What you need to know:
- My upbringing in the creative sector taught me to be continuously curious.
- It showed me that creativity plays a critical part in our lives.
- I feel like cultural spaces are where we negotiate who we are, what we value and what is important to us as a society.
Sheba Hirst describes herself as evolving, creative, and bold in her expectations of herself. The projects she has undertaken over the years are an expression of her boldness and passion.
Her latest production, Tinga Tinga Tales, is headed to Broadway, New York later in October 2018 and she is the force behind the Sawa Sawa Festival, the NBO Film Festival and the award-winning Mo Faya, a musical.
She speaks to Nation.co.ke about her journey in the creative industry.
What misconceptions do people have about you?
I am much more political in public than people think. People think I am Indian or white - I don’t see myself that way but that’s how the world sees me so I have accepted it.
I don’t really know what misconceptions people have about me because I have trained myself not to pay attention to what other people think.
You once worked in the construction industry, studied political science and law before deciding to focus on the creative sector. What have these paths taught you?
Well, construction is project management, which is what production is all about. It taught me that anything you want to do starts out with a vision, drawing up a plan and coming up with tasks to execute the vision. Production is the same thing. As long as you keep the original vision in mind then you will not make compromises that give you increasingly degraded outputs.
On political science, I grew up with a parent who was a political cartoonist (Terry Hirst) so that was always part of my consciousness.
My upbringing in the creative sector taught me to be continuously curious. It showed me that creativity plays a critical part in our lives. I feel like cultural spaces are where we negotiate who we are, what we value and what is important to us as a society. When you watch a play, it makes you consider the outcome of different scenarios in a way that shines a light into our emotional and social spaces.
You have undertaken various creative pursuits and have succeeded in all of them. Whether it was as Creative Director at Sarakasi and one of the brains behind the Sawa Sawa Festival, Co-founder of the Nairobi Film Festival and as co-owner of Rainmaker Ltd that is now producing Tinga Tinga Tales you have managed to make your mark. How do you do it?
I enjoy going into uncharted territory. If you have an impulse for something you want you can be part of actualising it. I also believe in go big or go home. Some things only make sense when you scale up a particular way.
At the time I joined Sarakasi, I was very young to be co-directing. I worked with directors who had very specific visions and they set out to do things that had never been done. It’s not that things aren’t challenging, it’s that they are challenging and you need to find the solutions to them.
It was a great space to sort of midwife someone’s vision; you have to internalize it and figure out how to make it happen. It was a great way to a learn about producing.
When it came to starting a film festival in Nairobi, we had to intentionally refuse to bow to the generalizations that we make about the industry.
We need empirical backing to support certain statements. It’s not that Kenyans don’t like movies, what they don’t like is bad movies. So, can we put something that they will like, consistently and see the outcome? Don’t take things as truth until you have given yourself enough time to prove otherwise.
What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
You don’t have to say yes to everything. A client may say to you, "I want you to do something for me in November", yet your event ends in October. I can still do the event, but it has to be in March, because one needs enough build up time to deliver the product at the level that you conceptualise it.
What mistakes have you made in life and business that have made you a better person?
I have learnt about confronting difficult conversations much earlier. When you are able to tell people what the problem is and give realistic solutions you deepen their trust in you. They can take your word for it. We tell people the best case scenario instead of the worst case scenario which is where they should be processing the information from.
What is the best thing and hardest thing about working with your spouse?
There is no end to when you are working, you have shared experiences, and you develop a short code to where you want to go. It can result however in closed systems, which is why for two years now we haven’t been working as closely together.
What are your pet peeves?
I don’t like guesswork; like with mechanics; Ni kama ni carburettor, Based on what? I am a fundi at heart and I get irritated when you haven’t tested all methods to solve a problem especially when it’s technical. I don’t like guessstimation.
I find meanness of all kinds unnecessary. Nairobi can be draining to drive around in. I hate anti- people things that are trying to shape people’s behavior to see if it actually works. The question that obsesses me at this point is ‘how do we build a state that loves its people?’ You can see it with the lack of sidewalks. I mean look at Uhuru Park, I haven’t seen a place that has been so used that the grass is worn out. I am not pointing at the government because it is We, The People. We have to collectively come to a place where we can say for example we don’t do hunger in Kenya in 2018. I don’t think anyone of us is doing enough and that morally bothers me.
What would you say are your biggest achievements as Sheba, as a mother, wife and as a player in the creative industry?
If there is a thing that I am proud of is that I feel that I have raised good kids. I see them and I see the way that I shaped them and I feel like I did the best job that I could do. I feel good about that. I am very proud of the NBO Film Festival. We are not producing for anyone and we still managed to get it off the ground without all the funding we needed. I am proud of the growth from last year; and also the credibility that it has achieved.
We are getting calls from organisers of other film festivals around the world, expressing interest in what we are doing. We moved from having our friends and family as our main audience to having complete strangers for the second edition, and also gaining trust within the film making community. As a wife, Eric and I are better friends than we have ever been. Our relationship is built fundamentally on friendship and that is satisfying.