Bea Wangondu is intuitive, entrepreneurial to the core, and fervently given to her work. If the filmmaker and producer’s Twitter bio—she describes herself as an African story hunter—gives a glimpse into her bent in life, it is her words that bear the potency of this desire.
Her latest work, ‘The Whistleblower’, is Kenya’s first action short film for which she was involved in from scripting to filming and distribution.
From working with a shoestring budget to spending a year in post-production, Bea says the project was the most exciting experience for her.
“The crew and cast were as passionate as I was about the story, which is rare. Most actors and actresses just want to be paid and go,” she says.
“To make an action film for Kenyans, we had to be on point,” Bea says, adding that the team ran out of funds midstream and had to fundraise.
Her pride was the successful execution of the story of a patriot who took it upon himself to fight corruption.
Money for film
It isn’t hard to see why this work enthuses her— someone whose forte is documentaries, some shot in Mogadishu, Somalia. This was her debut short film to produce.
When we meet for this interview, Bea is in a jungle-green cargo dress, heavily accessorised with Maasai jewellery and a brown handbag that she bought in Addis Ababa because “Ethiopia has a way with leather.’’
She has a sublime gift to intonate, switching from the soft pitch of a forlorn actress to the fiery tone of an impatient producer, and speaks with her hands up in the air, every expression in flawless fit.
I am left with an overriding question: why did she opt to work ‘in the shadow rather than in front of the camera? In filmmaking, she says, the producer wields the real influence by “synchronising the vision of the project with the activities of the day.”
“It’s my job to articulate this vision and to make people understand it. If Kenyans could see how corruption has messed up our heritage and inheritance, maybe then we’d vote better,” she says, adding that ‘The Whistleblower’ is a call for action.
In the wake of the Beirut tragedy, Bea tweeted asking her followers to search their souls and to be ready.
“When you think about death, it makes you want to get up now and do what you’ve been hesitant to do. Any day could be ‘your day’,” she says.
When I ask her where she is in her career, Bea replies: “I’m at a good place where I’m very clear about who I am, what I want to do and with who and why.”
She is now more grounded as a filmmaker, and understands the values of leadership, integrity, creativity, entrepreneurship, persistence, and self-respect.
“I’m happy to have put myself in spaces where I didn’t feel adequate or well-prepared. Learning has also been a big part of the journey.”
So, when did she discover her voice? “When I discovered I was multi-talented,” she says. Bea explains that self-respect entails acting on and sticking to one’s vision, adding that “every time you cheat yourself off your values, you lower your worth.”
I’m interested to know what her worth is. “I’m worthy of the funding I get. I won’t cut my budget because I’m a woman. I’m also worth my time.”
I nudge her to talk about self-respect as a woman in the industry. “My worth helps me to handle conflict. I know when to stay and when to walk out,” she says.
Her thrust as a filmmaker is to tell African stories.
“Our stories are often told by everyone else, except us, and from their perspective because ‘we don’t have the resources to defend our true story,’’ she says.
Bea stresses that culture is our selling point. I enquire what the thinking is within the industry about exploring the local culture.
“As an independent creative producer in charge of fundraising for the film, the actual production, distribution, and making pre-sales, then you own the story and determine how you want to tell it and in whatever language.’’
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“We have a skill gap, but we’re sorting it out. It’s an incredible time to be a filmmaker. The journey has just begun, but the momentum is like a tsunami,’’ she says.
It’s here, listening to Bea talk about the film with animated zeal, that I discern her vision. To her, the film is like a theatre where all parts must fit together.
“There are loads of collaborations happening within the industry where different units (camera-work, editing, equipment hiring) collaborate in a project. Nothing should stop us from telling stories. We’re disallowing ourselves from complaining,’’ she says.
Bea says filmmakers are impatient with dysfunctional systems and are now inventing other ways. Is it defiance? “No, it’s for survival,’’ she says.
“If the story is wrong, the screening will be wrong. If the story is right but the marketing is defective, people will not watch the film. Getting any of these elements wrong when you have an investor on board means they won’t get a return on their investment,” she adds.
Independent filmmakers, she says, have to balance between telling a compelling story and paying bills. When I remind her of the government’s pledge to support artistes, she argues that this talk has scarcely been matched with action.
“We appreciate what the Kenya Film Commission has done. But we need more. Corporates, broadcasters, and venture capitalists must all support the film.”
Bea recalls the loss of her father as a young girl, describing the experience as “being cheated out” in life.
Her father had a “larger-than-life personality” and was her biggest inspiration to venture into the arts. “The person who was honest with me was dead. I looked for affirmation and approval from other people,” she recounts.
This experience led to “bad spaces” and extended trauma. To deal with her insecurities, she sought God “with whom I have a special personal connection that has helped me to understand my core.”
Her tsunami-sized optimism about more vibrant and rewarding film industry is anchored on this divine relationship, she says. “It has brought me the freedom of thought, fearlessness, and even enhanced my identity.’’
That she would be paying all her bills through film and attending festivals at Cannes never occurred to her when she started.
So, what is her taste in film? Bea lights up. “I love documentaries because they help me to understand what other parts of the world are like. I’m currently watching a film shot in Macedonia.”
Now 38, Bea says she would like to find love and someone “to do life with’’ but admits that she is not presently “looking for that person.”
“The space for women in film is very tricky. Sometimes you’re filming for 13 hours, which can’t work if you have a baby, for instance,” she notes, adding quickly that she wants a partner who she can be on the same page with.
A handful of friends, attending concerts, and travelling is what her social life looks like. “I don’t like ambiguous relationships.”
In the pipeline, she has four projects, including a feature film she has written and has already assembled a production team, and a TV series with a local producer.