District Officer who cost Kenya's image with Hollywood

A copy of Sir Mohinder Dhillon: My Camera My life memoir. [David Gichuru, Standard]

An overzealous junior administrator excited by the Ethiopian flag and foreign military fatigues conspired to deny Kenya a place of honour in Hollywood.

During the filming of Out of Africa in 1984, State agents harangued the producers for depicting Africans as only domestic servants. In frustration, the director, Sydney Pollack, vowed never to make another film in Kenya.

In his memoirs, Sir Mohinder Dhillon: My Camera My life, the man who coordinated the film in Kenya explains how some government officials blew the country's second chance.

Ironically Kenya was chosen for filming of We are the Children, because Ethiopia refused to be used as a set for a film which was talking about their country.

Kenya was eager to demonstrate to Hollywood that it was ripe for film production owing to its scenic beauty and its talented actors.

"In the end, the small raggedy picturesque outpost of North Horr, north of the Chalbi Desert, some 90km east of Lake Turkana and about 180km north-west of Marsabit, an area frequented primarily by Gabbra and Borana pastoralists, presented itself as the ideal location," says Dhillon.

The location for the film was a Catholic mission which had a church and a school and was under Father George Padinjaraparambil.

Even after securing the requisite licenses from Kenya Film Corporation and Office of the President, "some low-ranking local government officials from the DO's office in North Horr confronted us, demanding that we stop filming."

They accused the crew of committing an offense "by flying the Ethiopian national flag at a police post, and of subversively filming Kenyans dressed in Ethiopian military uniform."

"I showed our licence to the officials, and showed them the approved script, bearing the official stamp of Kenya's Ministry of Information. The petty officials would not back down," Dhillion says. The production had to stop for three days as clarification was sought from Nairobi.

Ultimately, the production resumed and the film was completed but Kenya lost credibility in Hollywood. When Hollywood filmmakers decided to do a film about the man eaters of Tsavo, depicted in The Ghost and Darkness in 1996, they chose South Africa.

By going to South Africa, Kenya not only lost an opportunity to earn some revenue but budding actors too missed a moment to showcase their skill as had happened in North Horr where John Sibi-Okumu who had acted in the film.