What you need to know:
Here are Riverwood’s women screenwriters creating compelling scripts locally and internationally
Screenwriters are oftentimes the unsung heroes of the film industry yet they're responsible for writing the stories that we ingest on a daily basis. Much like female directors, women screenwriters are a part of an industry largely dominated by men, which makes the incredible stories they're telling that much more important.
It would be a shame not to talk about the impact of women filmmakers on our cultural milieu. There have been many women who have made a difference in our lives with their creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance in film.
While a number of women have been making films, they may not be as known in the mainstream media as their male counterparts.
In Riverwood, as budding Kenya’s film industry is dubbed, several women screenwriters have emerged and are creating life-changing scripts locally and internationally.
If you’re unsure about screenwriting, let these female screenwriters inspire you with their bold stories and strong character development that’s at the heart of their scripts. These three brilliant female screenwriters are creating some of the most compelling films in Kenya today.
Mkamze Chao Mwatela is a Film director, actor and screenwriter. She rose to prominence in 2011 when she portrayed Usha, on Mali TV series. Mwatela also starred on the Stay series as Nubia. She was among the 10 screenwriters who scripted the Country Queen series currently airing on Netlfix.
After her secondary education at the Moi Girls Nairobi, Mwatela joined Saint Mary’s for the International Baccalaureate programme majoring in theatre because she did not want to do economics.
Mwatela was then staging plays from 2003 to 2006, before joining State University Of New York to study film and theatre. Her journey in screenwriting began in school where she wrote her first ever script as part of the theatre arts program which left a mark when the work was played out on stage.
“In 2003 I performed in Sarafina and the next year there was an opportunity to work on Eric Wainaina’s musical Lwanda. The book required a lot of editing and I was fortunate to be part of the team that did it. As a result of that I got an opportunity to write the book for the musical Malaika which played at the Kenya National Theatre in 2005. It was about the coup in 1982,” Mwatela says.
“There was so much research involved and I enjoyed every minute of it. That's when I realised that I really enjoyed writing even though I was doing a lot more acting.” The veteran actress who rose to prominence in 2011-2015 playing Usha on TV drama series Mali, says of the role that won her Best female actress in Drama. She also starred on Stay TV drama series as Nubia in 2012-13.
After years on camera she was motivated to go behind the camera.
“Being an actor has imparted my writing greatly. In fact, the reason I began writing for screen was that we would really struggle with the material sometimes, and it was so hard getting scripts with strong characters and interesting stories. As an actor you’re always thinking ‘What am I playing?’ and that’s how I write. I always think, what is the actor playing? It gets really interesting from there on,” says Mwatela.
Mwatela has been involved in a number of projects as a screenwriter but she has two picks as her major achievements.
“The biggest would be the Country Queen. I loved working on Malaika too.”
But does she feel screenwriters get the recognition they deserve? “Do you mean acknowledgement or monetarily? I think it’s unwise to go into anything thinking you ‘deserve’ certain things. Scriptwriting is collaborative and unlike prose which is written to be read, you are writing for performance. Everyone who makes the film happen, are your audience. I think most writers are content to be in the shadows, and watch their work come to life through the other collaborators. Watching an actor breathe life into a character you created and nail it, or even do more than you imagined is the pay off. Could there be better compensation financially? Absolutely, but that has a lot to do with a writer’s knowledge of copyright and intellectual property laws as well,” Mwatela says.
One of Mwatela’s lows in the industry is grappling with plagiarism.
“One of the lows was writing and shooting said Country queen’s pilot only to have the producer try to pass herself off as the author. I don’t care who it is, protect your copyright, always, sign Non-Disclosure Agreements and always leave a paper trail when you share your work. It’s inevitable that if you have good ideas someone will try to appropriate them at some point. The fact that those may be people you know and trust can be extremely harrowing,” says Mwatela.
She also feels broadcasters have been a letdown with a majority adapting shows from South Africa.
“It feeds into the lie that Kenyan writers are not up to par and cannot create original stories. It is a false claim to say you support local content while putting the money in foreign pockets. Adapting content created by writers from other countries within their cultural context doesn’t qualify. It’s an insult to our own culture. It is especially concerning that these are decisions being made by Kenyan producers and broadcasters,” Mwatela notes.
Annette Shadeya is a Freelance Social Media Manager, Content Writer, screenwriter and filmmaker. She is currently Head of Writing at 8278 Studio.
She previously worked as Lead Screenwriter for the German film production firm GoodKarma which produced the Country Queen series, of which she was part of the 10 writers.
“Women are natural storytellers that’s why there are quite a number of women in film. Everyone has personal struggles but I wouldn't say that there exists an overarching issue that impacts women specifically,” the Country Queen script writer, says.
Shadeya tends to think she was born a writer long before she even ever thought she would be a screenwriter.
“I actually thought I'd be an author. While in primary school, I used to write stories in my exercise books and distribute them to my classmates. My teachers advised me to be a lawyer. This is because a well written story is just as good as a debate. However, the older I got it dawned on me that I was an above average of TV. I visited film news sites as a hobby to read reviews and keep up to date with the latest. So as I approached my high school graduation I already knew I wanted to study film.” After her A levels in 2012, Shadeya joined Africa Digital Media Institute (ADMI) in 2015 graduating in 2017 as Valedictorian.
“For budding screenwriters, if this is not an option for you it's time to get your ear on the ground. Watch local shows and attend film and TV events. Get the names of the producer, directors and call them up. Go to shows, talk to actors. How else are you going to get your work seen? These are the people who will share your name. Moreover, as it is, your first job in film may not even be as a screenwriter, mine wasn't. But this was how I gained an understanding of sets and managed to talk to the people I needed to talk to,” Shadeya advises.
She notes that since the Kenyan film Industry lacks proper structures one has to apply various methods.
“There's more than one way to get what you want but it's a wild ride. You should already be in the habit of learning, reading and writing often. Therefore, when someone asks for a sample you should have something to show. No one is crazy enough to trust the often expensive production process to someone they don't know,” she divulges.
Shadeya says screenwriting is getting of age in Kenya.
“In the age of streaming, not having a screenwriter is like shooting money into a bonfire,” she shares.
Shadeya is in support of home grown talent.
“Often our visual arts industry thinks Kenyans do not know how to consume art or stories. That we have no skilled performers or storytellers. But we do. Just look at how many fantastic shows and films have come out in the last five years alone. These shows also have a following. This is power in collaboration,” Shadeya says.
Plagiarism, is a pain up her alley.
“Getting work produced is a long process and I've had to sign my fair share of NDA's (Non-Disclosure Agreements) and write many scripts that aren’t on TV or on film yet,” she quips.
Funding is also another major problem.
“It is a bane for most writers. When you hope that a project will get the funding it needs, and then that fails to happen, so much of your energy will have been spent on what is essentially nothing. It hurts,” she shares.
Shadeya has worked in other production firms like Some Fine Day, Ginger Ink and Good Karma, and is most proud of the pitches she did at the Nairobi Film Festival in 2019. “That was my biggest win for sure. I participated in a pitching workshop and made it all the way to second place. I had never presented my work to a large audience before and honestly what I got from that was invaluable.”
Voline Ogutu a Writer Director at Script Genius, is a painter, film producer, director and an award winning screenwriter. She has written for several international and local TV series. Some of her works include thriller feature, 40 sticks, which premiered on Netflix in November, 2020. In the same year she wrote, produced and directed her first horror feature film, The Witch from Chaka, currently in Post Production. She also wrote, produced and directed a fantasy short film JINN. She is part of the writing team for Australian puppet show the Professors. She was also part of the writing team for an upcoming original Netflix animated series Mama K Team 4. Voline was selected to participate in the Sundance Film Festival 2022 through the International Writer’s Lab (Blackhouse Foundation). In March 2022, she was selected as one of the winners of the Netflix Unesco Folktale competition. She is also part of the Realness Netflix Episodic Lab 2022.
She is probably one of the most notable names in screenwriting having been thrown into the limelight last year when she emerged the winner of the Netflix Short Film Competition. For someone who has never set foot to a film school, winning $100,000 (Ksh11.8 million) was no small feat. Ogutu is the brains behind a number of popular TV shows and series such as Njoro Wa Uba, 40 Sticks film (2020), How to Find a Husband (2015), Crime and Justice (2022), Varshita (2017), Jane and Abel, Sumu La Penzi, among others. The Linguist by profession and a self-taught filmmaker and screenwriter, now wears many hats including directing.
“I never went to a film school. I was a painter and 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 in the country with a CV that would rival those of Hollywood’s most talented script writers Sir Ronald Harwood and William Nicholson, has not been without hurdles.
Her career took off in 2017 when she emerged the best director at the Machakos Film Festival with her work ‘Seed’.
“It was the first time I ran my set and won. 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 opportunities have been coming and I have been finding myself working on a number of local and global projects,” Ogutu states.
Ogutu says funding is a major challenge given film production is a costly venture.
“I have produced short films with Sh15,000 to Sh170,000. But that requires a lot of favors and sacrifices from the cast and crew because the industry isn’t financially stable,” she shares.
Collaboration, she says, is the way to go.
“There are productions where I have paid editors with paintings and muffins because I love to bake. Of course, I wished I could pay everyone their full rates. I just didn’t have the money. My friend Ivy and I used to spend all our savings from writing gigs to cover any production cost we could afford. I have been very lucky in my career to have the support of many film makers. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if all these people did not invest their time in my dream. As an independent filmmaker, I have had a ton of support through collaborations,” Ogutu confesses.
She notes that there are more opportunities for financing now, for example with the Kenya Film Commission Empowerment fund, and platforms like Showmax and other networks are also giving more filmmakers opportunities to pitch and get funding for feature films.
“These help nurture more original stories. Although most come with a maximum budget of $40-45,000. For a feature film, unless you have other forms of funding, there is a limit to the kind of stories you can confidently achieve with that budget,” she says.
Ogutu adds: “In some cases, all the rights to your film remain with the network providing the funding. But even then, these are still opportunities that help many filmmakers produce original concepts.”
Adaptation of foreign content and lack of diversification is yet another nudnik in Ogutu’s eyes.
“Kenya has a lot of great storytellers. I know filmmakers who would create fantastic shows on Netflix if they just got the opportunity. But then again our industry is very limited in terms of genre. And maybe that also ties into viewership and budgets. A lot of the stuff on TV is soap operas, comedies and dramas. As a die-hard horror and Sci-fi fan, I just wish we had more diversity in the stories we told and how we tell them.
I bet a cool sci-fi/horror concept can be integrated into relatable African stories. Stories that were true to African experiences, but also globally relatable. I think we are still in a place where we are very restricted in terms of story. The TV industry, especially now, is full of adaptations from other countries. Something I think further limits our originality as Kenyan creatives. It is hard to compete on a global scale if we are limited in how we tell our own stories,” Ogutu surmises
10 Popular local Films/TV shows
1. Country Queen (Netflix).
2. Salem TV (Maisha Magic)
3. Igiza (Showmax)
4. Crime and Justice Sn1 (Showmax)
5. Kina (Maisha Magic).
6. Selina (Maisha Magic)
7. Monica (Showmax)
8. Sincerely Diasy (Netflix)
9. Poacher (Netflix)
10. 40 Sticks (Netlfix)
How to become a screenwriter
1. Be creative - It takes a lot of things, and imagination to recognise good ideas as they occur.
2. Sit down and write - If you have a story that you think only you can tell, write it as you see it. You should already be in the habit of learning, reading, and writing often. Therefore, when someone asks for a sample you will have something to show.
3. Networking: Visit film symposiums, workshops, and Film faire to learn, meet and interact with stakeholders like producers, filmmakers, actors, writers, and many more.
4. Criticism - A lot of self-belief and humility in equal measure is needed because you need to listen to criticism and know when it’s valid and when you should stick to your guns. A keen sense of observation, curiosity, empathy for others, and most importantly discipline is needed to write.
5. Read Scripts - There are so many resources online where you can find the scripts for popular TV shows and films. These will help you to understand the basics of script writing.
6. Writing Courses- There are also many people/experts teaching script writing and also online courses. Here is a lot of access to information nowadays.
7. Visit Film Sites- Make it a hobby of visiting film news sites to read reviews and keep up to date with the latest.
8. Study Film- Enroll in a Film school to study filmmaking and script writing.