Voline Ogutu: I didn't expect to win Netflix award

Voline Ogutu

Kenyan filmmaker, screenwriter and director Voline Ogutu.

Photo credit: Courtesy

What you need to know:

  • Voline Ogutu studied Linguistics but took the plunge into the unknown world of film making.
  • There were more than 2,000 applications from Sub-Sahara, with just 21 making it to the shortlist.

For someone who has never been to a film school, winning $100,000 (Sh11.3 million) in the just-concluded Netflix Short Film Competition was a big deal for Voline Ogutu, a script writer known for the TV series Njoro wa Uba.

Ms Ogutu, who studied Linguistics but now wears many hats, including screen/script writing, had just taken a break from a writing session of a project when the email announcing the award popped. 

She never expected to win but was confident of being short-listed nonetheless.

“Of course, I was happy when I saw the email. For a moment, I didn’t think it was going to happen. Most of us were anxious days leading to the announcement. Two weeks earlier, we had pitched tent in Johannesburg,” she told the Sunday Nation.

Dubbed “African Folktales, Re-imagined”, organisers of the competition launched in October 2021 were looking for emerging filmmakers in Sub-Sahara. It attracted more than 2,000 applications.

A Netflix team spent weeks examining the entries before shortlisting 21 candidates who were invited for pitching sessions in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Ms Ogutu alongside other five others were picked as winners. 

“Winning appeared impossible most of the time. The filmmakers in the 21 shortlist had powerful stories. I feel honoured and thank the jury for choosing my project,” she says.

Ms Ogutu, South African Gcobisa Yako, Korede Azeez (Nigeria), Loukman Ali (Uganda) and Mohammed Echkouna (Mauritania), will each get $25,000 as prize money and $75,000 (Sh8.5 million to develop and produce short movie concepts under the mentorship of some of Africa’s most prolific filmmakers.

With the budget provided by Netflix in partnership with Unesco, each of the six winners will create a short film through a production company in their countries with the guidance of Netflix appointed supervising producer and industry mentors from across the continent.

The six will now go into the development phase of their winning projects before starting production on the short folktale films that will eventually premiere on Netflix as part of “An Anthology of African Folktales” later this year.

Despite having directed and scripted several films, including “40 Sticks”, which won nine awards during the Kalasha gala in 2020 and landed four nominations at the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMMA), Ms Ogutu chose to enter her “Anyango and the Ogre” short film for the competition.

The film will officially premiere on Netflix at the end of this year.

“I relate to the story in many ways. It was a story that needed to be told. My grandmother narrated to me a lot of narratives as a child. Most of them were really scary,” she says. 

“I later came to realise the stories were metaphors for real issues in the society. This is me re-imagining one of my grandmother’s stories metaphorically. It depicts my opinion on the state of the community.”

The self-taught film creator has written several M-Net TV series including Sumu La Penzi, Jane and AbelNjoro Wa Uba, Varshita, How To Find a Husband and City of Judah.

She insists her experience helped her win.

“I would not call it a vast experience. I am still learning. I never went to a film school. I was a painter. Film has always been an extension of that. It is one big painting motion,” she says. 

“Everything I learnt about writing was through practice and advice from more experienced filmmakers. I learnt that the story is the foundation of any film and not just any story, but a story that meant something to you as a writer.”

Her journey to being one of the most sought-after screenwriters and directors in Kenya has not been without hurdles. 

Ms Ogutu’s career took off in 2017 when she was named the best director during the Machakos Film Festival with her first hit “Seed”.

Film production

“It was the first time running my set and winning. After the win, I got opportunities to script for a number of local productions until 2019 when I was selected to write for the first Netflix animated original in Africa, ‘Mama K Team 4’. Since then I have worked on a number of local and global projects,” she says.

Ms Ogutu’s main challenge has been getting financial support since film production is costly.
With a  Sh8.5 million budget, Ms Ogutu believes she is about to create a masterpiece.

“I have produced short films with Sh15,000 to Sh170,000. But that requires a lot of favours and sacrifices from the cast and crew. The $75,000 is a good amount to cover production costs. But that also depends on the story one wishes to produce,” she says. 

“Seed”, a fantasy drama about money, greed and death, cost Sh15,000 to produce.

“I was just starting out as a director and got a lot of free help. There are productions I have paid people with paintings and muffins for I love  baking. I wish I could pay everyone their full rates,” she says. 

With the film industry in Kenya still not financially stable, Ms Ogutu has learnt the art of collaboration.

“I’ve been lucky to get support from filmmakers. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if these people did not invest in my dream. From producers to directors of photography and other crew, I have had tonnes of support,” she says. 

However, the budding film director says things have started looking up as there are a number of avenues and grants to tap from, with companies like Docubox offering funding. 

Some short films have received up to Sh567, 000 in funding. 

Opportunities for other film grants in Africa are now more accessible. Then there is the Kenya Film Commission Empowerment Fund. 

Networks like Showmax and MNet are also giving filmmakers opportunities to pitch and get cash for feature movies which is mostly between $40,000 to $45,000.

Besides budget constraints, Ms Ogutu feels the Kenya film industry is limited in terms of genre, thus affecting originality despite abundance of talent and potential. 

“There are too many soap operas, comedies and drama on TV. This could be tied to viewership, budgets and financing. I wish we had more diversity in the stories we tell and how we tell them. TV is now full of adaptations from other countries,” she says. 

“This limits our originality as Kenyans. It is difficult to compete on an international scale this way.”

Ms Ogutu says gatekeeping problems have made it difficult to get funding for projects deemed outside the required “scope”.

“It is very difficult to get funding for projects outside the usual genre of soaps, comedy and drama. I was in a writer’s lab once and one of the mentors asked which genre we specialised in,” she says. 

“All the writers said they do what is available just to make ends meet. I did that for a long time until recently when I joined the writing team for a police project. It feels unique writing something different. Some networks have started diversifying.”

But even with the Netflix win, Ms Ogutu has little time to celebrate as her hands are full.

“I’m working on a thriller drama TV series which will air on Showmax this year. ‘Crime and Justice Season 2’ is also out,” she says. 

“I just concluded writing a new season of ‘Njoro wa Uba’. I’m also in post-production for my first horror feature film ‘The Witch from Chaka’ and I am about to start working on my folktale for Netflix and Unesco.”


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