AMPAS in Africa, Part Two: Nairobi

Nairobi skyline at dawn.

What may be the only 35mm motion picture camera in Nairobi is, at dawn this past July 15, mounted  on a tripod on the roof of a downtown office building. Eight young cinematographers from several African countries are waiting to operate their first scene ever with a  film camera: a shot of the magic hour Nairobi skyline, an establishing shot for a feature length motion picture titled Nairobi Half-Life. The director, “Tosh” Gitonga, must be overwhelmed by his eager African camera crew and its two Anglo mentors, an outsized group if ever there were one—for a simple second unit setup. Jacub Bejnarowicz, a young Polish cinematographer working in Berlin, and I have spent much of the week in intensive workshops with seven young men and one young woman from half a dozen African countries. Like virtually all movie production in Nairobi, we have been using only digital video cameras. There is no film lab in Kenya, and no major film camera rental facilitity. Jacub had brought an Arriflex 235 and six 400′ rolls of Kodak film with him from Berlin, the exposed film to be developed back in Germany.

After the magic hour shot is made, the camera crew poses for a crew photo on the rooftop.

Nairobi workshop cinematographers, Lily Wanjira holding the slate.

Piling into a bus with the camera and the precious cargo of raw stock, we set off for a day’s shooting, ticking off Tosh’s wish list of transition and establishing shots.

Nairobi Half-Life director Tosh (in white), Jacub, arms crossed, and Eskinder Desalegne at the eyepiece.

Martha Winterhalter, publisher of American Cinematographer magazine, has given me some AC caps to pass out to the group. Several hours later, while waiting for some set dressing at a farmhouse set deep behind a corn field and grove of banana trees, I watch the group cluster around the Arriflex, a perfect photo-op of them proudly wearing their new caps. The lone Rwandan of the group, Christian Gakombe, wears his cap the entire following week during the Kigali workshop. I ask him if he sleeps with it.

“American Cinematographer” caps.

Meanwhile, “Sammy” Maina, who wears a different, cleverly emblazoned T-shirt every day, is suddenly capless and looking for love in all the wrong places:

Sammy and his signage.

Jacub is with the One Fine Day and Ginger Ink production groups that are conducting an annual two week workshop in all phases of motion picture production. The program began in 2008 by director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola Run) to bring technical and aesthetic expertise to young African filmmakers. Our AMPAS International Outreach Committee has joined the program in its second week. A distinctive perspective of this program is that though all areas of production have individual focus, great emphasis is placed on inter-departmental discussion: among directors, actors, producers, writers, designers, editors, sound mixers, and cinematographers. It is this inclusive focus that gives the workshop its unique slant.  The writers submit scripts, directors are assigned, and crews are assembled for the production. The challenge is to shoot a 3-5 minute film in three hours. Dailies are screened; then postproduction in all phases occupies the next two days. The completed films are finally shown to everyone in the program.

My function is to work with Jacub, who has guided the cinematographers through their prep and shooting the first week. Our entire Academy group views the dailies of all projects and offers comments to the students. In a separate session with the cinematographers I show DVD clips from several films I have photographed and do a shot by shot look at some scenes and explain an approach to feature film cinematography in the American system. The intention is not to influence them toward any particular style but to offer a classic American approach as one of many.

As a pure lighting and composition exercise Jacub wants to provide a context for more detailed discussion along aesthetic rather than only technical lines, so he (along with art department mentors Wynn Thomas and Andrea Kessler) choose five great Western portrait paintings to replicate using the art department costumes and sets, and the actors as models. There is little opportunity in East Africa for students to see the work of the great masters of painterly light such as Vermeer, so this is a unique and unusual exercise. One painting they select is Georges de la Tour’s “Penitent Magdalene.”

Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, Georges de la Tour, c. 1640, LACMA.

To watch an 18th century French painting recreated in the eyes of 21st century African students is an unalloyed pleasure and it provides a jumpstart context for the students to consider the merits of looking at “dead European art,” not merely for emulation but as a font of ideas.

Students compare de la Tour Magdalene with theirs.

African de la Tour.

An African Vermeer.

This simple exercise influences the week’s discussions about classical lighting, composition and camera movement. A looser, more  immediate camera style is explored as well: recording actor improvisation exercises handheld demanded a spontaneous “in the moment” approach. Most of the cinematographers choose to shoot these exercises with a Canon 5D on a two-handled rig with an eyepiece, a choice that seems a bit to work counter to the spontaneity idea of the exercise. A flip screen camera may have offered more flexibility—but this is how we learn to select our camera tools.

Cinematographers, who are fortunate to still work with film rather than having digital video thrust on them as a condition of employment, will be gratified to see the excitement that a small 35mm Arriflex 235 camera has on a polyglot group of African cinematographers. Digital cinema may be their shooting reality but somehow the allure of FILM abides in their dreams. From shot to shot they all selflessly take turns operating the camera, slating and pulling focus. Jacub loads and threads the strange, noisy machine but a near hypnotic scrutiny by the group lends the process a ritualistic air.

Lily at the slate, Christian at focus, Iskander (again) at the eyepiece.

Tom Tyker’s goal is to use the workshops to expand technical expertise in the local East African communities. Some of the most promising students from our workshop will be invited to participate as crew for the program’s next feature film to be shot this autumn. The first movie they made is Soul Boy, a mythical quest story set in the hardscrabble area of Kibera, a massive slum that abuts a corner of Nairobi. It stars the young Samson Odhiambo as Abila, a 14 year old who undergoes a series of seven trials to gain back his father’s soul, which had been lost to a witch (Nyawawa). The plot has underlying overtones of Greek mythology. The movie is directed by a young Ghanaian woman, Hawa Essuman, along with Tykwer; Euro-cinematographer Christian Almesberger worked with a largely African crew. Here is the trailer:

The film receives its premiere in Kibera. Cast and crew are present to celebrate. For the residents, to see their realities portrayed in the intricate web of a dramatic movie story is hypnotic and affirming. The high emotion is palpable in the Deutsche Welle video made that evening.

The day before we are to fly to Kigali, Rwanda, the Academy Outreach group visits Kibera.

Kibera street scene.

Kibera kiosk.

Kibera can be a dangerous place as well as a home to its million plus inhabitants, a non-city abutting the official one. It is bisected by train tracks, residents pressing up against the roadbed. Frequent  freights rushing past are a menace.

Our destination is the Kibera Film School, a gated enclave beyond a hand painted sign; it is located down a less traveled and narrow path below a road of kiosks and shops.

The Kibera Film School at Hot Sun Foundation.

The film school is co-sponsored by the Hot Sun Foundation. One of Hot Sun’s founders is a former USC film school student named Nathan Collett. The story is told in this video:

The short film Kibera Kid attracted international attention. Here is a brief trailer:

FilmAid, as it has done in so many places, became a partner in screenings at Kibera. This short video illustrates one event from several years ago.

The Kibera Film School is now in its second year. The graduates have a ready, immediate audience of the one million people who share the slum’s challenging conditions. When I am first told that we are going to make a brief visit to Hot Sun Foundation and the Kibera Film School I am both excited and apprehensive: excited that there is such an institution that brings the possibility of self-expression through film into an all but ignored city within a city, a city without many services, a city that struggles daily to meet the basics of survival; and apprehensive that the technology and resource tools to implement a filmmaking program may be too formidable to succeed beyond a token gesture.

But as soon as we are inside the gate and we meet the highly motivated students and staff led by Mercy Murugi, it becomes clear that this is no aid program simply propped up by an outside funding entity. The same high spirit and motivation that makes these young people reach out beyond the ramshackle dwellings around them, fires their imaginations and hopes. It is palpable in a way you do not find in a first world film school drowning in its privileged amenities. These students are not astride the hippest career path of the pop zeitgeist. They have real stories to tell, stories of the lives that are bursting out of their heads. Their passion is so evident in this next video, a series of brief interviews with Kibera’s film students. They articulate their dreams even as they stand against a backdrop of smoldering dumps and the litter-strewn train tracks.  An intern says that being introduced to camera and editing has changed her life. Evans Kamau, a cinematography student of teacher Simon Nderitu, is one of the many who affirms his future. He says simply, “I want to be a good cameraperson.”

Our schedule allows us to stay in Kibera only the briefest time. On the way out, we drive past hundreds of small kiosks and open-air shops, their wares set out on plastic recycled trays or on the hard-packed earth.

Kibera shops.

On Sunday July 17 we are flying to Kigali for a week of classes and seminars with Rwandan filmmakers, our first stop there being a visit to the memorial and museum of the 1994 genocide. I know what we are going to see: a stark, wrenching record of senseless human slaughter that happened before the eyes of an indifferent West, an irresolute United Nations, and an obstructionist United States State Department… But right now I want to remember the smiles and bright eyes of the children sitting in an open-air Kibera class, beneath a watercolor of a soccer game, next to the  “menace” of the railroad tracks.

A class of Kibera's future filmmakers.

Next Week: Part 3 of AMPAS in Africa: Kigali, Musanze, and Gisenyi, Rwanda. 

About John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey’s cinematography career encompasses such mainstream Hollywood films as Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire, As Good as It Gets and A Walk in the Woods, and such offbeat fare as Tough Guys Don’t Dance, That Championship Season, Swimming to Cambodia, A Brief History of Time and The Kid Stays in the Picture. He lives in Los Angeles and New York.


  1. Benjamin B

    Thank you John, for taking your trip,
    and for this ongoing series of African posts.

    There’s so much important stuff
    to assimilate and think about
    in your texts and photos,
    but I wanted to thank you
    for the African Vermeer
    which evokes so many things at once,
    including the beauty of 2 cultures crossing.




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