What you need to know:
- Sheila Mulinya is a film, TV producer, screenwriter, and director with more than 70 documentaries under her production
- She is also a PhD candidate studying Communications at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT)
At Barangaroo stadium, Australia in July 2008, Sheila stood eager waiting to see Pope Benedict XVI. It was the first she’d be beholding him within close range. Being a practicing catholic, this was a moment she prides on and she still regales people with the colourful accounts of that day.
Then, Sheila was a budding film producer, a field she's got into by happenstance.
“I was in my early 20s when I met the pope. Although he didn’t shake our hands, he waved at us. It was surreal,” she says heartily.
It is in the morning hours of Utamaduni day when we are having this conversation. Her schedule is tight so we settled on zoom.
“I was there to cover World Youth Day. In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to resign, waning physical and mental powers as his reason, in more than 600 years,” she offers.
Brought up in Kakamega, Sheila’s first interaction with film production was at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication (KIMC) where she had enrolled hoping to pursue print journalism.
“I always wanted to be a print journalist. When I sought admission at KIMC, the only opportunity available was in film studies. I asked the admin, “Is there writing?” He nodded in the affirmative and that is how I ended up pursuing a diploma in film. I always love to tout that the teachings and practical works at the institution prepared me for this path. I work as a film and TV producer, screenwriter, and Director. I have produced shows such as seasons two and three of Churchill Live Show that airs on NTV and written scripts for popular Kenyan TV dramas including Tahidi High, a show that aired on Citizen TV. I wasalso part of the launch of Viusasa, a digital platform, and helped set the blueprints,” she offers.
When she got her first job, Sheila was barely done with her first year. “Although it was a short stint, I earned $100 every day creating content on FGM. While researching for my final project on abortion, I knocked doors at Ukweli Video Productions, a then renowned faith-based media production that covered such societal issues. I got the resources I required and after completion of the project, went back with a copy of my school project as a show of gratitude. A month later, I got a call from the Late Rev. Fr. Richard J. Quinn, who owned the production house and offered me a job. This is the person who taught me the ropes of the trade and other transferable skills such as humility and time management,” she says.
While at Ukweli Video Productions, a place she worked for six years, Sheila produced more than 50 documentaries on issues such as health, agriculture, disability in Africa. Two of her documentaries on disability in Africa are research tools in Harvard and Yale universities.
“What I enjoy most about my work is the impact of our stories. For instance, when one of the documentaries on disabilities aired on TV, it played a role in helping one of the subjects get a job. In retrospect, my best years in productions were around 2012-2015. There were gigs and money. I remember wishing to upgrade my car one day and getting a client a few weeks later who gave me cash, enough to buy me a new car. I also supported my parents and siblings. When digital migration happened, the rain started beating us,” she offers.
Even now, Sheila who is a firstborn in a family of six has not had a quiet week. Now, she is working on a consultancy gig, has done two pilots which are awaiting approval, and she has written a movie script. When she is not immersed in film productions or hanging out with friends, you are likely to find her in class—studying or lecturing at USIU-Africa.
“I have a very strong support system from my family. My father especially is a motivating force. On matters academic, he’d say, ‘don’t stop at diploma level.’ Come next year when I am hoping to graduate, I will be the first PhD holder in both my maternal and paternal sides. I hate failing when my guts tell me that I can do it. For instance, my first six scripts for Tahidi High were rejected and I only got a breakthrough with the seventh one,” she offers.
The pursuit of filmmaking has seen Sheila travel to different parts of the world. In 2012, her short film Brother Brother was featured at the Chicago International film festival which she attended.
However, it has not always been smooth sailing. One time, she shares that her colleagues left her in Wajir while en route for assignment in Somalia.
“They said that I couldn’t go with them because I am a woman. There have been instances whereby I have been bullied, berated, or undermined because of my gender. Thankfully, with the increase of women venturing into film and video productions, it’s no longer a male-dominated field,” she offers.
On a particular day in 2018, Sheila woke up one morning to find her name trending on various blogs and tabloids. She had been accused of sending offensive text messages to a police couple and was summoned to appear before a Kakamega court.
“It’s good that you have brought this up because the blogs who first posted didn’t bother to follow up and when I reached out, they were unwilling to share the truth. Way back in secondary school, I dated the man, lost contact, and we reconnected in 2018. He invited me to his child’s birthday party and as any guest, I took gifts. What followed were insulting and provoking messages from his partner. After a court battle, I was vindicated and the case was dismissed. She was ordered to pay for my legal fees. When you are in the limelight, all manner of stones gets thrown at you,” she divulges.
The experience, startled her. “There were many moments of pain. Then, the online comments were very nasty and I wished that people would know the truth,” she offers.
Recently, Netflix launched a free plan in Kenya in a quest to woo more Kenyans to join the platform. To Sheila, this is good news but needs something else. “I wish they can commission filmmakers in Kenya to produce films as they’ve done with Nigeria and South Africa. I would be heartily clapping. My future plan is to be in two spaces —on the ground making films and in research institutes carrying out researches on the film industry,” she offers.
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