create a comfortable atmosphere for the families you filmed, particularly when working with elderly individuals?

One word: Patience.

How many cuts did you have before what we eventually saw?

The exact number eludes me, but it certainly exceeded 30!

In terms of production challenges, how did Softie and Free Money differ?

They’re contrasting films in terms of narrative, style, technique, and timing. These distinctions were invigorating challenges that fueled my growth, building upon the insights from Softie.

To what extent do your personal beliefs influence your approach to a project, whether it involves exploring universal basic income or delving into political themes as seen in Softie?

My personal beliefs are undeniably influential. I staunchly believe in universal rights, including the freedom of expression and equitable resource distribution. Projects echoing these principles are close to my heart.

In your work (e.g. With Jael’s story) have you ever been tempted to intervene?

Certainly. In cases where immediate assistance is required, such as seeking medical attention, intervention becomes imperative. Fortunately, Jael received overwhelming support, ensuring her education remained uninterrupted.

Have any of your family members had the opportunity to view your work, and if so, what were their impressions and reactions?

Absolutely. My parents often share moments of them engaging with my work. Especially my mother, who actively promotes my endeavours on social platforms. Their pride is evident.

In your view, where do we stand in relation to visual storytelling, and what steps should we take to reach our desired destination?

We’re on an upward trajectory, yet the journey ahead is long. Enhancing global collaboration and ensuring sustainability are pivotal. A concerted investment effort from both governmental and private entities can catalyse this transformation, leveraging the industry’s untapped financial potential.

Given that Softie took five years to produce, and Free Money another seven, how do you juggle your professional commitments with personal life, ensuring quality family time?

Balancing both spheres remains a challenge. However, the unwavering support from colleagues, friends, and family makes this demanding journey feasible.

Do you experience post-project depression?

Consistently. My coping mechanism involves taking brief breaks, therapy, and practising gratitude.

Considering the advancements in technology, do you foresee the phrase 'shot on a phone' becoming a prevalent trend in the world of filmmaking?

The trend is already in motion. A significant chunk of global content is phone-captured, forging a new narrative style. Its potential to democratise storytelling is remarkable.

What’s your pro tip to anyone who wants to delve into or is already navigating the storytelling landscape?

Engage with people, remain receptive, continue learning, share knowledge, and evolve. Simple as that.

What is the one piece of tech that you can’t walk out of the door without?

My earphones.

Twitter: @stanslausmanthi

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