Kiriamiti goes to the movies

John Kiriamiti at his office in muraga town. PHOTO/HEZRON NJOROGE

What you need to know:

  • He thrilled Kenyans in the 1980s with his ‘My Life in Crime’ trilogy; now movie directors want to turn the novels by the reformed former bank robber into a screen sensation

One of Kenya’s most read novels, My Life in Crime, is being made into a blockbuster movie. 

The book by swashbuckling author John Kiriamiti will be leading several other Kenyan novels in storming the big screen, thanks to deals that will see some of the most popular local works adapted into films.

“We’ve obtained the filming rights to three of Kiriamiti’s books — My Life in Crime, My Life with a Criminal and My Life in Prison — to make them into one comprehensive movie,” says Neil Schell, one of the people behind the project to adapt Kiriamiti’s fiction.

This may well be the proper beginning of the Kenyan cinema.

Attempts to copy the commercially successful but aesthetically wary Nigerian Nollywood model have not been successful.

The movie is a redemption tale that will surely pack the theatres in most of Africa. Loosely based on the popular novelist’s experiences in the underworld, the story covers Kiriamiti’s alter ego Jack Zollo’s criminal life, his residency in the cooler for over a decade for robbing a bank, and his eventual release to become a model citizen and family man.

Kirina Productions (owned by actor and filmmaker Janet Kirina) is collaborating with Lucy Chodota of Cthrough Productions, based in the Netherlands, to bring Kiriamiti to the theatres.

Neil is directing the film while Janet stars as Millie, Jack Zollo’s wife.  An accomplished actor, acting coach, director and producer in film and television, Neil has been working in the film industry for over 25 years in North America, having started as a film editor in Los Angeles in 1984.

Janet is an award-winning actress (Kenya Kalasha Award for Best Actress in a feature film — Benta) with extensive acting experience in television and films — two starring roles in feature films and two regular roles on Kenyan TV series: Higher Learning and Makutano Junction. As a producer, Janet co-produced the feature film All Girls Together starring herself and Nice Githinji. 

The most successful of Kenyan adaptations so far is the work of the Los Angeles-based writer Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla, although little is known about him in Kenya.

Born in Mombasa, Dhalla is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Ode to Lata (2001), which was adapted into a movie, The Ode (2008), starring Sachin Bhatt, Wilson Cruz, and Sakina Jaffrey.

A semi-autobiographical portrayal of a gay Kenyan Asian in the US, the movie premiered at the Oufest Film Festival in 2008 to a sold-out audience.

Unlike Dhalla, Kiriamiti is a household name, known for his bare-knuckle crime thrillers. Neil says he co-wrote the Kiriamiti script with Serah Mwihaki and Loyce Kareri.  

“A budget of $4.2 million (Sh361 million) has been drawn up and a business plan is all in place,” says Neil. “We are in the process of attaching named actors for a few of the roles, Jack Zollo being one of them.”

The movie will be a break from the past, where adaptations in East Africa have been limited to works by Western writers who write about the region.

It is hard to get any adaptations of indigenous texts from East Africans. Even if Meja Mwangi’s Carcass for Hounds and Francis Imbuga’s The Married Bachelor have been adapted for the screen, the adaptations are not readily available.

Apart from Kurt Luedtke’s adaptation of Karen Blixen’s 1937 memoir Out of Africa (directed by Sidney Pollack in 1985), there are only two major adaptations from East Africa, both of which are from British novels.

The 2005 The Constant Gardner (directed by Fernando Meirelles) is Jeffrey Caine’s adaptation of a 2001 novel of the same title, written by the spy novelist John le Carré’s (David John Moore Cornwell). Alluding to the murder of British tourist Julie Ward, the thriller captures in film the run-away corruption in Kenya.

The other movie is Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock’s adaptation of the writer Gile Foden’s debut novel The Last King of Scotland (directed by Kevin MacDonald), a novel set during Idi Amin’s rule of Uganda in the 1970s.

Most popular novels are well received in the city environments that they portray, but Kiriamiti is a cult figure in much of the rural Eastern Africa as well, where his books are passed on from hand to expectant hand.

Outside South Africa, adaptations of African literature are not common. Indeed, the only major scholarly book on adaptation from the continent is Lindiwe Dovey’s wide-ranging and theoretically refined African Film and Literature: Adapting Violence on the Screen (2009). She draws her materials mostly from South Africa and Francophone West Africa.

Even in South Africa, most of the works adapted into movies are by white authors, such as Athol Fugard’s Tsotsi, Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, and Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm.

Although the Kenyan film and TV industry does not take adaptation seriously, the practice can be a lucrative business.

“About 50 per cent of the world’s existing films and TV dramas are adaptations of existing stories, whether they come from novels, short stories or comic books,” says Dr John Mugubi, the chairman of the Department of Theatre Arts and Film Technology at Kenyatta University.

“The bottom line is that it’s easier for the marketing and PR department to sell an adaptation to the public than an original screen idea from an unknown screenwriter,” says the don, whose department is offering a course on adaptation.

Enthralling portrait

Besides Kiriamiti’s work, other adaptations in the works include Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat. Optioned for the screen by the American director Osborn “Oz” Scott, the novel is an enthralling portrait of the divide between Africans and African Americans.

Mukoma teaches literature and African studies at Cornell University in the US.  He is the son of Kenya’s foremost novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has also dabbled in film in the past.

Singapore-based Kenyan filmmaker Zippy Kimondo is working on Ngugi’s debut novel Weep Not, Child (1964) for adaptation to the big screen.

Ngugi says that film should give back dignity to African characters. “Let them speak in Dholuo, Giriama, Kikamba, Kiswahili, and then have subtitles,” he told the Saturday Nation. “I don’t think they will heed me,” says an almost desperate Ngugi. “The educated African middle class has become addicted to mimicry. It needs detoxing.”

Popular novelist Mwangi Gicheru is finishing work on the script of his novel Across the Bridge, a romantic story that also involves bank robberies.

In addition, Nairobi’s Dreamcatcher Productions is scripting Kinyanjui Kombani’s The Last Villains of Molo, a mature and stylistically accomplished fresco about ethnic conflicts in Kenya. 

According to Dr Mugubi, producers should consider books like Ngugi’s The River Between and A Grain of Wheat, Rebeka Njau’s Ripples in the Pool and her unpublished play “The Scar”, Marjorie O. Macgoye’s Coming to Birth, Grace Ogot’s Land Without Thunder, and David Mulwa’s Redemption.

“There are also many good stories from our Kiswahili authors such as Kyallo W. Wamitila, Kithaka wa Mberia, and John Habwe,” Dr Mugubi says.

Movies boost book sales internationally. When Witi Ihimaera released The Whale Rider in 1987, few people noticed the young-adult novel, what with the public attention still being focused on his previous novel, the highly successful The Matriarch (1986). 

But sales went up after Niki Caro’s movie in 2002, prompting the author to revise some sections of the work to conform with the expectations of an international audience.

“I have no idea of how much money John Kiriamiti is going to make once we make the movie,” Neil says.

“But I am sure his book sales will soar not only in Kenya, but around the world, as our film is destined for the international stage.”

The Kenyan film industry has a long way to go, especially because of the high costs of production. “I still would rather be an African writer than an African filmmaker,” Mukoma says light-heartedly.

With the act of writing novels, you just need a laptop, or pen and paper, to produce a draft. “It’s really up to you and your imagination,” says Mukoma, whose novel needs around $7 million (Sh600 million) to deliver to the screen. 

“To produce the film, you need other players who want to have a say in the artistic direction of the film.”

Prof Evan Mwangi teaches at Northwestern University in Evanston, USA. [email protected]