Bside recently caught up with Kenyan documentary filmmaker Toni Kamau, to discuss her passion for storytelling, her documentary I am Samuel the role that women are currently playing in the growth of African cinema and much more.
When it comes to her work and life in general, Toni Kamau’s focus is firmly on creating a positive impact. The multiple award-winning Kenyan documentary filmmaker is passionate about telling stories and making documentary films that explore the journey of changemakers mostly referred to as rebels.
Kamau is the producer of the award-winning film Softie, a Kenyan documentary that follows the life of Political activist Boniface "Softie" Mwangi as he runs for office in a regional Kenyan election, but learns that conducting a clean campaign against corrupt opponents is increasingly harder to combat with idealism alone. While talking about what drew her to the project she says “I met the director Sam Soko, while I was working on another project called I am Samuel and when we talked to Sam about the project, what was incredible was the amount of access that he had. He had spent 5 years filming Softie. if you watch the footage, it was 600 hours, you could see the children growing up, see the evolution of their marriage and I thought that was a special level of access that he had, that was why I joined the project”.
I caught up with Kamau, the youngest African member of the Academy for Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, documentary branch class of 2020, over zoom earlier on in the Month, to discuss her documentary project I am Samuel, her passion for storytelling, her plans to develop a feature film as well as the role that women are currently playing in the growth of African cinema.
BSIDE: What inspired you to start producing?
KAMAU: Basically, I love great stories and I love them in different forms. Growing up I watched different movies, Disney, documentaries and I just love the idea that a story just helps us understand someone else's lived experiences in another part of the world.
I also think that growing up, going to school and learning film, meeting more people, I understood that stories, especially documentaries, were highly dependent on who was telling them. Because I also learned about the rest of the continent through news or news documentaries from various global channels but when I started travelling physically, I started to understand that this place that I thought was violent, scary, and all, when I went there as a Kenyan, to these African countries like Burkina Faso, South Africa, I started to understand that this is all contextual, it is all about who is telling the story and what their relationship is with the place, what their stereotypes are about people are places.
As a creative producer making films in Kenya, let’s talk about your production company and the kind of stories that you tell?
I have a production company called “We are not the machines,” we tell stories of people who are change-makers. An example of a change maker is the guy who is doing chess programs in Lagos Nigeria. He is so incredible because he is trying to change something about his environment. Those are the kind of people or stories I love telling. Someone who is standing against oppression or powers, a rebel, an outsider. someone like I am Samuel a documentary film about someone who is marginalized by the system because of his sexual orientation. Those are the kind of stories we like to tell and we move into fiction as well. Just working on various projects, we want it to be a Pan-African writer's Team when we have the money. We have writers from Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, and others so hopefully, when we get more money, we’d be able to do that.
What are the challenges that come with trying to get a project made as a creative producer?
I won’t say funds to make a film but money for development. Because I think at the end of the day, having the right funds to kickstart your project helps a lot. For example, we developed a Pan-African series called Post-colonial and applied for funding from Kenyan Film Commission which is amazing and now we wrote the script, we put together a pitch package and with that, we were able to talk to potential co-producers and now depending on where we end up setting it up, we will be able to get financing to do the whole project.
Let’s talk about your documentary film Softie, what made you decide to work on the project?
So I met the director Sam Soko, while I was working on another project called I am Samuel and when we talked to Sam about the project, what was incredible was the amount of access that he had. He had spent 5 years filming Softie. If you watch the footage, it was 600 hours, you could see the children growing up, see the evolution of their marriage and I thought that was a special level of access that he had, that was why I joined the project.
In terms of message, I think that has been covered a lot in the press but what we wanted to talk about was the family. We also wanted to do the project because we loved Kenya and I felt like this was an interesting way to like to shine a mirror of who they are through this story of democracy that is grappling with priorities, people be like I want to work hard, have money and send my children to the best of private schools but then you ask, if you don’t vote, you know the people who you elect are in charge of oversight in government so you are appointing them as people who are directly providing state resources or are the oversight mechanism for people in government members of parliament, MCAs, senators, governors, they have different functions. We just wanted to make a tool of reflection.
Let’s talk about “I am Samuel” and how long it took you to film the project?
We filmed I am Samuel for 5 years, very slowly. I mean we were nervous about the project because of the Laws in Kenya because they tend to ban projects a lot and also about the people we were filming with. We kept on worrying and strategizing how to keep them safe and I think it taught us a lot about risk assessment and representation because we had to be inclusive.
Inclusion is not a conversation when it comes to white people but about everything. If you are a man doing a film about African feminists and the production team is a man or vice versa, that needs representation. I think it is something that needs to be talked about. Just like I said if I want to do a film in Nigeria if it is independent or I am the creative producer, I will do my best to get a Nigerian collaborator at some point during the decision making.
When it was released, what was the reception like? Because you were talking about a delicate story, how did people receive it?
So I think for us to be honest, we’ve had good receptions in festivals because we have done a lot of festivals like in South Africa, in the U.K, the U.S., we’ve done Human Rights Watch across the world, the reception has been impressive. We have done in-person screening in some areas like South Africa, Botswana, and the reception has been great but the film was banned in Kenya and we’ve not been able to screen here in Kenya that is why we put it up for free. So if you are not in Kenya but you are on the African continent, you can watch it for free.
BSIDE: You are the youngest African documentary filmmaker to be invited as a member of the Academy for Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, documentary branch class of 2020, how does this make you feel as a filmmaker?
I am a Member of the Academy for Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, documentary branch. So I think it is amazing to be a member of the academy because I think the academy has been pushing for more diversity and inclusion, you know African members, Asian members, more women, so I feel like as a voter in the OSCARS, I feel like me being there increases representation for people of colour. I think it is so amazing, they have been fully committed to growing diversity and inclusion and it is also an opportunity to meet other academy members from across the world whenever there is screening and networking which is also helpful in terms of possible collaborations because collaborations are important in this industry. Outside of that, it is also like an opportunity to do advocacy where possible, because it is not always possible in some places and also raise your profile in the industry to an extent because of some level of acknowledgement. I am also a member of the Producers Guild of America, we got the nomination for “Softie” I joined as a member. You automatically qualify to join as a member.
So the Kenyan film industry is largely dominated by females; directors, producers, how does this excite you as a producer seeing women changing the structure of African storytelling?
I would just say that I think it is interesting that in Africa, most of our prominent filmmakers are females. Like Mo Abudu in Nigeria, Judi Wakhungu in Kenya, once she was producing, now she is working in government. So I think in Kenya, we are unique because we grew up seeing women producing. I don’t want to speak for the rest of the world but the one I am familiar with. I think there are a lot of producers and filmmakers who are coming up in the Kenya scene, in Uganda, even Nigeria. I was part of the creative producers in Darba which is run by the Realness institute and most of the producers were women across the continent, in Nigeria we had a lady called Chioma Onyenwe, in Kenya, the producers chosen were three women. So I think it's interesting when you start thinking of the demographics, you understand a lot of women are producing and that is amazing. And now when we start seeing each other, we can start building a community and helping each other, collaborating on projects. I don’t think you can do anything without collaborating even if you have your small outfit, you have to collaborate maybe with other small production companies or bigger ones but if you want to do something great you have to collaborate.