Encounters with filmmakers are seldom bland. It isn’t different with award-winning scriptwriter and producer Natasha Likimani. While outwardly flinty, Natasha is charming and effervescent. Once the ice has thawed, she eases into a free-flowing conversation, occasionally letting out an infectious laugh.
Mali, Makutano Junction, Veve and other local films and TV productions bear her insignia. It wouldn’t be altogether mistaken to call her one of the region’s arch scriptwriters. Except this isn’t a title she fancies.
“I’ve barely scratched the surface,” she says giggly. “I’m at about 40 percent of what I intend to do.”
The former news anchor writes for four hours daily, inspired by her environment and picking out what resonates with her audience. A 90-minute project takes her between three weeks and three months to finish.
‘‘It could also be something that gives me a tingle,’’ she explains, noting that an idea’s viability is also determined by possible funding.
“You must have the temperament to write for long hours without being bored,” says Natasha who, incidentally, didn’t go to college to study film –or college at all.
Ten years later, the self-taught filmmaker is discontent with where her career is.
‘‘Some narratives are cliché,’’ she laments. ‘‘The realities of the local film industry though often compel you to buckle down to be able to make money.’’
At times, this has felt like being tugged toward two irreconcilable directions: between making money and building a career around projects she’s passionate about.
The Jurassic Park, Mad Max and other post-apocalypse type of film are her favourite genre.
‘‘Why do some quarters consider horror too dark for the local market yet we always consume western horror?’’ she poses.
‘‘We can create post-humanity film here just as in the Americas and Europe. We have great locations in the region that would work for that genre.’’ She exhales. ‘‘It’s just that we haven’t explored.’’
True to form, Natasha is currently working on a project ‘‘that will blaze the trail on the local film scene’’. Only she won’t divulge details.
Natasha’s biggest asset is her mind and acute sense of detail. When I note that she’s now 38, she springs to life as though she has just made the realisation herself. ‘‘Am I?’’ she jokes. ‘‘It hardly feels like it.’’
Lessons? Plenty, she replies, looking away as if to turn over the long list in her head. Among these has been to look for peace within.
‘‘Letting go doesn’t mean you’re giving up. It means you’re allowing yourself time to regroup. I’m also more patient with myself.’’
When she started out, Natasha dived into anything that promised money and excitement. By taking up production later, she’d hoped to hedge her bet. Today, she signs up only for projects that ‘‘allow me to be myself’’.
Is the energetic hum fading, I wonder. ‘‘Not at all,’’ she answers quickly. ‘‘It’s just that the years are going downhill faster than I have sometimes cared to admit.’’
Natasha says she doesn’t have regrets. But she must have anxieties at this stage in life, I tease. ‘‘Of course I’m concerned about if I’ll be ever able to act again.’’
She cringes when I mention fashion. Her sisters joke that she dresses like a five-year-old. ‘‘I’m a writer. I’m okay with anything that’s comfortable. Heels are for important meetings only.’’
The subject of family strikes a nerve. Natasha says she’s ‘‘happy to have my mother and very loving sisters’’. She turns po-faced when I ask if she’s dating. ‘‘Can we pass that?’’ I oblige.
Food livens her up. Natasha’s ‘‘an excellent cook who hates to be in the kitchen’’.
‘‘I’m very adventurous nonetheless,’’ she says with an outpouring sense of self-delight. ‘‘I baked chocolate cake during my sister’s birthday recently. I can make a hamburger from scratch.’’
A zealous traveller, Natasha’s excursions in Indonesia, a trip to any European city or a weekend in Zanzibar ‘‘allow me to absorb the world without distractions’’.
I wonder what between privilege and luck has got her thus far. Neither, she asserts.
‘‘I didn’t get into film through the conventional route. I wanted to study the arts and major in film, but that was never to be.’’ Hers has been a personal endeavour, learning different skills and reading copious amounts of film literature.
‘‘I have the mad belief that when your work is good, something has to give,’’ she says with gusto.
That government officers don’t understand film was Natasha’s sensational claim in 2014. Is it a position she holds to date?
‘‘The industry won’t have changed much in 10 years,’’ she remarks deadpan. ‘‘It’s ambitious to imagine that professionals without a film background can steer us forward.’’
Funding for film needs a rethink. ‘‘Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki, a phenomenal local story, for instance, was funded by foreign donors. This is heart-breaking.’’
‘‘Having veteran filmmaker Dorothy Ghettuba to chair the Kenya Film Commission board was a game-changer. The commission’s CEO Timothy Owase is also a progressive professional. Both are inspiring hope in the industry,’’ she says.
Partnerships with foreign filmmakers is a shot in the arm for Kenya’s film, she observes, arguing that ultimately content has to be created and owned by Kenyans.
‘‘We can’t, for instance, keep promoting locations at a time when it’s possible to enact these through technology.’’
With Kalasha Awards and Machawood, Natasha says the industry is on a promising trajectory, but with more work to be done.
‘‘Two or three films compete for prizes during awards. We must increase our film volume,’’ says the creative who wants to think, to explore and to be fully expressive ‘‘within an uncensored sphere’’.
Natasha blurts out the names of Steven Spielberg, Ben Affleck and Angelina Jolie when I ask who she looks up to. Working with Tyler Perry would be a dream come true, she adds.
‘‘You develop emotions through acting. By writing, you get a mastery of words,’’ she explains.
In her dream film, Natasha would cast Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davies and Mkanzee Mwatela (notable for Mali and Stay). Essentially, women of colour. I gather.
‘‘They’re very expressive and fit in their roles like a glove.’’
Kenya has a lot of ‘‘untapped gems of film talent’’, she says. ‘‘I’m always fascinated by the unknown but very amazing talent in theatres. It’s unfortunate that we can’t feature everyone on TV productions.’’