Patience pays for director as film that took 8 years to make finally premieres

Kenyan film director Angela Wamai

Kenyan film director Angela Wamai, who won the Etalon de Bronze for her film ‘Shimoni’, during the closing ceremony of the 28th Pan-African Film and television Festival (FESPACO), in Ouagadougou, on March 4, 2023. 

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

Film editor Angela Wamai’s debut film Shimoni is now screening in Kenya for the first time. The Bronze Stallion winner at The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) in March this year had its premiere in Nairobi at Alliance Française’s auditorium on April 24 with most of the cast and the crew present.

In a panel discussion held after the screening, hosted by Serge Noukoué, the film and media attaché at the French Embassy in Kenya, Angela said that due to the length of time it took to shoot the project, people she had approached to direct it fell off to pursue other works. It took her eight years from concept to completion and sometimes she felt like she was never going to finish the movie.

“I got this image of this woman holding a burning piece of paper and she wasn’t letting it go. I kept asking myself why she wouldn’t let go as it was burning to her fingers. It wouldn’t leave me so I wrote it down,” remembers Angela.

She started thinking about the secrets people won’t let go of, that are eating them up and found her way to Geoffrey (Justin Mirichii). Geoffrey is a man who is finding it hard to leave a prison within himself even as he is freed from physical prison.

There is a story, a folk tale in many African cultures, about an ogre who steals children and deforms them that Angela used to challenge the definition of monsters and how to unmask them. She wanted her first film to bear importance because filmmakers in Africa don’t get many opportunities at shooting. She is also very intrigued by the darkness in humans.

Geoffrey, raised in the city, finds himself in a village where he stands out from the rhythm of the residents; even converses in English while they speak in Kikuyu. He is sheltered at a church as a priest (Sam Psenjen) tries to guide him back to life outside.

The film is very intense. Justin’s character has very few lines and the actor makes his wife move out of their house with their then newborn son because of the brokenness and loneliness Geoffrey experiences in order to get into that space. A victim of sexual abuse, he bottles things inside which result in uncontrollable violent outbursts, the reason for his imprisonment.

The film has light moments with Maritha (Muthoni Gathecha) which diffuses the mood and tone that is based on how Geoffrey hears the world after leaving prison. It’s real life horror; you hear rain but you never see it. There are also thunder and rumbles beneath the earth that bring out this dreadful place Geoffrey is existing in.

“It was hard to transition from this solitary space to a huge set with a large number of people. I had to speak my vision out loudly yet I’m the type of person who’s a lot of times in their head. I owe a lot to the casting crew because they were really kind,” says Angela, who also edited the film.

The film was shot during the second lockdown (2021) and Tony Rimwa, the location scout, had to find locations within the environs. The priest’s house and the church were actually in Karinde, Karen and Kiambu, respectively but they had to cheat directions for continuity. The village cutaways were in Nyeri.

Another conversation that piqued the interest of the audience was the micro budget that the film creator says it took to make it. Angela clarified that the classifications are created by Hollywood and their standards

“I think as Africans we should start to define what micro and big budgets are, because the numbers will be very different because of where we are and what we can access,” she says.

Admittedly, they did not have a big budget which meant lots of limitations on the number of days, cast and crew, and insurance that could be taken out on different aspects of the project. Angela had to raise money by getting work to finance the develop and write the script. She was also cutting time from her work to actually write down the script while at it.

“It was two to three months where I didn’t get paid. Even in post-production, we were still trying to apply for grants but, being a first time director, people were finding it difficult to entrust me with their money,” says Angela, adding that she would edit the movie for six months without pay, then get work for the following three months to sustain editing for the remaining bit.

Her post-graduate studies at La Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV, Cuba on film editing from 2010 to 2013 had her practice shooting a film in 16 shots. This helped her shoot Shimoni within boundaries and be super precise.

Étalon de Yennenga (Stallion of Yennenga) is an award bestowed to distinguished individuals in recognition of the grand prize for the Best Film. Angela won the Bronze Stallion, along with 5 million CFA francs (Sh1.15 million) at FESPACO in March.

“It was the most special recognition for me because I’ve been seeing all these huge African storytellers there. It’s also Francophone and only recently started picking Anglophone movies, so now it is really PanAfrican,” says Angela.

She noted that the Francophone countries consume cinema different from how we do in Kenya, so most of the talk about the movie was around the filmmaking process and not about the topic of sexual abuse and inward trauma that the film addresses, especially in men.

“It will be some time before Africa as a whole will be able to have these conversations. More films need to be made to open up that space so we can move this as far as I had hoped,” she adds.

Shimoni is currently showing at Unseen rooftop cinema, Wood Avenue, Nairobi on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for Sh650 for the month of May.

It had also been screened at Red Sea International Film Festival (where it was nominated for Best Film) and Toronto International Film Festival last year. It was also gained recognition at Cleveland International Film Festival where it was nominated in the New Direction Competition this year.


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