For the first time, Kenya has submitted a documentary film ‘The Letter’, for the 93rd Academy Awards (Oscars) consideration.
‘The Letter’, produced and directed by Christopher King and Maia Lekow was selected by the Kenya Film Commission (KFC) to represent the country in the Best International Feature Film Category formerly known as the Best Foreign Language Film Category Award come 2021. The Commission had called for films submission from producers on September 11, 2020, and upon the expiry of the deadline on October 27, only two had been submitted, The Letter and a feature film Uradi produced by Kang’ethe Mungai.
The two films were reviewed on November 2 by the Oscars Selections Committee Kenya made up of 10 members headed by Kryteen Savane, Chair of Kenya Film and TV Professionals Association. “The essence of reviewing these films was to help the committee arrive at a decision and having considered all the criteria set by the Oscars the committee settled on The Letter, which we will be submitting to the Oscars,” stated Timothy Owase, Kenya Film Commission CEO.
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However, Owase is concerned that many Kenyan producers don’t submit films for consideration whenever these opportunities arise and he is now calling upon them to take advantage of such whenever they present themselves. “The Commission is urging more Kenya film producers to submit more of their works for scrutiny. I’m glad this time around we had two films submitted, last year only had one. We would wish to receive more in the next call. They should see Oscars as an opportunity to compete globally, which will help grow and improve the local industry,” Owase urged.
However, the majority of the Kenyan producers remain sceptical of submitting their films for the Oscars consideration because of the stringent criteria set by the Awards for consideration. There has also been an argument of KFC submitting the films to the Oscars just for formality purposes, something Owase strongly opposes.
“For your film to be nominated for the Oscars, there is a criterion which contains a lot of information that one has to meet. The mechanics used by the Kenya Oscars committee to arrive on a particular film for submission ensures that we are able to tick all the required boxes. Why would we do all that for formality? Remember these are Awards competitions pitting the best against the best,” he posed. Since 1956 The Academy Awards has invited film industries of various countries to submit their best film for the Oscars for Best International Feature.
Only one film per country can be submitted for consideration every year, however, it’s not mandatory to do so. If the submitted film is successful at the Academy stage after thorough scrutiny, it’s then considered as nominated and eligible to compete for the Oscars.
The Letter tells a story of a young man, Karis whose Mombasa city life is interrupted when his grandmother back in the village is branded a witch and receives death threats. Karis travels back to the village and upon investigating, he realises that hundreds of other elderly in the region are being branded as witches with intentions of grabbing their land.
He also discovers that the threats his grandmother has received come from a member of his own family, which ends up causing a rift among the relatives. As Karis delicately navigates between his disputing relatives, the love for his grandmother and her fearless spirit must overcome the imminent danger of the accusations against her.
Over the years, Kenya has submitted five films with only one, Watu Wote produced in 2017 by Tobias Rosen getting nominated although in a different category, Best Live Action Short Film. For a film to be considered in the Best International Feature, it has to be of a motion picture of over 40 minutes, produced outside the United States featuring predominantly non-English dialogue track.
The 22-minute Watu Wote film that competed in 90th 2018 Academy Awards, became a major talking point in the country having been based on a true story. It recounted the events of December 2015 Mandera bus attack by Al-Shabaab who sought to kill Christian passengers and spare Muslims. In last year’s call, KFC submitted Subira for 92nd Academy Awards, but it was not nominated. Other films that fell short of nomination are Kati Kati (2017), Supa Modo (2018), and Nairobi Half-Life (2012).
The Letter that runs for 84 minutes, has been screened in various festivals around the world including International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2019, The AFI Docs Documentary Film Festival 2020, an American International Film Festival. The Letter also made it to the shortlist of the DOK Fest Muchen 2020 competition. In April 2020, it got a nomination at the One World Media Awards. It also received a Special Jury Mention at the Docs Barcelona Festival 2020.