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Looking back on 'Nairobi Half Life'

Books,Film and Theatre
 Nairobi Half Life director Tosh Gitonga.

They set out to tell a story that was true to Nairobi and by all accounts, they nailed it. At a watch party on Nairobi Half Life's 10th anniversary, Mugambi Nthiga, who played Cedric in the film, talked about how, when they once rescreened the show at the K1 Club, the director, Tosh Gitonga, got overwhelmed, saying: "I cannot believe I made this!"

Despite it being Tosh Gitonga's directorial debut, Nairobi Half Life ended up being watched by over 20,000 people, with box office revenues of about Sh8.15 million, the highest by a Kenyan film.

The internationally-acclaimed and award-winning film still holds the record for cinema attendance for a Kenyan local film, having opened to packed cinemas and running for 25 weeks in Kenya, a first for local movies.

After the rescreening by Mymovies.Africa at ihub, Tosh and his Nairobi Half Life counterparts spoke about what making the film was like. It is a marvel that the film ended up being such a runaway success, all the way from its conception, to budget, to the conditions through which they had to shoot.

"That budget question is always asked and I find it difficult to answer because Nairobi Half Life was the product of a training programme and we were all on a stipend pay, so not everybody was being paid their rates. It is therefore very difficult to say how much that film cost," said Tosh.

"What we cared about was that we were able to roll the cameras. I am someone who sees further and I could see what that film was going to do for us."

The number of shoot days for the film was what Tosh referred to as "24 hard days."

"For some reason because of the funding, when the writers finished the script we had to shoot within three weeks. I had such a short time, three weeks before I had to shoot. It was my first time directing, and I had 24 days to shoot. It was intense. Tom (Tykwer) drove me hard. There was no lunchtime," he said.

The film features very authentic scenes of Nairobi, and one reason was that they were shooting in real-time Nairobi. Unlike Hollywood where shooting locations will be cleared during the shoot, they had to do it in real-time Nairobi, with the real people of Nairobi in the background and not paid extras.

"A major challenge was shooting downtown. We were deep into a million people at Ngara. I am trying to shoot my guy walking and talking and I have people just staring at me. We did everything. We begged, we asked nicely, we kicked them out, we were rough sometimes... It was so frustrating," he said.

Toughest part

For Tosh, that was the toughest part of making the film.

"I am dealing with trying to get the scene right. I am dealing with trying to get the camera movement right. And then I had to deal with looking at the background. Just when I had my shot, a mechanic is staring right at the camera!" he said, as the audience broke into laughter.

"But we had a strong team. We were all passionate, we were driven," he said.

The payoff came in spades. The cast and crew spoke about the way the film changed their lives, opening doors for them and enabling them to leave full-time jobs in other areas and get into film-making full-time in more capacities such as writing, directing, production, teaching and so on.

Tosh spoke about how, before Nairobi Half Life, there was a narrative that advertisements could not be done by local directors, but after the film came to life, the narrative changed and they started getting their foot in the door.

"After Nairobi Half Life I got into advertising, and advertising, for an artiste, is the mode of putting bread on the table. I want to make money making movies, but with the industry being what it was, I had to get into advertising," said Tosh.

"It opened a lot of doors not just for me, but also young upcoming creatives to believe that they could do something like that. So Nairobi Half Life sits on my forehead."

He joked that when he needs to push something, he will throw in a "Like when we were shooting Nairobi Half Life..." to which the crowd erupted in laughter.

Tosh has ended up being very successful in film, yet he told The Sunday Standard that film was something he stumbled upon. What he studied was marketing, and that is what he would have been doing today if the film had not appeared.

"I felt it was cool from what I understood as a child when I was deciding what I wanted to be. I had a neighbour who used to be a marketer and he was always on the move. I thought that was the kind of job I wanted. One that does not keep in one place," he said.

"If I did not do that, the other thing that fascinates me is flying. Maybe I would have been a pilot. I find that fascinating but I have a huge fear of heights, so I do not know!"

He would end up doing his internship at a film production house, changing the course of his life.

Kenyan film

"I stumbled upon film-making. I went for internship with my aunt who had just come back from the US. She was a producer and she was like, 'We need to make a Kenyan film that is not your usual film about poverty and suffering and so on, and just about contemporary life. So we made Dangerous Affair from scratch," he said.

"That is how I got sucked into the world of film. I loved it because it was challenging in equal measure as much as it was fun."

Dangerous Affair was the first film of its kind in Kenya, and it changed the film-making scene in the country. Before that, films were mostly documentary-style. Tosh considers having been part of Dangerous Affair as his biggest accomplishment.

He has now been in the industry for 20 years, having never really been employed.

"I am truly an entrepreneur, I think. I mean, what else would you call someone who is constantly trying to make a living out of an industry that is yet to see its full potential? I think I am a visionary because I think and dream, I see in my head and I create and eventually it becomes something," he said.

Right now, the buzz about him is about having successfully co-directed the Kenyan series on Netflix that is on everyone's lips, Country Queen.

"I am grateful for how Kenyans are receiving our work because it is made with blood and sweat. So it makes us happy to see that people appreciate the work that we put in," he said.

He also has a few projects coming up, with more in the pipeline.

"There is a new series called The Brave Ones from South Africa, where I have directed two episodes, coming onto Netflix this month. Disconnect 2 will be coming later in December and a new series called Volume early next year," said Tosh.

He believes that this is a good time for Africa in the film industry, Kenya included.

"The world is starting to want stories coming from Africa, so it is a very good time for us as filmmakers. So we are excited and we know only good things can come," he said. He wants to be remembered for having been one of the pioneers of that.

"I think I want to be remembered for trying. I am aware that the industry may never become what I would love it to become in my lifetime. Will it become what it needs to be? Definitely. Maybe not in my lifetime. So I just want to be remembered as a person who dared to dream, a person who did his part to drive the industry to where it needs to be."

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