A pioneering research project looking into the history of Kenyan feature films has just been published in the Open Access journal Cogent Arts & Humanities. The new research surveys over 50 years of Kenyan cinema since the 1960s, offering a uniquely comprehensive insight into the origins and development of the nation’s film industry.
Dr Rachel Diang’a of Kenyatta University’s School of Creative Arts set out to examine the thematic trends in Kenyan cinema from the nation’s independence from colonial rule in the early 1960s. Diang’a also sought to advance scholarship on the history of the production of feature films in Kenya, and considered how political history informed the themes of the movies made.
Few films were made in Kenya in the period immediately after independence up until the 1980s. The films which had been made there before the 1980s had been produced exclusively by foreigners who had little interest in portraying Kenyan culture favourably. It was not until the Kenyan government funded Sao Gamba’s Kolormask (1985) that an indigenous filmmaker had the opportunity to subvert crude colonial portrayals of the country’s people and way of life.
But Kolormask ended up being a high-watermark that did not immediately spawn successive productions because it had been so expensive to make. It was only in the early 2000s when music producers in Nairobi’s downtown River Road area decided to venture into film production (with little professional expertise) that truly independent Kenyan cinema was born. The so-called ‘Riverwood’ productions dealt with day-to-day issues in Kenyan society – something which had been overlooked by foreign films made in the country.
And even now, Kenyan cinema struggles to garner large audiences because of stiff competition from foreign films. Kenyan film critics prefer Nigerian, American, and Indian films to local productions. Diang’a believes that themes in Nigerian films – like poverty, ritual, and religion – are readily relatable to a Kenyan audience. Kenyan films are yet to establish the same resonance with local audiences.
Diang’a closes her account with a rallying call for the next generation of Kenyan filmmakers. She writes, “The industry has been stagnating in growth from its birth in the 1960s. The first step in solving this stand-off is by addressing issues that the audience can identify with and that they may find close to social realities of their lives.”
The article will doubtlessly be of interest to anyone interested in studying East African cinema, as well as the how the development of filmmaking emerged in a newly independent nation.
The article, ‘Themes in Kenyan cinema: Seasons and reasons’, published in the open access journal Cogent Arts & Humanities, is free to read and download via this permanent link.
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