The Kenyan take on 'The Constant Gardener'! The Africans - true or false?
It is the kind of story line that sits well with the well-worn image of Africa: high level corruption, poverty and deplorable living conditions in slums. These and superb acting have come together beautifully - famously and profitably, too - for the British movie, The Constant Gardener, shot in the Kibera slum in Nairobi in 2004, making it one of the major award contenders this year. What Kenya has to show for it is another story altogether.
This week, Constant Gardener won 10 nominations at the Orange British Academy Film and Television Awards (BAFTA) to head the list of candidates for this prestigious award. Winners will be announced on February 19, but to have made it to the short-list out of hundreds of movies in the business is considered as a good as a win. It's been a good run for the movie, which won a Golden Globe two weeks ago. The Golden Globe is considered as good as an Academy award, and critics expect it to clinch a nomination for the Oscars scheduled for March this year.
But even the dazzling credentials and critic acclaim have not spared Constant Gardener flak over what some consider its cynicism and negative representation of Kenya. There are those who argue that the slum footage was overdone and the cynicism in the story "unwarranted". Says Charlie Simpson of Film Studios: "Just like in the (source) book by British author, John Le Carre, the film is very unfair to Kenya and portrays it in very bad light."
As far as he is concerned, the novel from which the movie is adapted is an insult to Kenyan hospitality. Simpson recalls that the author came here to look for a background to his story, but was, in essence, only in search of a dark canvas on which to tarnish the country. "It is like extending hospitality to a doubled-faced guest, whose sole intention is to plan a break-in," Simpson adds. He lives in the hopes that, as in all other cases, the glamour of victory will overshadow the dark parts of the film.
But Jim Shamoon of Blue Sky Productions, the location agents for the film in Kenya, has a different perspective. Says Shamoon: "The footage on Kibera slums and poverty may offend certain people, but I believe it is the reality about Kenya." After the filming, the producer set up a charity that has built a school for the El Molo community in Samburu and funded a water and sanitation project in Kibera. "This shows that the film-makers care about Kenya," says Shamoon.
Based on the best-selling le Carré novel, Constant Gardener is located in a remote area of northern Kenya, where activist Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) is found brutally murdered. Tessa's companion, a doctor, appears to have fled the scene, and the evidence points to a crime of passion. Members of the British High Commission in Nairobi assume that Tessa's widower, their mildmannered and unambitious colleague, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), will leave the matter to them.
They could not be more wrong. Haunted by remorse and jarred by rumours of his late wife's infidelities, Quayle surprises everyone by embarking on a personal odyssey that takes him across three continents. Using his privileged access to diplomatic secrets, he risks his own life, stopping at nothing to uncover and expose the truth - a conspiracy more far-reaching and deadly than Quayle could ever have imagined to do with how multi-national pharmaceuticals exploit developing countries.
Constant Gardener is directed by Fernando Meirelles and the screen play is by Jeffrey Caine. Local artistes include John Sibi-Okumu as Dr Joshua Ngaba, NTV's sports anchor, Bernard Otieno Oduor, as Journo and Damaris Itenyo Agweyu as Journo's wife.
Simpson's concern is that the story is really not unique to Kenya and that the same theme could be applied to most countries, developing or developed. Yet, for all the griping about stereotypical presentation of Africans and Africa, Simpson and Shamoon are quick to admit that the publicity that the movie continues to generate breathes life into Kenya's reputation as an international film location, which should hopefully attract more moviemakers to the country. Says Shamoon: "It will also massively whip up tourist figures, much like happened with Out of Africa, which drove up figures by several digits and sustained the momentum for over two decades."
Simpson describes the publicity from an awardwinning movie as "immeasurable" in terms of media footage. Better still, the benefits continue long after the film has stopped playing. And Shamoon agrees, citing the direct revenues accrued from films and international commercials: "When Constant Gardener was shot, Kenya earned Sh1.2 billion from movies and international commercials made here that year alone."
So why the misgivings about the imagery presented in the movie? It all goes back in history, and the early representations of the African as uncouth, chaotic and possibly stuck in a naïve, child-like state. Either that, or criminally incompetent as in the despotic leaders who wreak havoc with their people and their countries. It is a debate that has been around for quite a while. The western media, for example, has long been accused of portraying Africa within the narrow prism of "earthquakes, wars, hunger and coups". Western authors on Africa have come in for their share of criticism for largely projecting Africans as naïve savages or, patronisingly, as a people living in a child-like state waiting to be saved by swashbuckling heroes and heroines from far beyond the seas.
Writing in the literary magazine, Granta, awardwinning author, Binyavanga Wainaina, pens a satirical piece on the Western psyche titled, "How to write about Africa". Wainaina, the Caine award winner of 2001 and editor of the online literary magazine Kwani?, says, in part: "Sunsets and starvation are good. Always use the word Africa or Darkness or Safari in your title. Sub-titles may include the words Zanzibar, Maasai, Zulu, Zambezi, Congo, Nile, Big, Sky, Shadow, Drum, Sun or Bygone. Also useful are words such as Guerrillas, Timeless, Primordial and Tribal. Note that People means Africans who are not black, while The People means black Africans...."
Wainaina adds: "Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it - because you care. Taboo subjects: Ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of schoolgoing children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation. Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader.."
As a movie, Constant Gardener may be a superb production. But critics feel that, as a story, its echoing of the stereotypical Western imagery of Africa - savagery, hunger, war, corruption and disease - leaves Kenya more wronged than helped. They take little consolation in the fact that a triumph at the Oscars could raise Kenya's image significantly. As Simpson puts it: "One fact that is overlooked is that movies shot in Kenya have so far won a total of 11 Oscar awards, which is much more than the rest of Africa combined and only second to UK in per capita terms."
Stereotypical presentation of Africa has also raised its head in the re-make of the 1930s primate-starred movie, King Kong, now showing in Nairobi. Even though he is impressed by the overall production of King Kong, British movie critic, Jonathan Romney, writes that his enjoyment of the film was spoilt by the negative portrayal of black people. "One thing seriously sours the pleasure; (producer Peter) Jackson's representation of the Skull Islanders as grotesque, slaving bogey-people. You anticipate the justification: they are not really black people, they are more like human Orcs (whales)...," he notes.
It is not a debate that is restricted to Africans. There is the case of cowboy movies and how their negative stereotype of native Americans - always as the foolish aggressors who always lost - was a common factor until the 1970s. It took the magnificent Marlon Brando to bring it to the attention of the world. Italians have also had their grouse with Hollywood. The issue came to the fore last year when Robert De Niro, an Italian-American, was honoured by the Venice International Film Festival for his lifetime contribution to the movie industry. An Italian lobby contested the award on the grounds that De Niro, who is of Italian ancestry, had promoted a negative image of Italians - always as gangsters.
A black face presents a modern, racial romanticism in Hollywood. The image of white-saving black from self-inflicted tragedies, or just helping them become better human beings, is not only a case of modern social-correctness but also assuages the guilt arising from the crimes their forefathers committed against black people. But the imagery first defines Africans in the original type-cast to show them as pitiable - hence the need for Western intervention. Rarely are they shown as intelligent or resourceful; and, when they are, it still takes a white man to provide the all-essential finish to complete the job. It is shown here every week on the Texas Ranger TV series. No matter how good the black cop is, it still takes the intervention of a white cop (played by Chuck Norris) to eventually bring everything under control.
As a genre, Tarzan movies were probably there to portray African characters the way whites saw them: living in the jungle and happy in the company of primates. What is shocking is that the movie industry has refused to move away from this typecast, even when that it has become increasingly unidentifiable in every day life. This point was raised about Njeri Karago's and Judy Kibinge's Dangerous Affair, whose sex-themed content drew the ire of critics, who considered it offensive to African culture, and Kenya's image in particular. After watching it at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, Daniel Brown of Radio France International said: "Honestly, I have no idea why they chose that story line. It is a typical Western-type soap opera that has no place in African culture."
Kibinge retorted that the target audience had liked the film. Other local films have also invited harsh criticism. Some felt that Saikati, by Anne Mungai, abused Maasai culture by portraying a Maasai girl who leaves her home and ends up a hooker in the city. On a talk forum in France about the negative content in African art, Nigerian author, Femi Osofisan, once termed it a reflection of the slave mentality that still lingers in the African mind, with many believing that they have to copy their slave masters' bad habits to make themselves acceptable. Thus sex-and- gun-related violence have become common in African movies just as in the typical Western film.
The issue of content has been raised at several festivals, and African film-makers may, hopefully, embrace the desired changes. But even if they were to do so, they would still be too few to make any lasting impression. It is really a two-sided issue, which is more about money than art and it is up to Africans to learn to either stop such movies being shot on their soil or find a way to counter the negative representation. But there is a tendency to moan about western attitudes without really tackling the situation head-on.
When the British were offended by the Hollywood adaptation of the story of Enigma, they funded their own movie industry, which corrected the erroneous impression and told their own view of the story. Kenyans wishing to see a better representation of themselves should learn to appreciate the power of movies in shaping opinions and make films with appropriate Messages. In movies made in Africa, you can expect characters presented on a par with wildlife and other objects of nature.
This was my impression of Kuki Gallman's book and movie titled I Dreamed of Africa, based on her life in Kenya. When describing Africans, the prevailing view was the romantic: they were tall and elegant. With others, it was a matter of personality. With more focus on Kenya as an international film location, the issue is whether film companies should be allowed to continue using the continent to make films that distort and insult its people and culture.
Though admitting that it is bad, Simpson sees all this as a reflection of the liberalism that has blossomed here. He sums it all up saying: "Twenty years ago, The Constant Gardener would not have been licensed to film in Kenya, and that is an indication of the open-mindedness and freedom that has set in this country."
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