Reviewing Nairobi Half-Life (Kenyan movie)

Before I get into this blog post proper, let me declare that South African Airways is my favorite airline. I really looked forward to flying it earlier this month from Accra to Johannesburg because I expected to watch some great African movies. This time, I got to watch the much acclaimed Nairobi Half-Life. Relelased in 2012, Nairobi Half-Life was directed by David Tosh Gitonga and features many rather unknown actors and actresses like Joseph Wairimu, Olwenya Maina and Nancy Wanjiku Karanja. I knew I wanted to blog about and review the movie once I began to watch it and took some notes. I loved the movie and would recommend it as a collectible. It's been billed as the most successful Kenyan movie ever.

Sometimes, great movies give birth to great actors. In many places like Ghana, good actors sell good or not so good movies. The notion that you always need bankable actors and actresses to produce successful movies is not always true. This movie was the very first Kenyan submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar category. Popular Mzansi movie, Tsotsi, was the first African movie to win that Oscar category. Nairobi Half-Life is cast in the Tsotsi mould, it's real, riveting, unapologetic with great performances by the cast and a gripping story with an unlikely romance between Joseph and nancy's character like we saw for those that Presley and Terry Pheto played in Tsotsi.

Interestingly, the main character played by Joseph was called Mwangi, Mwas for short. Now, this is significant because there are so many Kenyans with the last name Mwangi. But more importantly, Mwangi is the last name of my Kenyan alter-ego :-) When Mwangi decided to pursue his dream of becoming an actor in Nairobi, his father wasn't as supportive as his mother. Mothers are so supportive, she advised him about Nairobi dangers but even then gave her son money to go on his journey. I remember when a couple of Kenyan friends visited Accra and while we were hanging out, talked about people walked around so freely. After seeing someone get robbed in broad day light in front of everyone in this movie, I could now bear what they were saying. I had walked around Nairobi a number of times and never felt unsafe. The film showed the aggression and guts some Kenyans have, even when it came to things like crime.

There was one interesting scene which had Mwangi cleaning 'shit' in a prison. I wondered, "How do you say shit in Swahili?" Shortly after, Mwangi said "Fuck" after he vomitted. And then said "Shit" after. Telling scene. "I need a life. We don't sell lives here". Nairobi-city is all about the hustle and bustle for many. Mwangi turned to stealing to provide his daily bread. He wanted and needed a life of acting but that wouldn't sell. Must have struck him to be stealing when the Indian man at Khanji Electronics had declared his ilk as such, "All you Kikuyus are thieves!" The movie also allowed me to test my Swahili a bit. A 'Tunakuja' line was subtitled as "I'm on my way" which is not correct. It should be "We are coming". Tunakuja is not exactly Sheng. Poa is. It was nice to pick that out. Loved how often the word "Jamaa" was also thrown around. It means Dude or Chale as used in Ghana.

Some chemistry developed between Mwangi and the Amina character who was a prostitute. This exchange between her and Mwangi were a couple of great lines. "How many people have you robbed to get those clothes? As many people as you've fucked." Later in the movie, we are introduced to the Kenya Cinema Plaza. Going to the movies in Kenya seems to be a popular aspirational recreational activity in Nairobi as Mwangi and Amina chose that for their first date. "Have you ever seen a real movie?" Their lives, as a thief and a prostitute made for dramatic movie material. When Mwangi first visited the brothel to see his buddy Oti, a sex worker told him. "Dont worry about money. Touching is free, if you come, you pay eh?". It's a hard-knock life.

We didn't find out which Kenyan actor Mwangi wanted to be like but we did find out that another character, Mose, wanted to be a star like Kidum. Never mind that Kidum is a popular singer in Kenya who's actually from Burundi. Who are the top and famous Kenyan actors? I can think of a few but they don't have the star power as Nameless, Jua Cali and co. The Kenyan movie industry is behind its music counterpart. The auditions in the movie seemed heavily subscribed as if to say there is major interest in acting in Kenya. I noticed one other guy at the audition was wearing a Syracuse shirt (this is why it's significant). "That guy has something. What? Are you serious? That guy is not an actor. That's why I like him". The best actors have a little something extra and stand out.

I really appreciated the director using Just A Band's Makmende on the soundtrack. It's great to marry great popular music with acclaimed films. Makmende is a fictional Kenyan super hero. The song was played as Mwangi and his friends were taking off car parts. That's not something super heroes should do but the song might have been chosen due to this line - "Evacuate the area". Mwangi and co had to evacuate the area of the crime scene as fast as they could. Nairobbery. "We're broke. We haven't had a job in ages". Depending on who you talk to, criminals are not unemployed.

Mwangi and his crew were doing small time crimes. Mwangi became more of a leader amongst them and then suggested doing bigger crimes. "We've never carjacked anyone before. Thats why we've never made 100,000". Next, they carjacked a taxi, and followed another car into a Nairobi nouveau-riche neighbourhood n jacked that one too. When Mwangi had more money, he was taking Amina out to lunch. Now is that more expensive than going to the movies? I want to go to a movie theatre in Nairobi some day. Or even the National Theatre where the auditions were happening. I saw a shot of Starehe district hospital. When I watch movies set in places I have been to, I try to gauge if I will recognise places I know. I haven't been to this hospital but I am fully aware of the name Starehe, it bears the same name as a popular high school in Kenya that some of my friends have been too.

"Your dad's reality n my dad's reality is not our reality". As we know from Nairobi Half-Life, Mwangi found an opportunity to act. He was making a life for himself, keen not to resort to alcohol and keen to get away from Nairobbery. The final few lines were poignant. "We've come to remind you of our existence. The question is have we chosen to live our life or have we taken it for granted. It is yo ur choice. To look or to look away". The reality is that crime exists in many African cities and it doubles as the livelihood for many. When I was pickpocketed earlier this year, my major thought aside getting my belongings back were around how I could help stop crime. Crime should not become a half-life for any young person in Africa. This particular reality should not be the reality for those coming.

Watch the Trailer here
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