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Kenya film school gives slum dwellers a shot at success

Nathan Collett was a USC film student working in Nairobi when he set up a training program for residents of Kibera. For a lucky few, it could be a ticket out of poverty and violence.

January 01, 2010|By Robyn Dixon

Reporting from Nairobi, Kenya — The crescent moon of the railway track divides the slum, a metal slash in the tumble of rusted tin roofs, stinking channels of sewage and narrow paths where children play with toys made of scraps of wire and rubbish.

A band of youths hangs about on the track, perhaps slum hoods and their girls. Closer, you make out the boy among them. He looks tense, surrounded.

Closer still: He wipes his hands over his face, as if washing off anxiety. One of the bigger youths totes a grubby supermarket bag. Gently, as if lifting out a loaded gun, Victor Onuoch produces a video camera. He softly reassures the boy. Then points the camera at him and begins.


It takes imagination to build a film school in Kibera, a crime-torn slum outside Nairobi where people routinely are beaten to death by mobs for stealing cheap TVs, radios or cellphones.

Might not the camera gear and laptops be, well, taken?

"My approach is just to give people access and see what happens," says U.S. filmmaker Nathan Collett, who's based in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.

In 2006, Collett, then a master's student at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, set up a nonprofit film production unit, the Hot Sun Foundation, and shot a student film called "The Kibera Kid" in the slum, using local talent.

The film won awards. It was fun, but then it was over.

"People said, 'Thank you for making this film, but now what? You are going to go back to film school? But what about us?' "

Collett won a fellowship to make a feature film, "Togetherness Supreme," scripted, filmed, cast and edited by Kibera slum dwellers. It's now in its final stages of production. When filming ended in mid-2009, Collett created the film school, funded entirely by donations (, to train 10 Kibera students.

That's how Onuoch, a 22-year-old who dropped out of school because there was no money, comes to be standing on a railway line behind a camera. In front of the lens is Teddy Onyango, 11, but small for his age; he dropped out of school for the same reason.

There's a shout of alarm as Onuoch frames the scene. A rickety train grumbles along the track. The group scatters, the girls shrieking and giggling.

Onuoch tries again. But the evening light is diamond hard. It's no good. They'll have to come back later.

Walking back along the railway track, Onuoch takes the boy's hand.

They're alike, these two. Both motherless, struggling to rise out of the jostling heap that is Kibera. Rags-to-riches miracles rarely happen here, no matter what the TV evangelists say.

Teddy Onyango doesn't remember his mother's face. Victor Onuoch grew up with no parents.

Onuoch's grandmother struggled to raise him and six siblings, then sent him to an uncle, who she hoped would pay the boy's schooling. Instead, the uncle made Onuoch clean, wash, mop and sweep all day.

"All I could do was sleep, wake up, do the housework, sleep," said Onuoch, a man with soft eyes, a ready smile and a gentle, hesitant voice. "I felt like I was locked in."

Evans Kangetha writes, the words pouring out furiously. A screenplay: his story.

He hears Collett's voice in his head, urging him to write everything he's seen and experienced, telling him he can stay in the filmmaker's apartment to write.

He remembers running. He hears the old man's screams in his mind too. He writes, but it gets to be too much.

He trembles, afraid of his memories: December 2007 in Kibera. Mobs are hunting members of his Kikuyu tribe, furious that the Kikuyu president, Mwai Kibaki, has claimed election victory.

Kangetha runs. He sees an old man attacked by a mob. They roll him up in a mattress and set it afire.

Nightfall in his mud shack. He has padlocked the door from the outside, to make it appear no one is home.

The mob gets louder. Machetes clang on iron shack walls nearby. They reach his door, begin smashing the lock. Kangetha escapes through a hole in the roof, leaps onto a wall and drops silently into the alley. He runs, and is swallowed by the darkness.

"The voices I could hear were the voices of the people I knew. Neighbors," says Kangetha, now 27. "There were so many evil things within just a short space of time."

The story of his experiences during the election violence inspires the screenplay for "Togetherness Supreme."

"I think people will shed tears when they see the film," says Kangetha, who wrote the script in collaboration with Collett. "People will remember what they did was wrong.

"We should put aside tribal loyalties and let togetherness be supreme."

By chance, while channel surfing, Onuoch hears that a film called "Togetherness Supreme" is being filmed in Kibera. On the morning of auditions, in January of last year, he's one of the first to arrive.

He anxiously waits for his chance at the front, watching as the people casting the crowd run auditions. He just wanted to be a part of the project -- any part; he didn't mind.

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