Interviewers: Stefanie Habben and Anna Lafrentz
Could you please introduce yourself?
My name is Hawa Essuman and I am a filmmaker.
Where did you start?
I was interested in filmmaking, but more, I was interested in showing and telling stories through a visual expression. My dad told me a lot of stories and I liked these, because I could not find them in any books. Those stories influenced me, and they got me thinking about myself and about people, and how I relate to them. But also, I wanted to tell them in a medium that has all the different forms of art media, because I love music, sound, and pictures. There is a way film affects people. I am not saying that oration, or reading, or just looking on their own do not do the same, but there is something film does that these other mediums do not do.
When did you have your first contact to film? Can you remember a special moment?
When I was a child, I watched a lot of stuff; from the children stories, to how things are made, to music videos. That was my first interaction with film, and those wonderful things I watched got me thinking about the story: splitting it up, seeing how a story works. You realize that there is a pattern as you start to dissect it, to think about it. I thought about these things and what the beginning of a story is, how things flow.
As much as I thought that the beginning and the last third of the story were the most exciting and interesting part, my secret favourite was always the part in the middle.
When did you decide to work in film?
In my twenties, I knew I wanted to tell stories. I was still thinking about how to do it. First, I thought making documentaries would be the thing to do.
But there was something about fiction.
When you suspend reality, it makes things a lot more accessible. Your mind is just more open to things. You probably would not engage with something as much if someone had told you this is fact. If you tell someone “What if...”, they are more likely to fall in to it. Documentary has very recently become a lot sexier, but it is my feeling that there is a way when you tell someone something is fictional, something is not real, or something is make believe, that they will think about it more; and this is a really great way to have people thinking about our world.
Would you describe yourself as a professional filmmaker?
So you can live off your jobs?
For the most part. I do voiceovers and consult on other projects for bread and butter. It is challenging, for sure; I don’t get a pay check every month, so I become smart about managing finances.
Do you think the film business is a male domain?
No, look at me. A few years ago, I would have said yes. But if I look at all the filmmakers in Kenya at the moment, 80% or 90% of them are women.
Why is that?
I don’t know...but there are more women. (Sarika: Women have the longer breath!) There is a temperament filmmaking requires, and women have this: You have to be crazy and dedicated, you also have to extend to be passionate and a very good manager of people, even when they’re driving you crazy. Women have managed a way to do that.
Is there a special relationship between you as a filmmaker and the city of Nairobi?
Yes, because I feel like Nairobi is constantly at the beginning of something. On the surface, Nairobi feels like a place for bankers and for business people. It is very money-motivated. But it also has a pulse, an artistic pulse that people are looking to express. Despite being lawyers and accountants by day, they are also actors, musicians, painters and sculptors. They are looking for a way to express themselves despite the undervalued nature of what art is. I think without the art, without the need to express, Nairobi would not be what it is.
Could you describe how the city influences you and your working process, maybe in themes, figures and settings, for example in ‘Soul Boy’?
It is all about Nairobi. It is about pushing comfort zones, about understanding that you live beside wealth and extreme poverty all at the same time, and you all have the same problems, whether you look at it or not. It is about how the earth is so beautifully red in some sections, and how it is black-cotton - grey and mucky in another. But somehow, it all still seems to work. When the sun comes out, we all equally love it, when it rains we all become equally crazy. We have a lot of common denominators, even though, it feels very separate and divided.
Do you think film is a medium of identification?
I think it is a medium of expression. There are as many film makers as there are people who watch film.
What about the locals of Nairobi and the Kenyan people? Do they identify themselves with film?
Yes, I think so. Our films would not count as our films if they did not resonate with the world we live in. I think this is really important for the work, to be able to be appreciated and to be engaged with where it’s made. Maybe, people have said they do not like what is said about them, but they will never say this is not them.
And what is the appreciation of your films by the locals of Nairobi like?
I think they are proud of it, and are glad that, finally, we are showing our work and it is appreciated everywhere else. Even though, we are really good at yelling and fighting each other or we have terrible traffic manners, if someone does something, they celebrate it. This is really wonderful.
Could you describe the themes and the subjects of your films?
Human relationships. How it influences you in interaction with other people. In all projects I am working on at the moment, this is the common dominator.
Do you see yourself as an artist?
For the longest time, I did not, but I think I do now.
I do not know when the shift happened. It was very gradual, because for a long time, I did not give myself permission. I get to define what sort of an artist I am. I think people have switched on to that in the last few years. We have artists who are doing beautiful work.
Do you think there is a political approach to your film 'Soul Boy'?
If political is self-awareness and pushing boundaries to see who we are, then yes. If political is looking to yourself and expressing yourself as you want.
Is film making a political statement and is there a political aspect in your work?
I would not say there is. I am interested in how people see themselves, and actually, in connecting with what they see. To be elevated for it that is what I am after, that is my agenda. I would not consider that a political agenda, it is no political expression, but there are the politics of art and what it says and how it stands, where it is made, for sure. Do I consider myself someone creating as political medium, I do not think so.
Where do you see the Kenyan or Nairobi film in 2030?
That depends on a lot of variables. If we go the way we currently are and all being equal and not interrupted, it will end in expressions and more expressions. That would be great news, because we definitely need more voices. They hold an honest slice of the expression pie, as opposed to just having commerce and relief agencies.
Just in an African context or in an international context?
Well, for Nairobi, it is definitely Nairobi. I hope it bleeds into everywhere else and we connect lot more, because that is something missing at the moment, we need to work on, to have more inter-African co-productions and interactions.
Do you see any specific role of society for film?
Our job is to show who we are and what could be. That is our job.
Why is that important to show?
Answer: Because, I do not think we know who we are, and sometimes, we need to get echoed back. If you keep going in a particular direction and you do not have a mirror, you have no idea. I know the mirror is refracted, because it is through my eyes, but that is why we need more people; then we have many perspectives.
First of all, you want to show it to the Kenyan people, but then again it gets some international reputation?
I think international reputation is great, because it gives the weight to pull forward, but it is more important that it has local weight, that allows industries to grow.