RA: One of the themes of the WOW Festival this year is the cinema of childhood, can you tell me about your own childhood cinema experiences?
JK: I clearly remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the cinema, and it was just too thrilling, I mean I almost passed out! It was just the best movie I had ever, ever seen, it was magical, it was scary, it was over the top, it totally transported me into a completely different world. I remember sitting there totally enthralled and replaying the movie over and over in my mind for days afterwards, and describing the scenes over and over again with my brother.
Another very favourite childhood cinema experience was here in Kenya. It wasn’t even a cinema, it was above a sweetshop in a shopping centre called Lavington Green. These guys had a projector and on Sunday afternoons we’d get dropped off and there’d be all these different kids and they’d play these films. It was absolutely magical and I even remember the sounds, the whirr of the projector as the films would play.
One thing I do notice, growing up there was a great big glaring gap - the lack of African films that we had, they just weren’t there. My early childhood was spent in America, but I came back to Kenya by the age of 9, and from 9 until about 16, in that whole time, I saw just one African film, Love Brewed in the African Pot and I never forget how people were queuing and the queues went round the block and people watched this film for three months because they were just so starved of African film content. It was such a good, good film, the whole family went out to see it.
Maybe my best childhood cinema experience was, growing up we had two drive ins in Nairobi. They were a hangover from the colonial days, but it was just magical because we would get into the car, my dad driving, my mum there, we would wear our pyjamas and drive to the parking lot, and there’d be these huge clunky metallic speakers that we’d hook on to the edge of our windows. The car park would be full of families watching cinema on this enormously big screen and I just long for that, I wish the drive in cinema came back, I would love to take my own son.
RA: In Something Necessary, the main character is Anne, who is getting her life back together having lost everything following civil unrest, can you tell me more about her?
JK: We often think of African women who are going through difficult times, we think of refugees, we think of people in villages, but there’s a very large group of Kenyan woman who we rarely see on screen, who are very strong, very pragmatic, who are able to get through the most difficult of times, and in a sense just carry that difficulty, but with real grace. Anne is one of those women, and I’m very proud of her and very glad that I keep hearing from people who watch the film that she is someone they understand, someone they relate to, someone they have never quite seen portrayed on screen in the way that we managed to. She is quite a huge contrast to some of the earlier characters in my earlier films. In Dangerous Affair the women are very urban, very confident women, but again, women that you wouldn’t ordinarily see, perhaps, in African or Kenyan film. In Killer Necklace, the main character, Wai is somebody very layered, very difficult to figure out. When the film begins you think she’s this rich girl from this rich home, and the main character - who is completely in love with her - she’s completely stringing him along. At the end of it, we find out that she’s really the housemaid in the house that he visits her in. So, they are very different women, very different kinds of characters, but all quite urban, or quite strong, quite determined with their lives and the things that they want.
RA: Why is it important to show these women’s lives on screen?
JK: I think we need to show women who are proceeding with their lives, who are strong enough to decide on directions to take and who stick to those directions, be they conniving women like Wai in Killer Necklace, or strong women like Anne in Something Necessary. I think when we see women like this on our screen, we see a window into a world, and an African world in particular, I have to emphasise, that we haven’t seen before. We don’t see enough of what it is like to be an urban dweller or someone who lives in a city on this continent, and I think when I show women like this, people realise these are global stories, that the women in my films desire the same things as women anywhere else in the world, whether you’re living in New York, or London, or Paris, or Nairobi. By showing these women on screen, we realise that they’re just human, and that the things that women experience on our continent in many ways are not that different from the things experienced elsewhere.
RA: How do you find the actresses you work with?
JK: In many of my films I don’t really look for names or experienced actors, I look for people that can own their role, that can possess the role and that can be totally present in the moment. I’ve got to talk about Sue Wanjiru from Something Necessary. She really surprised me, I love it when you meet an actress like Sue, who is able to bring so much of herself, and to reveal new things about the character because they have internalised them so greatly. The script was written in English, but she had to take it and turn it not only into Kikuyu, but Kikuyu, English and Swahili, because over here people switch languages a lot. She just brought more than I could have ever invented or imagined into the role.
RA: Do you think that being a woman yourself has an effect on how you portray women?
JK: Obviously, yes I do think so, because there are certain insights that you have as a woman, that you carry with you and you take with you when you are creating a character. I get very involved in the characters that are in the screenplay. I think to bring them to life you can almost hear them speaking when writing. Once again, with Anne from Something Necessary, there is an abortion scene in that film that wasn’t in the original screenplay. I just could not accept that a woman who had been brutally raped by a gang would be able to spend the entire movie with this child, and that the movie could be about that. I just couldn’t imagine it, and I was being quite emotional about what had happened to her and what she would do as a result, and it definitely worked its way into the screenplay. I think perhaps the writer, Mungai Kiroga, who wrote her so fabulously and very sensitively, might not have been able to feel so strongly.
RA: How did you become a film director?
JK: My first career was advertising, which I was drawn to because it was a career where people were able to write and draw and get paid for it as well. I think somewhere in this process, it just seemed like a very natural next step to get into filmmaking, so after eight years I quit. I could not imagine that the next ten years of my life would be spent writing ads about soap powder and washing powder and margarine. I just couldn’t imagine that that would be it, that would be the limit of my vision, when all around me there were so many interesting stories happening and I didn’t see those stories on screen.