I recently had the honor and privilege to hold a workshop for aspiring young film critics in Nairobi, Kenya -- a country still scarred by the looting of colonialism, blackmailed by the "charitable" extortions of neocolonialism and let down by a corrupt and inept ruling elite; a place where the color of your skin (if white) still affords you privileges unavailable to the majority of the local (black) population and where racism made way to a subtler form of patronizing condescension. All this is quite faithfully reflected in the kind of films that make it to the local multiplexes (there are no independent movie theaters in Kenya). Hollywood blockbusters are more often than not the only available option ending up representing the only conceivable idea of cinema. Western images and imagination still incarnate the ideal of beauty, success and glamour in a country where even the majestic beauty of its own wilderness has been forever monopolized by BBC wildlife documentaries.
Hair straighteners and bleaching creams, though, cannot wipe out the long-suppressed need for self-representation, the necessity to create and debate autonomous images -- to give voice to the voiceless. There is a collateral effect to this legitimate enthusiasm for anything that finally turns locals from depicted objects into depicting subjects, namely the tendency to be overly generous and not critical enough when it comes to Kenyan films. The other, related problem is that the standards to which local filmmakers aspire, audiences are accustomed to and critics refer to are limited to mainstream American cinema. In Kenya, the idea of what constitutes a valid film is, in other words, gauged against Hollywood's most commercial output.
One of the aims of the workshop, aside from introducing the practice of film criticism in its different forms and uses, was to expose the participants to as wide a range of films as possible. From German expressionism to Iranian cinema, from the Czech new wave to African-American independent cinema, from Clint Eastwood to Gillo Pontecorvo passing by Soviet cinema; the idea, as trite as it might sound, was to show the myriad ways one can make, watch and write about cinema. The response and critical reception these different films got was among the most perceptive and clever I've ever witnessed. Faced for the first time with stylistically, culturally and linguistically unheard-of films, the workshop's participants demonstrated a refined critical spirit, all the more remarkable considering their previous knowledge of cinema. The challenge for most of them, as it is for anyone who writes about cinema, was to put those thoughts in writing, to articulate feelings and give a meaningful and substantiated shape to an opinion (gathered on this blog you can find the writing produced during the workshop).
While it is unthinkable to become a film critic in two weeks, the amount of misconceptions that can be dismantled and the new possibilities that can be introduced proved to be quite vast. Here is what the participants brought home from the workshop, in their own words:
Gerald Langiri, a casting director and industry analyst pondered how "the lack of a film criticism culture allows substandard content to go unquestioned making anyone with a camera a filmmaker, when that clearly isn't the case."
"So far the tendency in Kenya has been to either glorify uncritically anything that gets made here, or, on the contrary, to dismiss any effort made by local filmmakers as unworthy" noted Muthoni Maina, a young student. "It is precisely within this polarized scenario that we need to develop a film criticism culture, that is informed and constructive assessments of Kenyan films, be they negative or positive."
The re-evaluation of criticism potential and pivotal role within the film industry seemed to be one front the workshop succeeded on. Loi Awat, a television screenwriter, stressed how much her own view of film criticism changed after the workshop and how crucial a role critical writing will play in the future of Kenyan cinema. She also pointed out how "critics could help certain, lesser known films to be appreciated, watched and distributed."
Carlos Mureithi, a freelance film critic for Kenya's biggest daily newspaper, believes, "We need more conversations about film, more appreciation of the art of filmmaking, which will in turn translate into larger audiences and therefore a sustainable industry."
"The absence of criticism simply means that creativity is not probed and as such, people settle for something that is less than the actual quality that could be achieved if critical assessment existed" noted Daisy Okoti, a contributor to ArtMatters.info.
Josephine Opar, a journalist for a popular Kenyan website, regards "film criticism as a good antidote to the pervading hype accompanying western movies, which is usually what brings people to the local movie theaters, a way to bring to the audience's attention Kenyan films." For Eddie Irura, founder and publisher of Kenya's only film magazine, Film Kenya, the workshop gave him "the inspiration and skills to develop a format for our own magazine as well as broadening the scope of what film criticism can do."
Sam Kiranga, a film critic for Kenya's biggest daily newspaper, found invaluable "meeting (via Skype) throughout the workshop various film critics (Indiewire's very own Eric Kohn was of one of them) and learning about different film criticism cultures around the world." "It's fashionable now to mourn the (apparent) decline of film criticism" says Mugambi Nthiga, an actor and writer, "but still, film critics are cinema's gatekeepers." For Kennedy Omoro, a blogger at The Reel Kenya, "it was important to realize how film criticism far from being a dying art, will on the contrary keep flourishing as long as films do. Encouraging news for such a young industry as the Kenyan one."
After the end of the workshop, all of the participants decided to found a Kenyan Film Critics Association which is now in the process of being finalized. The next step will be to become a national chapter of FIPRESCI, the first one in sub-Saharan Africa.