On Monday 20th May from 6.00 p.m. at the French Institute in Prague the Czech Development Agency has prepared a screening of the new Czech feature-length documentary Vote For Kibera. The film, which won the viewers’ prize at the International Documentary Film Festival in Jihlava and currently has a rating of 80 % on the csfd.cz website, will be screened in English with Czech subtitles. The film will be followed by a debate with the film’s director Martin Páv and other guests. Admission to the event, held in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, is free of charge, although for capacity reasons a seat in the hall needs to be reserved in advance on the French Institute website.
On the south-western edge of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi lies Kibera, one of the biggest slums in Africa, home to an estimated one million inhabitants. Kibera was founded by Nubian soldiers serving in the British colonial army, whom were provided with a piece of forest land a hundred years ago. The name of the slum also comes from the language of the Nubian settlers (kibra means forest). The locals also call Kibera the chocolate town, owing to its brown sheet-metal roofs.
The idea of shooting a documentary in Kibera was thought up by Jiří Pasz and especially by development worker Eva Krutílková, who has been travelling there to help for more than ten years. During one of her stays she became friendly with two Kenyan filmmakers – the Okongo brothers – who had spent all their lives in the slum, and she had the idea of putting them in contact with filmmakers from the Czech Republic. The reason for this was that she did not like how Kibera is stereotyped and stigmatised in the media and how the negative media coverage also affects the local inhabitants. “She posted on Facebook saying that she was looking for Czech filmmakers to collaborate with African filmmakers, which she thought could result in a documentary that does not give a stereotypical view of the slum, but strives to understand the community there from within. This idea appealed to me and I immediately approached other people; we set up a crowdfunding campaign and that’s how it all started,” says film director Martin Páv, recalling how the documentary originated.
The invaluable help of Kenyan filmmakers from the slum
The project took two years to implement; it was launched in winter 2016 by the aforementioned crowdfunding campaign, enabling Czech filmmakers to visit the slum for the first time. The team also included Simon and Raphael Okongo, who had grown up in the slum, letting the crew quickly become integrated into the local community. “We didn’t want to film another story that would be a mere interpretation of Africa through the eyes of Europeans. From the start it was crucial for us to get local filmmakers involved in the project, in order to present a balanced view, one that corresponded as closely as possible to reality. This resulted in a unique project, which was implemented by an international filmmaking team, but also with the participation of experts in international development,” claims Jiří Pasz, the man behind the idea.
The crew spent a total of 5 months in the slum and got closer to their protagonists every day. For the whole time the film team lived in a little house on the edge of the slum in the same restricted conditions as the locals. The team went to Kibera not only to film, but also to eat, shop, and also relax and have fun.
“I’m very happy to have had the chance to basically live with the locals. We found out that life in the slum is more than just suffering. Under all that “facade”, which does look extremely, sometimes horrifyingly different from what we are used to, there actually lies something that is very close to us – the desire to live and make our way in the world into which we were born. In the slum we found lots of admirable people, and especially made some close friends,” says director Martin Páv, recollecting the shoot.
The central figure and narrator of the film is the young photographer Don, who has spent his entire life in the slum. Through his photographs he strives to show that Kibera is primarily a place with great potential, full of creative individuals who, through the slum, have learned to live life to the full, work towards a better future and thus defend their rights. They are the people whose activities are a substitute for the services not provided by the state and they clearly prove that not all Kibera’s residents are condemned to a life of misfortune.
Dramatic events during the presidential elections
One of the most dramatic events of the entire shoot was the presidential elections in 2017, the results of which were contested by the opposition, including many inhabitants of Kibera. The tensions escalated into several days of post-electoral violence, with tens of residents of the slum losing their lives. The crew recorded these events and so the film also offers a unique view of these dramatic moments from the perspective of “ordinary” people.
The problem of Kenya, like so many other African countries, is that elections are rife with tribalism. Kenya used to be home to more than 40 different ethnic groups, which, since the establishment of the colonial state and particularly since the country became independent, are supposed to call themselves one nation, which unfortunately does not always work. The people therefore elect candidates based on their ethnicity. If their candidate loses, they have the feeling that they have been defeated by a different ethnic group. And some politicians can take advantage of this. It is good to bear this in mind when seeing footage of burning tyres and riots in Kibera during the presidential elections.
A positive portrait of a town with its own laws
However, the main aim of the film is to breakdown the widespread notion that a city slum, let alone one of the biggest in Africa, is automatically the worst possible place to live in. Such a portrait has to end up as a depressing documentary full of human poverty and suffering. However, the creators of the film have managed to achieve just the opposite. Although it is an informal settlement that receives no services provided by the state, such as running drinking water or sewerage system, let alone functioning health care, schools or police force, the film shows Kibera as a remarkable and in many ways inspiring place with a unique atmosphere.
The local radio station Pamoja FM, for instance, brings the community together by broadcasting news about all the good things that happen there, like the main protagonist in the film, Don, who tries to present the less familiar face of Kibera to the world by photographing local community projects and examples of civic activism. Life in Kibera is not easy and cannot be glorified. As the documentary shows, it is also sometimes a violent place. The film depicts, for example, how the people exercise mob justice against a thief, unfortunately resorting to such measures when they do not believe that they can expect justice from the security forces. In contrast, for the common European Don’s images turn the dreaded slum into a place where people from various ethnic groups are able to live together most of the time without any more fundamental conflicts. The positive vibe of the film is also enhanced by the excellent filmmaking, from the camera, editing and script to the wonderful music, using songs by local artists in addition to compositions by Ondřej Mataj.
It is no coincidence that this powerful film took the viewers’ prize from the Jihlava festival and was also screened at the One World festival. “The fact that we stereotype and compartmentalise people and are then afraid of them, even though we do not know them, is completely stupid. We are afraid of what we have created in our minds. This is what our film is about. I think that we will have more and more to do with Africa in the future. And if we think of Africa just as being home to giraffes and uneducable savages, we will never start to work together. Or at the very least, very badly,” says Martin Páv, who also aims to have the film screened in Kibera and develop a debate on life in the slum, not only in Kenya.