Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu has won top awards at the annual Cannes Film Festival — which opens next month on the French Riveria— for Pumzi, her 24-minute film that critics has called science fiction.
Yet Ms Kahiu never intended to write a sci-fi story. “My motivation was mainly my outrage over the way human beings have mistreated their environment,” said the UCLA-trained filmmaker while speaking to fellow Kenyan filmmakers at PAWA254, a hub for visual creatives, journalists and organisers, last Thursday.
“I had a professor who once told me when in doubt what story to tell, pick the topic that pisses you off and write about that,” she said.
Disarmingly down-to-earth, Ms Kahiu has no airs or affectations about being an award-winning film ‘celeb’. But she does strike one as being a serious professional whose success derives from her self-discipline and consistent commitment to her craft.
Describing herself as a storyteller of the sort that Chinua Achebe described in the Anthills of the Savannah as “a guide for the blind”, Ms Kahiu mostly scripts and directs her own films; although just recently she was a lead scriptwriter for the new television series, State House.
Surprisingly, she didn’t major in film or broadcast media. At Warwick University in the UK, she studied business management. “That was for my parents,” she said.
But even at Warwick she knew she wanted to work in film and television production. “So I took script writing courses at night,” she said, admitting she also wants to write short stories.
After attending the most renowned film school in the US, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Ms Kahiu, once her course was done, couldn’t pass up the chance to shoot the behind-the-scenes documentary of the making of Philip Noyce’s controversial anti-apartheid film Catch a Fire.
But since she’s been back, from 2006, she has been busy. Before Pumzi won her the Cannes award in 2013, her most acclaimed film was From a Whisper, based on the 1998 bomb blast at the US Embassy in Nairobi where more than 100 Kenyans and 12 Americans died.
From a Whisper also earned Ms Kahiu awards at Fespaco in Ouagadougou and at the African Movie Academy Awards in Lagos.
But she says she can no longer watch the film. “I see too many things I’d like to change or rewrite,” she told a house-full at PAWA254. “In fact, I don’t ever watch my films once they’ve been made,” she added.
In the case of Pumzi, she revised the script 30 times over a period of two years before finally settling on the final draft.
She says she left herself open to be challenged by several local filmmakers, including Keith Kinambuga, chairman of the Kenya Scriptwriters Guild. They queried the length of time it took for her to craft her script.
“But writing a script takes time,” she said, standing her ground. “If you think a script can be done quickly, you are most likely deluding yourself, believing the script is good when it’s not,” she added.
Asked if she had broken even financially with Pumzi, Ms Kahiu admitted the film —which cost around $35,000 (Sh3 million) to make— hadn’t made a fortune, but she had been remunerated for her work in ways other than economic.
“My name is now out there in the wider [cinema] world. And what’s really worthwhile is that I’ve now got a producer for my next film, the script which I am working on now,” she said.
A fierce defender of freedom of expression, Ms Kahiu says she was advised not to make Pumzi since “Africans wouldn’t understand it.” But Wanuri knew her would-be ‘advisers’ were dead wrong about people’s ability to understand science fiction.
“Our oral literature is full of fantasy and what I would call science fiction. Just look at the creation myths of Kenyan [communities]. And think of the ogres and the animal tales. In fact, our grandparents told us tales of magical realism as well,” she said, adding “We come from a history of storytellers … It’s in our DNA.”
Asked how she makes ends meet when she’s not making films, Ms Kahiu says she makes commercials until she’s saved up enough to stop that and starts working systematically on her scripts.
“What helps me get my writing done is self-discipline. I make myself work a nine to five day, and when I have writer’s block, I break it by taking a shower.”