On a street in Nairobi, onlookers gather. There is a photo exhibition going on. But these are not your ordinary pictures. These are photos of actual victims of the 2007/2008 Post Election Violence and some are gory. Too gory that there are visible tears in some of the onlookers‘ eyes. There is obvious anger in others and there’s shock and disbelief as well.
Boniface Mwangi, then working as a photo journalist for a media house is the man who took these photos. He speaks of how they were considered too graphic by his superiors to include in the papers. As a result, long after he stopped working for the media house, he has decided to use them to educate the masses and to remind them of just how everything can go wrong in an instant in a country.
These are some of the scenes included in the Softie documentary film, written and directed by Sam Soko and released in 2020. The film focuses on Boniface Mwangi, a Kenyan photo journalist, politician and social-political activist. But this is not your ordinary documentary film. In it, we get to see the family of Boniface and how he navigates between family-life and his very public, activist life.
The film which first premiered internationally at the 2020 Sundace Film Festival where it won a special jury prize for editing, is indeed one which many Kenyans and Africans can relate to. It sheds light on the political landscape in the country in addition to spreading a strong message of accountability.
Hans Hofele sat down for an interview with the director of Softie, Sam Soko and Boniface Mwangi’s wife, Njeri Mwangi.
Hans: Sam, your film has a universal theme but it’s also distinctly Kenyan with a specific theme of freedom and focus on a man against the system. Can you please tell me how it all started with the film?
Sam: This was my first feature film and it started like a short film or an activist manual. So, we were engaged with Boniface and he brought us together with the protesters. As we kept filming and time moved, I realized, there is a much bigger story behind it. A story of a family and a story of the country. In the process, we also got the opportunity to tell the beautiful story of the family.
Hans: The beginning of the film reminded me of a Michael Moore film with its political activism, the pigs, the blood and the creative protest. But then it progresses quite differently. When did you realize the change in its direction?
Sam: In the beginning, the family was adamant on not sharing about their private life. The longer the story lasted, the more open the family, and particularly Njeri, became. Normally, in a lot of films this style, you never see that side. I several times asked Njeri to open up on her story and her experience. I believe that there is truth and there is honesty, in kind of understanding where activists come from and what they are fighting for. And to understand, that people who engage with them sacrifice a lot. When the family became more open and their story was filmed, it was clear that their story will be equally interesting as the activist story.
Hans: (to Njeri): You had the filming team around you even in the darkest moments. How was that feeling, being in the midst of struggles and having a filming team around?
Njeri: I think for the longest time we had cameras around and had since gotten used to it but the filming never had the family as the focus. Boniface is a photo journalist, which explains the presence of the camera. When Sam asked me if we could now also focus on me, my quick answer was ‚No‘. My husband‘s life is very public and once in a while, this public life also touches us but I had always been very keen on maintaining a private life.
Nonetheless, the struggle for the country and the struggle for the family is always happening at the same time. Sam also said, it gives me visibility for the struggle as my husband is struggling for the country. By showing the family, the film humanizes activists. You always see them as bold and couragous out there but we rarely visualize them as fathers, husbands and sons.In this film, you also see Boniface in a family context. You get to understand that the struggle is so much our family‘s as well. I said if that is the angle, the movie is going to take, then, this is not my story. It‘s ours. Let‘s do it.
Hans: So, your part is also to be a kind of mirror to him? There are magical moments like the one you are both driving in the car. Boniface is talking about the sense of struggle and risking his life for the country. He said it‘s worth it. Stunned, you questioned: ‚What if it‘s wasted?‘
Njeri: I think this is what makes this film interesting because there are a lot of political activists around the world. We don‘t know about their partners and their children. But they are there. We see the struggle for the country, the struggle against the system, but we don’t see these people as part of the community. The importance was to ensure that we are bringing the activists back to the crowd and to the citizens. The film shows: We are one of you. We are with you. We are you. You are us.
It is not my personal struggle for this country. Yes, I have personal struggles.
But when the film progresses, as you said, it changes because then it is a man with a family. You see his children. You see his children needing him. You see him struggling to be out there and to be there for his children. It‘s not only fathers struggling but also mothers raising the children. A struggle for a better country is not some wild dream because it‘s driven by family. I want better schools. I want a corruption-free country. All these struggles are for us, for our parents, our children, our neighbours and our friends. It‘s a very personal perspective.
You get to understand that the struggle is so much our family‘s as well. I said if that is the angle, the movie is going to take, then, this is not my story. It‘s ours. Let‘s do it. Njeri Mwanzi
Hans: (to Sam): Do you see, besides the deeper look into Kenyan society with its struggles, a global impetus of the story? Because I think you can adopt this to many other countries, Europe, too.
Sam: I think, the beauty of the film and the story, is that it’s not only a local one. Even when the film is targeting the local, which is a Kenyan audience . But the story that takes place and the struggle that takes place is universal. In Europe, in the US, in Asia, in Africa, a lot of people in the political context try to make a difference. But a lot of people don‘t understand what they are up against and the level of sacrifice they have to make. And one of the goals of the film is to encourage people to see that in their own way, they can make a difference. In their own way, they can be part of the change.
Hans: I liked the style of the film a lot. You made such good observations. You had moments of silence and thrilling moments with an excellent score. How much of this was planned or how much happened after, in the post-production?
Sam: Anybody who knows me, knows I am a really fun person. Of course, it was a complex movie, a difficult movie with lots of difficult parts, but that doesn‘t mean, you have to be sad all the time.
There was something special in playing with Afrobeat music in the 80s, mixing dub with present day Kenyan hip hop. Playing with all these aspects of music and styles not only for the emotional moments but also allowing the audience to breathe as the film moved along. So, stylistically, this was kind of an extension of who I am.
Njeri: Something which has not been mentioned is that this comprises of many hours of footage compressed into a 1 hour and a half film. Sam had to look through 6 years of our life, 700 hours of footage and then, piece together what becomes our story.
Sam: It took us 8 months in total to look through the entire footage.
Hans: I am a film editor too, so I can imagine, how much work this film required. You always see the result, which is the end product. Not the work.
Sam: I agree, it looks so easy when it‘s not.
Hans: It’s currently being aired on Kenyan TV, right?
Sam: The film was shown in theatres last year with a lot of success but in reality, it took a long time for us to find a broadcaster for the film.That‘s something we are really excited about because now many Kenyans can watch it for free. At the same time, we are going around the country with the film. Small places, universities, community halls, screening it for free as well.
Hans: Do you have plans of screening the film in Europe too?
Sam: We have attended some festivals in Europe, like the Human Rights Film Festival in Germany. We have negotiations with some networks so we are looking forward to that.
Hans: For a successful campaign, do you need a bigger party or a bigger money pocket?
Njeri: Both make your chances better. The way politics works is by being very party centred and personality centred. If you are in the right party and deal with the right people, they give you their vote. If you are in the wrong party, but the people like what you want, they also give you their vote. In the forthcoming elections, we have 6 aspirants per ballot; The President, the Governor, the Senator, the Member of Parliament, the Woman Representative and the Members of the County Assembly. People will be told to vote for one party. It will be easier to get work done. But people are asking: Who am I voting for?
There are so many political parties already. As a result, they are not registering new parties and you have to find a party you have to deal with. You also need money to get things done. If you are a regular guy from the block, it gets even harder. You need to get nominated by a party but you also have to pay for this. The highest bidder gets the place. If they like you, you probably don‘t have to pay so much for it. But if you are already in government, you have to let the public know that you are running.
You need publicity in the media, whether it‘s on Social Media, on Radio and TV. Our mainstream media is mostly owned by big personalities. So they dont give you time on media if you are not with their parties.
Our film is also passing this message: Look around you, find out who is running for what office and support them. Give them the support they need. Create an enabling environment so they get to be known.
Hans: If you look back on Boniface‘s struggle, do you think it was a ‚waste of time‘ to run for office?
Njeri: I think, we won this election. We got elected into office. We gave the people an alternative. We made it possible for people who want to run without money to see a new possible way. That you can run for office without stealing. They can vote for people they like. We also gave people a chance to discuss issues. Not personalities, not parties.
We gave people a chance to also see a different way of politics. So, for me it was a win in that sense. We gave people a whole new perspective of campaigns, of politics of how we can confront issues. And even if people don‘t have money, they can bring in their skills. How to handle Social Media, for example. We gave people a chance to create something new.
So, did we loose? In the eye of the public and in matters of getting a vote to the parliament, that, we didn‘t get. But we got the people‘s minds changed.
Hans: Boniface endured many threats during the making of this film. When the IEBC ICT Manager, Chris Msando, got assasinated, the public knew, it posed a serious threat, also for Boniface. It was so dangerous. Did the fact that a filming team was covering his campaign save his life?
Sam: If you know Boniface well, he will do things the way he believes. We were able to capture his life and how he navigated his way through life at that period. The film therefore became a very reflective piece. It allows Kenyans to reflect. We deserve better. We know better. All the pieces of the puzzle have come together. And all we can do is to encourage the people to watch the film and engage with it.
Hans:Did you as a director have fears during the production of the film?
Sam: During the filming you have so much adrenaline. You don‘t think about it. Only when you are finished and get to see it again you say: Oh my God, what have I done, how was that situation ?
Hans: Can a film change something?
Sam: It‘s the hope. I think for me, the film is incremental. It‘s adding onto all the other voices. It‘s a dream that you make a film and it changes things. So it‘s just adding another voice in a very important conversation. That‘s something we are excited about. We are also looking forward to all the screenings that are happening.
Hans: What I see in the film is the lack of political engagement by the middle class. It’s not really there.
Njeri: Absolutely. Activism has been made to look like a poor man‘s struggle. Probably all over Africa because a huge percentage of Africans live from hand to mouth. Literally like, I need to make money today. I am not thinking about tomorrow or end month, I am thinking about today.
Most of middle class live comfortably to some extent. Even if the costs of living go up, they are not dying from it. They may complain while in their favorite bars, coffee joints and malls, if the prices go up. It‘s not bad enough for the middle class to complain really.
But the critical mass are the ones who suffer the most. That‘s why they are told to vote for the six package. Kenyans are loyal. When you give them money and tell them to come, they owe you. So, they will come. If you give them money to vote for you, they vote for you. Even if it‘s a secret ballot, they will vote for you. So you see politicians go to this critical mass, because these are the people who vote.
The middle class doesn‘t want to get involved in politics. As long as they get to keep their jobs, are able to pay their mortgages and can afford to educate their children, they feel okay. So people do not engage in that level. But I think, if the middle class would take part in politics, this country would make a leap. Not a step but a huge leap because things would shift.
We would have people who would organize town hall meetings. They would ask the politicians the difficult questions.And once they are in office they would control them. But that‘s not the case. The day the middle class will wake up and unite, that will be the revolution.
Hans: Njeri, Sam, thank you very much for the Interview.
Introduction and processing: Lorna Likiza/cultureafrica author.
copyright for the text: cultureafrica 2021/Hans Hofele