In 2007, ethnic and political tensions in Kenya came to a head when public election votes believed to be rigged incited rioting and chaos that resulted in the deaths of over a thousand people and the displacement of even more. So often, when we hear about African stories either in cinema or on the news, the focus is on the hows and the whys of civil unrest, the horrors and atrocities so often thought of as basically synonymous with the continent. But it’s the aftermath of these kinds of realities, the unsettling quiet after the storm, that director Judy Kibinge keenly explores in her latest feature, Something Necessary.
It begins with disturbing, real video footage of the carnage that occurred after the elections, but the film opts instead to tell the quiet story of one woman’s struggle to move on from the past. Anne (Susan Wanjiru), a nurse and mother who lives with her family on an isolated farm called ‘The Haven’, awakens from a coma to find that her once idyllic life will never be the same. A victim of physical and sexual violence at the hands of a gang of thugs during the post-election violence, we learn that her husband is dead at the hands of the thugs, her son in a coma, and her picturesque farm has been burned to ashes.
Sinking in medical debt, haunted by eerie glimpses of her dead husband, and still struggling to deal with the memories of that horrible night, Anne resolves to renovate her farm despite the protests of friends and family, and regain at least a piece of the life she once knew. It’s a simple but elegant metaphor that works: as Anne rebuilds her isolated farm, piece by piece, she slowly rebuilds herself. Running parallel to the story of her reedifiction is that of Joseph (Walter Lagat) - a young, quiet man who took part in Anne’s rape and her husband’s death, through chance, or more rightly fate, gets a job on construction of her home and uses the opportunity to help her rebuild as his own penance for past deeds.
Produced by director Tom Tykwer’s One Fine Day film workshop (which gave us the highly lauded Nairobi Half Life last year), the movie is the product of an initiative to train African filmmakers to better tell African stories. Aesthetically, the work seems to have paid off with Something Necessary, the visual texture of the film is not only stunning but refreshingly unfussy, with its simple, wide shots of barren countryside landscapes, its crowded and colorful scenes of city life.
Refreshing, too, is the character of Anne’s herself. Kenyan actress Wanjiru is ostensibly the strongest actor in the piece, playing Anne with a ferocity of spirit not often seen or even appreciated in stories of African women. This isn’t a mere victim’s tale, a chance to watch a character suffer and suffer again. In this case, Anne refuses to be a victim, taking measures into her own hands with a stubborn sense of purpose. She’s complex, imperfect, not always likeable but consistently, and more importantly, always compelling.
If the film is lacking in any respect it may perhaps be in its other performances, which don’t necessarily reach the levels of nuance and inventiveness employed by Wanjiru. There’s a slight unevenness in the film’s pacing, and a sense at some points of missed opportunities, particularly in the important moment when Anne decides to confront her past by sharing her story with others. It’s the first time we see her truly acknowledge what’s happened, but the scene is slightly robbed of emotional weight when it relies only on hazy flashbacks and not Anne’s own testimony to reveal the truth. And yet, imperfect as it is, what makes the film and this scene in particular so powerful is its emphasis on the fact that Anne’s story, all stories, deserve to be heard.
Something Necessary screens at the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF), which kicks off tonight, running February 6-17, 2014.