Friday, August 26, 2011

Lessons from India

A Bollywood screenwriter-director was taking us through a screenwriting program last year. I wrote a lot of notes and still refer to them today just before I begin writing a screenplay, and when I’m stuck on a scene. 

One evening, we were having tea in Nairobi, and he told us about his country. India is a poor country with a vast population of people that speak different languages- much like Kenya. India also produces sugar. When sugar cane is harvested, it is taken to the factory, where it is taken through a roller mill machine that squeezes the cane juice out. After the first run in the roller mills, the squeezed sugar cane is folded and run through the mill again, to squeeze out any remaining cane juice. After this, the cane is folded again to squeeze out even more juice. Every single drop of cane juice counts in this county- every drop of cane juice contributes to make a kilogram of sugar to be sold. They can not afford to lose out on any drop. The cane is folded and squeezed over and over until there is no cane juice left at all.

When writing your screenplay, he told us, the first draft is the first run through the roller mills. In the second draft, you should bring more juice out of the story - and in the third, and in the fourth- each draft has to milk the story for all it’s worth, contributing to the overall sweetness of the final draft.

We had tea and he flew back to India. Now whenever I see sugar, I think of how much consistent effort was put into converting it from the juicy fibrous cane grasses to sweet particulate sugar crystals.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Don't Dare Pull That Blanket Back Over Your Head

It’s 0147HRS (That means usiku wa manane, for I have come to know some Kenyans that have completely rejected the 24 hour system), and you are asleep, warm in your blanket. The dogs outside are asleep as well, and the matatus are all parked away for the night, no longer hooting and revving past. And then somewhere in the midst of your dreams, you get an epiphany- that idea- that breakthrough that you have been searching for- yeeeeeees, that’s it! You got it! For three weeks now, you’ve been writing a screenplay, and you have 60 pages- just 30 to go and you’ll have a great feature length screenplay. Every great feature length screenplay needs a great ending- a super ending in fact, and yeeeees, it has finally come!

You open your eyes and lift the blanket- damn, it’s cold! Who knew the room could be so cold outside your blanket. Well… you can write it down in the morning, this great idea… Brrr *shivers*… In fact… Yea, you’ll write it down in the morning. Mr. Evans Mutua (A VIP in the Kenyan film community, one of the pioneers of Kenyan filmmaking) warned us that the moment you pull the blanket back over your head, it’s over. You have killed the idea and it will never come back to you- not in the morning, not ever! ‘Don’t dare put that blanket back over your head!’ We laughed, but we knew that he meant it. Don’t dare pull that blanket back over your head. 


Friday, August 12, 2011

This is me

When I was 14, I sat in a career talk at my high school, listening to the motivational speaker explain the SMART (acronym) way to choose a career. The speaker told us that our career choices should be guided by our abilities and interests, and this is what led me to shift from ‘I want to be a psychologist’ to ‘I want to be a filmmaker.’ At the time, everybody else was becoming a doctor, lawyer, pilot or engineer- but I have always been different anyways, so I never changed my mind about it. 

My first screenplay, You, Me & Us I wrote when I was 16, in Pango: during night preps and those form 3 Mathematics and Kiswahili lessons. It is set in Brooklyn, NY (yes, the one in USA) and it is a drama/romance about Leone, an African American basketball enthusiast– and I wrote it before I ever watched Jason’s Lyric or Poetic Justice- I’m just gangsta that way :)
Coming out of high school, I realized that the most commended film training institutions in Kenya are waaaaay too expensive- and the ones outside Kenya even more so. I was still confident that my awesome screenwriting genius would lead me straight to Hollywood (money, glitters and fabulous dresses, *yay!). I continued writing, and sought partnership with several local production houses that you have never heard of. I emailed and called, and sent treatments and teasers- but I quickly found out that… well… many local production houses are simply unwilling to solicit awesome genius scripts from 18 year old awesome genius screenwriters. After several unreplied emails a friend gave me advice (Kagondu, thanks!)- ‘start small’. She knew I wanted Hollywood (money, glitters and fabulous dresses, *yay!)- I wanted to make it big immediately, and I was relying on my self-taught awesome screenwriting genius to bring it to me. She told me to forget the big leagues and just do what I can. This advice pushed me to make my first independent film, Astray with a total cast and crew of 5 people. (*This film is currently being transported by a Moroccan transporter/hitman to a submarine cave in the Dead Sea, and you will never watch it ever. Ever!) I learnt that even awesome genius screenwriters have a lot to learn, and instead of sending applications to production houses, I spent more time leaning from workshops, being on set, and whatever other screenwriting/filmmaking classes/experience I could get.

Since then, I’ve worked on different films doing different things- runner, 2nd AD, assistant set designer, light-holder-person, writer, production manager... I am an independent Kenyan filmmaker- O wait- an independent Kenyan hustler. 

Check out a stop motion animation that I made this year: