Don't allow paranoia to stifle the film industry

Kenyans marvel at the infinite energy and inspiring story of one Nini Wacera – a great artiste of all time. Like the biblical meek David who vanquished a giant, her tale is that of willpower.

Ms Wacera survived an abortion early in life and later a suicide attempt. She soldiered on and swam against uncomfortable realities in the creative industry.

For decades, the actress graced our screens like other queens of the stage – Mama Kayayi, Kirina, Waridi, Dama, Kawira, Wilbroda, and others. But unknown to many fans, Wacera is a regretful sheep in the flock.

She recently admitted that she has ‘nothing to show’ for her long acting career. The actor rues poor pay, greed and sexual abuse. Certainly, many artistes share her plight but we underrate their agony. They aren’t happy because our rules of the game aren’t supportive.

Oftentimes, I get asked abroad why Kenya’s entertainment industry doesn't tick like those of Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. My answer? Paranoia, lack of incentives, rigidity and over-regulation by State and so-called morality prefects. We can’t be blind to these challenges forever. A film summit in Nairobi on September 29 timidly broached these issues, with key proposals touching on incentives, easy entry of filming equipment and substantial taxation on TV stations airing foreign soaps instead of local content. 

There was mention of a strategic deal in which Hollywood Invention Studios will market Kenya as a filming destination while supporting the local industry through the Talanta Hela Initiative. What emerged in the end was an emphasis on local content.

But how do you promote local content when our only yardstick for suitability is morality? We’ve been killing instead of building our budding film industry in the name of defending twisted versions of truth, culture and values. When did moral correctness equal law-abiding? The Kenya Film and Classification Board has banned many films for promoting same-sex unions – because they influence viewers to believe homosexuality is normal. This, happening without efforts to work with producers for a win-win outcome. It’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Baadhai Do, Rafiki, I’m Samuel, Fifty Shades of Grey, Wolf of Wall Street, Stories of Our Lives and This is the End are examples of films that allegedly ran counter to Kenya’s values. The creative industry it seems, is an easy target in a morality fishing expedition that kills effort. 

I have previously argued that the rush to ban films, documentaries, TV dramas and music – however justified – must be tempered with real efforts to support artistes to the hilt. We’re yet to see bold efforts at a rebirth of the sector.

The industry is huge. Music Copyright Society of Kenya places Kenya’s entertainment worth at more than Sh220 billion. It can grow exponentially if not for the unintended consequences of regulation that smothers the enterprise of artistes, sponsors and production firms.

The Nairobi film summit was a perfect stage to reignite conversations on the future of the creative industries. Sadly though, the Kenya Film and Television Professionals Association and the actors, present failed to speak up against overbearing controls.

As we discourage content that breeds violence, polarisation, radicalisation and sexual deviancy, let’s remember censorship is a double-edged sword. With local TV stations under pressure to produce quality local content, we must reject strong-arm tactics.

When advertising is weaponised, media houses can’t marshal resources to do the needful. A regime that supports local production should think beyond commercially suffocating media enterprises. It’s time to recalibrate understanding and cooperation among key players. It isn’t about content, who creates it and in which medium. It’s about collective efforts led by the industry and President William Ruto through an ‘all-government’ approach. Like Ali Bongo said, let’s ‘make noise’ so that the lives and efforts of artistes can be worthwhile.

-The writer is a communications practitioner. X: @markoloo