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TIFF Women Directors: Meet Judy Kibinge

Interviews
by Kerensa Cadenas
September 8, 2013 2:00 PM
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Judy Kibinge was born in Nairobi and studied at Manchester Polytechnic. She is the founder of DOCUBOX, a documentary film fund for East Africa. She has directed the features Dangerous Affair (02), Project Daddy (04), and Something Necessary (13).

Something Necessary screens as part of the Contemporary World Cinema program at TIFF.

Women and Hollywood: Please give us your description of your film playing at TIFF.

Judy Kibinge: Something Necessary is the story of how individuals affected by the politically instigated post-election violence in Kenya in 2007/8 have been forced to live with the consequences of events, and how the repercussions of violence last long after the peace treaties have been signed. The film though, does not aspire to tell the story of an entire country, but instead examines a fragment from a much larger mosaic as a doctor might examine a single cell in a body ravaged by disease.

The film raises a powerful question: When the guilt of a perpetrator is examined alongside trauma of a victim, is either one any better or worse than the other? In the film, we meet Anne, a woman struggling to get her life back on track after an attack on her farm leaves her widowed, her son hospitalized and her farm in ruins. As she struggles with the consequences of that night, so does one of her attackers.

The tragedy of war and civil strife and the unspeakable havoc it inflicts upon its citizens is made all the worse because at the end of the day it's understood only in disjointed, meaningless numbers -- in the case of Kenya's post-election violence, over 1,200 killed and over 300,000 internally displaced. What do these words and numbers mean? This film personalizes these faceless facts by examining the aftermath of civil unrest through two lives interlinked by the violence of a single night and the journey to recovery and self-forgiveness.

WaH: What drew you to this script? If you are the writer too, why did you write this script?

JK: Mungai Kiroga wrote the script and I was very drawn to his character of Anne, so typical of so many women in Kenya and Africa today, but rarely seen on the global news. She is a woman with a professional career. She doesn't live in the capital city but has the same dreams, hopes and aspirations as millions of other women across the world: a secure home, a happy, healthy family, a future for her son. She isn't wealthy, but she gets by. I loved that Mungai Kiroga, a male writer, could have such sensitivity towards this single story of one woman's quiet but momentous journey in search of internal peace. My contribution to the script was to build in and layer the role of the protagonist Joseph whose journey echoes Anne's. The reason I did this is a long running interest of the many factors that have kept a powerful rage bubbling underneath the surface of a country that gives the illusion of peace -- economic disparity, youth unemployment, and age old historical injustices to do with land and wealth. And I felt the film needed a character whose life and journey could reflect these things and make them understood if only by helping the audience realize that this boy wasn't a hooligan -- he just felt, like many others in 2007, hopeless.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge?

JK: Making the film in the run up to the 2013 elections. Emotions were running high, and there was a lot of unspoken fears about the upcoming elections. Also, it wasn't a film that audiences were going to troop in to see in large numbers as the story was a much quieter, more insightful film than a lot of the films that come to the big screen in Kenya. Launching the film a month before the elections meant we were confronting audiences with memories that many would rather forget.

It was a hard film to make at a hard time -- sensitive topics that had ripped the country in half five years previously were being revisited and as the director I felt enormously responsible for the script, for the actors who were putting everything on the line to portray people who had done, not so long before, some truly terrible things. To fully understand this, it might help to ask why it took America so long before it began to make civil rights movies -- certainly not three years after the march. It takes time to gain perspective from history and it felt at times that I /we really had to be very clear about the things that our characters said and did because this story, had to both be brutally true and honest but yet still retain an element of hope.

WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?

JK: Just do it. I come from a country where female directors are perhaps more dominant and well known than the male directors. Maybe because film is not as commercially viable as other things. In Hollywood, perhaps there's more power and prestige associated to filmmaking. To me this says that when all things are equal and the motivations of power and wealth are removed, women are natural storytellers and perhaps more passionate and driven than men to tell stories? Also, in my first career, I rose quite quickly to the top of what was, at the time, seen to be an industry dominated by white, male expatriates. As Creative Director of East Africas (then) the largest advertising agency with clients like Coca Cola Africa, the fact that I was a woman surrounded by a lot of men is not something I ever thought about unless someone asked me about it.

WaH: What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

JK: That it's just easy and fun. It's not. There are a myriad of other jobs one can do if one is smart and tenacious enough. But then again, few jobs give back as much as they take from you.

WaH: What are the biggest challenges and or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

JK: In Kenya there is a mobile phone for each adult in the country -- something like 20 million. We started much later than more advanced markets so our technology literally leapfrogged the rest of the world -- and that probably includes Canada. Come to Kenya and you will see people -- almost ALL the people you meet save money on their phone, buy or ask friends for phone credit or even for MB's. We constantly text, we frequently flash, we have terminologies and jokes that revolve around the mobile phone automated messages. Businesses flourish because of our phones. It's only a very short while before smartphones become just as widely accessible and then hopefully we will see a real mobile phone and internet revolution with content. Added to this is the digital migration taking place this year and the huge numbers of young people all wanting to be in or to make films. The next five years will be interesting.

WaH: Name your favorite female directed film and why.

JK: I must say this is a difficult one.  I almost said Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. It's sensitive, it's quirky, it has such insight on human characters and human loneliness. But then I remembered Julie Delpy's 2 Days in New York which I love for its quirky crazy insightful characters and Nina Davenport for her incredibly brave, revealing and heartwarming exploration in First Comes Love.

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