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Brian Kyallo: How I make stories come to life

My Man

Brian Kyallo Msafiri talks about making award winning films and having a flourishing personal and work life while overcoming bipolar disorder.

So you are Betty Kyallo's brother?

Yes, she's my younger sister.


I'm the first born and only son in a family of four.

How old are you?


So you're her big bro. Are you protective of her?

I defend her passionately, both in public and even in private. I have been dealing with depression as a result of bipolar for the last three years. Betty was always there for me even despite the fact that she was also going through her own struggles. She would go for check-ups with me and walked with me every step of the way.

TV seems to run in the family. What work have you done in the industry?

I have nine years of experience in film and television production, specialising in directing, cinematography and editing. Film/TV is my passion. I quit studies in Sociology and Literature at University of Nairobi to pursue it. At the time, there were literally no film schools or even a strong film/TV industry but I was very determined and I ended up winning scholarships to study film both locally and at New York film academy.

Just like that? It was that easy?

No. After leaving film school, I met celebrated music video director Melina Matsoukas who shot many of the Beyoncé first music videos. She advised me that it was hard for a young, unknown filmmaker to be noticed by Hollywood executives and that making music videos was a great avenue to make a name. I took it to heart and to this day, my music videos which total 38, have been played both on local and international platforms. With a couple of artistes, actually being nominated for various awards based on music video submissions. These include, Anto NeoSoul, Muthoni Drama Queen, Jimmy Gait and Winyo.

Music videos?

Yes, doing music videos helped me hone my camera work and lighting skills, subsequently I am one of the best cinematographers. This was manifested when an MNET TV series Rush which I worked on as a Cinematographer won an Africa Magic Viewers' Choice Awards (AMVCA) for best new TV show.

So film, TV, music videos...?

I also write.

How did you get into that?

Getting into writing was quite by mistake. As director of XYZ, I was given the chance to contribute a couple of skits for the show and that was the beginning of my love for writing. I am now working on three projects. For the past 3 years, I have been writing a feature length documentary on Tom Mboya, post independent Kenya's most renowned trade unionist and political figure titled The President Kenya never had, secondly, I have been writing an experimental short documentary series called Why Aliens Don't Land In Africa and most importantly, a short film The Human Condition: Conversations of A Time Lucid.

So why don't aliens land in Africa?

The film pokes fun at some African leaders while delving into funny political things that have happened in Africa, so it is also educative. If you watch most alien movies the aliens always come with the tag line, "I come in peace" and to a country which is peaceful and often advanced in technology, but here in Africa a good number of countries are at war. Further, in movies, whenever aliens land, they always ask to be taken to the leader of the country, and we all know about the type of leaders Africa has.

When did you discover that you had a gift in filmmaking?

I originally wanted to be an actor. I would do monologues in the house, representing the different actors/characters on different shows on TV. Over time, I built my acting talent and storytelling ability. I was very active in drama in both primary school and secondary school, and for four years in a row, I won awards for Best Actor at the National Drama Festivals. However, when I joined film school I realised that the real power was behind the camera.

What is your highest career achievement so far?

When I was the Ford Foundation scholarship grantee in New York Film Academy where I was privileged to work as an editor of a currently highly acclaimed documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People by distinguished African American filmmaker, Thomas Allen Harris. It was the first documentary ever to explore the role of photography in shaping the identity, aspirations, and social emergence of African Americans from slavery to the present. The film was nominated for four prestigious film awards, one nomination was an Emmy. It ended up winning two awards, an Image Award for outstanding documentary at the Image Awards and a Social Justice Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Back in Kenya, my career high is being given the opportunity to direct The XYZ Show; and immediately upon taking the reins of directing the show in 2013, we won an AMVCA for Best TV Show Africa. Also Rush and Ogas at the Top have both been nominated for an AMVCA.

Tell us something about yourself that a lot of people do not know? I have a nine-year-old daughter who I love very much. Secondly, in 2014, I was diagnosed with a mental disorder, bipolar type 2. Now this may seem like just a thing people go through in life, and it is nothing new. However, for me a tough period really built my personality and even renewed my passions in life. You can imagine, coming from a world where I was always almost one of the best students academically, the A-student type, a world where I was gifted and won awards in the Dramatic Arts, and even later a recipient of two scholarships and two grants from distinguished organisations like Ford Foundation and the BBC. Only at 30 years of age to be told by a psychiatrist that I have always had a mental condition. What is funny is that upon my own research, I came to discover that many great artists and intellectuals that have created historical and life changing works, are also victims or better put, champions living with mental conditions like bipolar! Apparently, it is also considered as the artist's curse. As one develops high-minded faculties that generate all these great inventions, achievements and works, they are in constant battle with their emotional faculties. Hence the rumour that all great artists and geniuses are self-destructive!

What is bipolar in your own words? It is a mental condition that affects your moods, which can swing from one extreme to another. People with bipolar disorder have periods or episodes of extreme happiness or mania where ones feels very high and overactive, and depression where one feels very low and lethargic. There are two types, bipolar 1 disorder and bipolar 2 disorder, which is milder. I have bipolar 2 disorder so it never gets to the point of suicide or self-harm. I just go through periods where I am so low, a period where every day is a bad day, and no matter how much alcohol you take it does not give you a high. In fact, nothing you do or take can get rid of the dark clouds in your life; you are trapped in a depressive state. Imagine having continuous bad days that will just not let up no matter what you do.

Then when you are on a manic stage you feel like you can conquer the world, and during this stage I can even do three days straight of no sleep and in the past I would be doing two or three projects at ago and somehow manage. I have had to develop a sleep cycle where I try and sleep for six hours because when I am having an episode sleep is not a necessity, I feel like I can do without it.

Nowadays I am able to tell when I am about to have an episode, usually I start to struggle with insomnia, then I have no appetite and everything is heightened, when that happens I go see my doctor. Currently I take medication, my two doctors have found what works for me, and I am in a very good place.

How has it affected your relationships?

My family has been very loving and accommodating. When it comes to work, I am picky about the projects that I take on, and, when necessary, I let my employers know about my condition.

What of your dating life?

I kept off dating for the last two years, I wanted to first understand my condition and find balance in my life. Now I am dating again and I always let whoever I am dating know what they are getting into. I explain my condition to them and let them know that no matter what happens, they should not let me touch alcohol. Last month I celebrated my one-year anniversary of being clean. When you do not understand your condition, it is easy to fall into addictive habits in an attempt to cope, but when you know what you are dealing with then it brings clarity and helps you to overcome.

Is that the inspiration for your documentary, The Human Condition: Conversations of A Time Lucid? Yes, it is actually an autobiographical piece, exploring the challenges of a character who is dealing with the reality of being diagnosed with bipolar type 2 and having to give up an addiction that threatens to worsen the mental disorder. This is a personal story, a battle I have fought and have been winning. In addition, I believe that only I am best placed to tell this kind of story. This kind of ability to transfer personal experience to the characters and story lines on our screen is what makes my work stand out.

Also I have given talks in schools, in special help associations like Alcoholics Anonymous, Mental Health forums, and individual coaching with mostly people who know about my journey of discovering and living with Bipolar type 2 , and the tough battle to quit addictions that prey on conditions like bipolar and depression. I believe that my life story is the best example I can share to empower people going through the struggle.

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