How Oscar-Worthy Was Nairobi Half Life?
When you have a child, movie night becomes a memory. When you do get a babysitter for the evening, the movie better be a good one. A really good one. One that’s nominated-for-an-Oscar good. Nduku and I did just that last night, though I was a bit curious to see how Oscar-worthy this movie was. Not so much because it was nominated for an Oscar, but because it was a Kenyan film.
Nairobi Half Life is the headliner for the 9th Annual New African Films Festival in Silver Spring’s AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. Directed by David “Tosh” Gitonga, the film was selected as the Kenyan entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. It’s the first time Kenya had a film submitted in this category.
The story line in a simple sentence: a kid from the country travels to the city with big dreams to find out that it’s not all that he imagines but so much more at the same time. Mwas, the main character who reminded me so much of the comedian Eddie Griffin with his big teeth and facial expressions, leaves his parents’ rural home to pursue his life’s ambition of becoming an actor after meeting someone who says he’ll help once Mwas made it to Nairobi.
And as soon as Mwas steps off the bus [actually it was a matatu], he got his first lesson of life in the big city. And when someone came to make sure he was already, an exclamation point was added to this lesson. And when instinct kicked in when he saw a bunch of people running, he finds himself in the wrong place, meeting the wrong people, and hanging out in the wrong places.
Mwas’ goal to be an actor never dims, though. He overcomes many obstacle to gain some traction in his career. Though many haters and non-believers did what they could to discourage him, he never quits and lands a role in a play. Between hanging out with the thugs from the slums doing what thugs from the slums do and the people from the other side of town doing what more privileged people do, Mwas finds himself living two lives, exactly opposite of each other, and you’re just waiting for it all to catch up with him
And catch up it did.
Mwas starts the movie as a free-spirited, glass half-full, dreamy eyed kid from the sticks [the shags?]. Everyone in the audience could see he was getting played by his new “agent,” but the brief encounter was enough to inspire him to continue his dreams in Nairobi.
Using his acting prowess and sheer determination to not let a really, really, really bad first impression bring him down, Mwas morphs into someone else. At one point he’s sitting against the wall with that look in the eye that says, “I want my mommy.” Next thing you know, he’s giving advice on how to deal with crooks, how to make some real money and even has an encounter with the police that provided one of the funner moments in the film.
The movie seemed to keep it real. No romantic portraits of Nairobi.
The police was as crooked as the thugs. When you [at least I did] thought the police were going to do the honorable thing — helping out those who’ve been helping them out, sort of speak — well Kenyan police is Kenyan police.
Though Mwas was the central character, the protagonist, he was far from perfect. When he fell into the wrong crowd and the crimes they were committing were getting more serious, you wondered who really was the leader of the gang. Mwas was told over and over to be “smart,” which he was, but it didn’t necessarily keep him clear of trouble.
And the prostitutes? Hilarious!
Some of the scenes were of places I was just at a few months ago. And some of the places were on my list of where I wanted to visit, to experience. After watching the movie, though, I think I’m going to avoid the main bus terminal, the slums are out of the question, and even when I’m at Nakumat Junction, I’m going to keep my head on a swivel. No more talking on my mobile outdoors. No more chasing thugs in back alleys. No more feeling safe just because the police are around.
I’m doing everything I can to not spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it, but I’m not sure if I’m doing the movie justice. The way the movie comes to a conclusion was done masterfully. The movie was a hybrid of comedy, drama, action, romance and every other genre, but when it came to the end, it was Shakespearean with a heavy dose of tragedy.
You laugh throughout the movie, you shake your head at the ignorance, smile at the innocence of Mwas and sigh when he doesn’t get his way. During the last several scenes, you’re holding your breath, without even knowing it, confused of who the good guys are, who the bad guys are; there’s a countdown feel as Mwas is running from trouble — escaping from himself, in a way, to himself — and finds himself in a box with a “friend” who can’t seem to figure out what’s going on in Mwas’ head, not early during rehearsals nor in that final scene just before Mwas delivers a soliloquy that does what it can to rip the tears out your eyes.
Mwas’ two lives intersect in front of an audience who indulges in his pain, mistaking it for entertaining, hanging onto the words coming out of his mouth that were about as real as anything else in the movie, whether they were written in a script or naturally pouring out of his heart.
And then, in one life he’s acting out his other life. And an eerily accurate portrayal of it at that. But only one of those lives will survive.