The Dust of the City
Soul Boy (2010):
Nairobi in Film
by Stefanie Habben
What does metropolis mean, what does it represent to me?
Is it about the people who live and work there, the buildings and the architecture, little spotlights you will find when you leave the crowded streets? Or is metropolis represented by the cultural and international events that I am exposed to? I have pictures of cities in my mind; cities I have never been to before. These pictures were made out of my friends’ experiences, photos, and particularly, films. I have seen those films – fictional or documentary – which have created mental ideas of cities in my mind. These impressions mingle with my real anticipations and imaginations.
We have the possibility to travel anywhere we want. We just have to go to the cinema and take a seat in front of the screen, and for ninety minutes we immerse in the artificial jet set of a film. Since the last century, a leitmotif of city-movies has been developed, and this still ongoing process depends on society and culture: While New York has always been a place of sex, career and lifestyle; Paris, on the other hand, is a place of love, fashion, and a network of intrigues. Many metropolises, many films, and thousands of different stories have already been told. All these stories show us the possibilities and the impossibilities of life. Characters in film often perceive the cities as hurdle races with lots of obstacles to overcome, many opportunities that can be seized, and many chances that can be missed. For the figures, these problems focus on very little space and clash into them – if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!
Like New York and Paris, there are some cities that are quite appealing to the audiences. On the other hand, there are some cities that are quite seldom used for stories and films – why is that?
One of the cities that are not often used for stories is Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. If it were the setting of a film, it would most probably be used with the aim to show exotic adventures of rich white people in European or American film productions. For a few years, Nairobi has generated two films: Both Soul Boy (2010) and Nairobi Half Life (2013) create emotional pictures, albeit they tell totally different stories, and can be interpreted in different ways.
Soul Boy, by director Hawa Essuman, tells the story of fourteen-year-old Abila who lives in Kibera – a slum district in the southwest of Nairobi – with his family. One morning, the boy finds his father excited and confused. A neighbour tells Abila that his father spent the night at the place of a witch who bedevilled him by stealing his soul because of her aversion to men. The young boy decides to help his father and goes to the witch. Although he has no idea where the woman lives, his friend Shiku offers her help to find her mysterious hideout. Together, they find their way into the darkest shadows of Kibera where the witch tells Abila that she will keep his father’s soul if he fails to solve seven tasks within 24 hours. Otherwise, the soul and life of his father, and also the life of Abila would be forfeited – the boy agrees on this devilish deal.
Hence, he chases through his district and city on a quest for the right answers to the issues of life itself. Abila realizes that there is not just one right or wrong answer to all these questions of life. However, he gains insight on improved social cooperation and a new perception of life: A pickpocket assiduously delivers the stolen stuff to Abila and the boy thinks of either selling it in order to pay his father’s bills, or bringing it back to its rightful owner. The boy becomes aware of the fact that the metropolis he lives in is a chain of dependencies, and everyone is a part of it.
The boy from Kibera, Nairobi, a place full of cultural impasses, finds answers to questions he has never asked himself before: Which way of life is he going to follow? How does he want to behave towards his family and friends? Where exactly will his place in Nairobi be? The city is colourfully painted and full of hints of how life can or cannot be. Every human being has to make decisions, and thus, has to envisage the different consequences for everyone else.
Nairobi Half Life (2013):
In Tosh Gitonga’s film Nairobi Half Life (2013) also depicts a character on the move through Nairobi. Cheerful Mwas, a young man from the rural Kenyan landscape, comes to Nairobi to become a successful actor. After his arrival in the capital, all his hopes are destroyed as he becomes the victim of a robbery in the middle of the street in broad daylight. Without any funds, Mwas gets caught up in the criminal maelstrom of Nairobi. He starts stealing car parts and hijacks cars for a greater economic success. Still he is just a half-time gangster. When he is not on trips with his gang members, Mwas rehearses a play with a little theatre group in the central district of Nairobi to push his career as an actor. This strenuous life goes on, but one day, Mwas realizes that these two ways of life should never collide.
Is this a story of hope for young people in the metropolis? At the end of the film, the protagonist stands on stage, but does he really have the life he has always dreamed of? Staring into the spotlight, Mwas relives the way that brought him his first success. The young actor apprehends that life is not a game where you can switch roles and rectify your failures. How many chances do you get from Nairobi?
Like me, the young actor in Nairobi Half Life has a lot of ideals and imaginations about the metropolis. He thought this would be the place for his success – but perhaps he was wrong. At the end of the film, Nairobi seems to be very dubious. All characters get stuck somewhere in a chapter that should just have been a little stopover on their way to another dream of life: A prostitute who would rather go back to school to become a beautician, a young homosexual who has to slip into another role to express himself, and Mwas who feels gloomy about a future that he fancied quite differently. The metropolis is economically motivating in every aspect, in any way that money flows legally or illegally.
So what is left for the characters? There is just a bit of hope left to keep them imagining on how to make it in the future, but any time they think they will make it, they get overtaken by present events.
Two films, two stories, one city: Both films show an idea of what Nairobi could or could not be. Both possibilities depend on the people and how they make their life decisions in and with the metropolis. All the possibilities and opportunities of the characters are not morally faultless, or always correct – that is not the major topic of the two films. Both stories claim that there will not be any decisions. The characters are changed by the decisions they make, no matter if they are good or bad. This process of change seems to be very marginal; often, the outcome is not even noticed by themselves or society.
Nairobi appears to be a microcosm in which all the small and massive elements approximate and depart again; all individuals orbit each other.
In the beginning, I asked how the metropolis might be represented in different ways. The question is what these ways could mean to different people. In this cycle, in this microcosm of the city, it means the smallest elements that make decisions and alter the lives of all people for the better.