There are many films -shorts, featers, documentaries, animation- in the country, made by young and visionary directors working with talented crew and expensive equipment, directors who want to experiment with form and subject. So, where are these short films? One possibility is that producers and directors still have these master tapes at home, showing them to close friends, maybe using them as part of their portfolios and reels when applying for grants and classes. I know this because I have done it, a lot. I worked on a short film a few months ago. I had the final master tape of the film and I had no idea what to do after the last edit. I though all the work had been done. And then the slow realization that it would take us more time and money to market and distribute the film, that there was much more work to be done.
Four months earlier I had met a director who had an idea and a camera. We were walking down Ronald Ngala Street when I was taken in by the idea; I told him I could write the script for him. I’d been doing some writing for myself and I was desperate for collaboration, it would be my second time working with a director. I had had some training and could not wait to get started on an independent project. I envisioned Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras working together on the script for the timeless Hiroshima Mon Amour (1960), or perhaps Federico Fellini consulting with poets and novelists. We sat at the driver’s booth in those big Kayole matatus and talked about narratives. I think this was the time I had repeatedly watched ‘Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind’ and the idea of a Möbius strip kind of narrative had a major appeal to me. We talked about the logistics of making a short film: actors’ salaries, licenses, crew and equipment. They were too many and so we decided to deal with them later. Two weeks later I had the script and we spent a few nights developing it. We had a lot of arguments considering the script was only twenty minutes long. In the end we decided to do a 9 minute long short; most international festivals will not take shorts longer than 13 minutes.
The next step was looking for actors. The script needed only three main characters, one being a young boy of around 12. We had mutual friends who had done some acting on local television. We approached them and explained we would not be able to pay them. They did not mind. The young boy was more excited about being in front of a camera than by the prospect of actors’ fees. We did get consent from the parent.
One of the actors was an art student and he did a couple of rough drafts for our storyboard.
Principal photography (a phrase I love) started two weeks later since we were still working on the script with the main actor and spending evenings doing location scouting. I had to translate it to Swahili. We decided to shoot the film at the director’s house, setting up camp in one of the extra rooms, and the lady of the house was happy enough to provide the food and accommodation. There was an orchard in the compound with a lovely shade. The red hibiscus was also in bloom. There was also a nearby river coursing through interlocking spurs; a delicate shrub with an old and stunted baobab tree; a lone heron hunting by the riverside. Perfect locations. The other location was a nearby busy market. All these without spending a cent.
We could only shoot in the early mornings and late afternoons, magic light the director called it. We also did a few recordings for voice over at night in a makeshift studio, with blankets and complete silence, timing to avoid the distant drone of airplanes from JKIA, ten minutes from the house. It took us three days to shoot. On the last day we recorded interview of the cast and crew on the extra tapes.
We had a talented editor to do the first edit. A month later it was complete and we were was content. We screened the short to a few people and after numerous suggestions we did another final edit.
The director knew a music student at Kenyatta University who was willing to score the movie for us for a small fee. Unfortunately his computer crashed and he could not do it. I was relieved because I had no money to pay him. The director and I had spent enough time arguing on whether the short needed music. He was a big fan of the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, its impeccable exploits with silence. On the other hand, I though the film needed scoring, it needed soundtracks. But this cost money. What about music in the public domain? What about all those artists we know who would love to be part of the project? These are some of the questions we should have asked at the beginning of the project. In the end we decided to take a risk and do away with scores, compromising the overall aesthetics of the film.
Meanwhile I was attending screenings at Lola Kenya Screen Film Festival. Once a young director was talking about the challenges of shooting in the country. He mentioned it took them around Ksh. 200,000 to shoot. The film is called Aphrodite, a metaphor for drug abuse. Around half an hour long and with a big cast. I though it a coincidence that his home kitchen was also in charge of the catering. He knows Eric Wainaina and had no problem getting to use some of his music, for free. Also, he was working with a producer whom I had pitched a feature-length to. They were scheduled to do another screening at the National museum. The producer mentioned they had approached NACADA to sponsor the film but had been turned down. How come I had not thought of sponsors? Perhaps we were dealing with a narrower scope and sponsors would interfere with the motives of the film and its general independence. It’s a compromise they were willing to take to produce Aphrodite, she said. The marketing and distribution budget for our short added up to Ksh. 100,000.
So why did I not submit the film to Lola Kenya Screen Film Festival or other festivals? I had a vague idea of the international film festival circuit and television streaming. I had sent emails to networks and a non-profit in South Africa looking for content to air and they said they would be happy to take the film. They even sent contracts to my inbox. I had a list of festivals where I could submit the film. But this part of production proved the most difficult. We could no longer rely on friends; we could not ask for or call in favors. FedEx and DHL do not care that we are independent artists, they have their tariffs and customs to deal with. Sending the film to festivals and networks would cost us more than making it. We did not want to launch it on YouTube; we believed it was too good to give away. There is a short on YouTube by Ben Briand called Apricot, by far superior to what we had produced, but somehow I did not trust online streaming. I spent hours at a cyber café uploading the film on a restricted account on Vimeo and my cloud storage server where we could submit it to anyone who did not ask for a master copy of the DVD. I kept asking myself why I would spend so much time and effort into the film if I was not ready to do so with the distribution and marketing. I had an idea for waiting for the Kenya International Film Festival but that was too far away and there was no assurance of the being accepted.
Lola Kenya Screen Film Festival is doing a commendable job of showcasing these films. They hold screenings every month at the Goethe Institute. The organizer, Ogova Ondego, told me the screening are by invites only because a public screening needs the films to have gone through the censorship board, which is expensive.
We learnt our valuable lessons. It does not cost a lot to produce a short – be it documentary, experimental, but perhaps before embarking on this journey we should have laid out a comprehensive program for distribution and marketing. We needed an overall strategy which considered aspects like festival premiere, theatrical release, DVD rental, DVD sell–through, pay–per–view/Video on Demand cable/satellite TV, premium cable/satellite channel, free–to–air television, and internet distribution from the beginning of the project.
There are young filmmakers out there with films that have not been distributed, not even on the internet. On a coffee date with a scriptwriter, she told me she knew a talented director who had more than ten shorts with his name. How come I had never heard about him?