Three Kenyan filmmakers in town for the Toronto International Film Festival did something brave on Sept 5 — they told people their names.
Jim Chuchu, George Gachara and Njoki Ngumi are just three of the 10 filmmakers in Nairobi’s NEST collective. Over eight months, they produced, wrote and directed Stories of Our Lives, an anthology of five LGBT stories about love, sex and friendship set in Kenya and abroad. The film is having its world premiere at TIFF.
The trio sat down with Xtra to talk about their film, collecting the stories of the LGBT community and challenging stereotypes about gay lives in Kenya.
The film was released anonymously originally, with no named directors, producers or actors. Today is the first time that any of the filmmakers have revealed themselves publicly.
George Gachara: We initially began by going across the country in Kenya, collecting stories anonymously — audio narratives of queer people, lesbian people, [people] in prisons, all manner of queer people whose stories are never heard. And some of the stories were really cool. They were just calling for a film to be made, so we turned those stories into a film. I guess that’s where the conversation began.
Jim Chuchu: The conversation of the anonymity of the film was more like we were concerned about the safety of the crew and the safety of the actors in putting our names on the film. We had a lot of conversations with people around the time of the release, and slowly we came to the decision that it would be more important to put our names on the film than to be anonymous, because people trusted us with their stories — people trusted us with their performances. So we felt like we needed to be brave enough to also trust people with our identities.
Njoki Ngumi, a medical doctor, was the on-set doctor and even jumped into a scene to act when they couldn’t find an actor.
JC: The entire process took about eight months, and the scripts were shot as soon as they were finished. So the shoots were actually separated by weeks and months. I guess the space between the shooting and the writing allowed the different stories to be very different. Because also we were learning as we were shooting, so there were some risks that we were able to take later on that we wouldn’t have taken at the beginning. The different stories have a different feel because of the space between them.
Njoki Ngumi: We’ve done a lot of work before, and I think it was kind of practice for what we are doing now. When we have an event, everyone would be doing everything — we’d be washing dishes and carrying chairs in the rain. We’ve kind of learned how to work together on complex tasks that have many offshoots . . . that helped a lot. Jim [the artistic director] was really committed to not being the overall king, director of the film. We could have opinions, fights and things like that.
GG: We also have a collaborative workspace. We have 10 family members; only three of us were able to be here, but the rest are crossing their fingers and hoping that it will all go well, because they equally believe in this film and every other piece of work that we have done before. So everyone comes with a different perspective to the work that we value.
Each of the five vignettes is stitched together from the stories they collected when they crossed Kenya. Much of the dialogue comes directly from these interviews. It made them think carefully when it came time to cast the actors who, despite the anonymity of the project, would be recognized in the film.
NN: The actors were amazing. They were incredibly game — we’d just call them up and they’d audition. We told them, “This is what we want to work on, and you can step out now if you don’t want to do it.” They were like, “No, let’s do it.” So we would have conversations about where it could potentially go. It’s a thing to really think about being involved 100 percent. Even when we did our very first screening, we were all just crossing our fingers, and the actors were like, “When is it going to be on the big screen? We want to bring our boyfriends.” They are amazing, amazing people.
GG: There were many conversations around casting as far as what representation really means, and who can play what role, and does their life outside of the set affect the characters they play. So those were some of the conversations we were having — if indeed they believe in the message of the role they are playing, if indeed they are not LGBTI. We had to have those conversations with each of the actors involved in the entire script. Surprisingly enough, a lot of them are game.
The film, which clocks in at almost exactly an hour long, was shot entirely in black and white.
JC: First of all, black and white has a way of cutting out the visual clutter, and as a first-time narrative thing, I felt like it would be easier for the costume designer and the set guy to have to not deal with the colour issue. So it was primarily a tech issue. It also worked, in a way. I think this film is about the blacks and whites, the hard-line stances that people have about this issue. It was kind of cool to present people in a way that is not necessarily hard blacks and hard whites and be in the grey space in between. But that was something that happened as we went along.
Here in Toronto, the filmmakers have encountered a wide range of questions about what it is like to be gay in Kenya, a question that they hope the film can answer.
JC: There’s a way this anti-gay battle also has international dynamics, about where it gets its funding and how it is represented when it goes out. So we are [hearing] a lot of interesting opinions about what goes on in Africa as a whole and also in Kenya. We are learning that we also have a lot of explaining to do about the local specifics because our neighbours in Uganda are in a really hard space. But Kenya is very different, and I think it’s sometimes [hard] for the foreign countries to see just how different the neighbours can be despite being so close. Also the fact that the anti-gay movement is getting a lot of funding from places like rightwing American churches means that the dialogue isn’t necessarily about why is Africa so anti-gay, but it’s also a question of why does foreign money get used to make things very difficult in other countries?
GG: The other part to note that is interesting is the idea that most people want to run away from their homes. One of the biggest questions that we have been meeting everywhere is, “Do you want to run away? Will you go back?” . . . and we’re like yeah! Stuff can go wrong, but we love our home. Many countries around the world are grappling on how to deal with their tough issues, their controversial issues, gender identity and sexual diversity — whatever they call it. But unfortunately, the bodies of black people, the bodies of Africans are the places where this war happens.
So I am not afraid to go back home. Shit can happen, but I want to go back home. I just think that this film should go into that space that also shows the subtle stuff — how people relate, how people feel when they touch one another, how people smile, what people eat, how love feels like. Even if it is not accepted, what other relationships are involved just beyond sex? How do other people arrange the things they care about? My hope is that this film will go into that space that allows people to see other people beyond the headlines, as just more people with more texture and more stories.