I went into the Softie film thinking I knew exactly what to expect. I know about Boniface Mwangi, after all, like most people in Nairobi do, having seen him in the public domain for years. What could possibly be new? But by the time it was done, I was nothing less than awestruck. I understood why it has won and has been slated for so many awards. The documentary is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Scenes speak for themselves. Boniface, or Boni as he is often referred to in the documentary, speaks for himself without actually talking to us. Just going about his daily life – some of it we know of, like the tour during which he went around the country showcasing the graphic photographs he had taken of the post-election violence as a photojournalist, but were never published for being too gruesome.
The other moments, and most of the film is about this, are candid, never-before-seen moments of his personal life.
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Softie took seven years to make, 600 hours of footage going as far back as 2007.
“Most people think they know what it is about until they actually watch it. It’s difficult to explain. But I am still not used to the fact that people are saying that the documentary made them think. My plan was just to do a good and honest story,” says Sam Soko, the brains behind the documentary.
“When we stared it was not meant to be a documentary. We were just filming the process of the protests he was leading in 2013. It was sort of supposed to be a how-to-guide. Like an activism manual. Something short that could go on Youtube and that would be it,” he says.
“But as time went on we realised it was very interesting to see what happens behind the scenes when Boni does something. Yes, he is an activist, but he is also a father and a husband and there are demands made of him for those roles. We never actually get to see the consequences. When he and his family get death threats, that this is what it actually means,” says Sam.
“Njeri (Mwangi’s wife) is a very private person, so I was very lucky that they trusted me to answer some very difficult questions in the moment while filming.”
He was also lucky that despite starting to film in 2013, as a photojournalist, Mwangi had the habit of documenting every aspect of their lives, from the birth of his son, to the photo-exhibition of the post-election violence in 2008, so they had some bits and pieces to work with from over a decade ago.
The movie is the first Kenyan-directed feature length film to win an award at the Sundance Film Festival, the largest and most prestigious independent film festival in the United States.
It premiered in Kenya this Friday and has already won and been nominated for many other awards, including Best Documentary at the Durban Film Festival. That qualifies it to be in the running for next year’s Academy Awards (the Oscars). Not bad, for his first feature film.
Sam never saw any of this coming. During his days as a theatre and film student at Moi University, he loved telling stories but experienced camera only once, towards the end of his course.
He ended up in theatre, working at Phoenix Players for a few years from 2008. Still, he thought he would end up writing fiction films but says he has “terribly” come to love documentaries. “I went into writing and wrote a radio play that aired on BBC in 2011. After that I started working on short documentaries, trying to tell more personal stories in a way that did not need too many talking heads,” he says.
With three of his friends, they founded LightBox, a production company which recently changed its name to LBX Africa. The trio worked on shorts, music videos and documentaries heavily geared towards social change.
LBX Afica also produced the 2018 Academy Award–nominated short fiction film ?Watu Wote.
“We directed this song called Sheria by Sarabi in 2013. It was all in a different way to tell the story. Then we thought, how about we do an activism manual?”
That was how Softie was born. They had to raise funds from many different sources but he won’t reveal the budget as yet. But it was a small budget, he says. Despite the film taking up a large part of his life, they had to survive on side jobs over the years, even taking on some debt while the documentary took shape.
Having a hit film during a pandemic is bittersweet. “We are releasing the film a lot later than we wanted to. We had initially planned to release it in June. Even now, all theatres are operating with an audience at half capacity. Covid of course changes many things, like we probably have to postpone our mashinani outreach,” he says.
Luckily, the film had premiered at Sundance in January just before Covid became widespread, and ended up as being one of the few films that had a physical premier.
“Since then we have been in many virtual film festivals,” he says.
The film premiered on the PBS channel in the US nationwide this week, while it premiered on BBC in the UK in July. That means that it has taken quite a while for the documentary to be shown in Kenya.
He believes that the film industry in Kenya is growing, but is nowhere close to where it could be, given the potential that it has.
“There is a small increase in support but it can be better. It doesn’t have to be financial, just support that creates an environment that makes it easier for us to work. I think Kenyan media can genuinely become partners in our work and be part of nurturing the work,” he says.
He is, however, proud of the fact that a Kenyan directed film, where Kenyans did most of the production work, is doing so well both here and on the international platform.
And what does the subject of the film think of it?
“He watched it a few weeks before it premiered. All these years, he had no idea what I was filming. He saw certain things in it that he doesn’t remember happening. At the end of the screening, he and his wife were both in tears,” says Sam.