There’s the potential for a cinephile in everybody we meet, probably with varying intensities, but there’s the potential nonetheless. There is always a hidden untapped passion brimming underneath the surface that even they might be unaware of – not necessarily cinephilia. But cinephilia was mine. Once I recognized the dormant passion that always resided in me and put it to exercise, I felt like a new man. It was like a new chapter for me. So, with this potential in mind, why do African nations in particular lack the knowledge and accessibility to lesser known, indie movies that are widely regarded as some of the best cinema today among more cine-literate circles? You can already tell this is going to be a personal essay which it very much is, but I’ll also evaluate connections between my own experience and the larger scope of things. Be ready to cringe because I’m about to get deep.
My earliest memories of movies was crying at Titanic, crying at The Lion King, crying at Up – I was doing a lot of crying come to think of it. I watched countless others but those are the ones I remember the most because they were strong enough to get a tear out me. I wasn’t a child that cried a lot either, but those movies really struck a chord. I vividly remember watching them for the first time. If you ask me now to name my favorite films currently, none of those would make my top 10 list. There’s an infinite sea of good cinema out there, and so it would be difficult coming up with a top 10 list to begin with. I wasn’t exposed enough. A lot of the movies that would probably make that list are some I’ve seen in the past two years. These glorious past two years.
I don’t think I can definitively tell you what my taste in film is because I’m still forming it, almost like a child in no hurry to grow up. Now, most people have no defined taste in film. That sounds like an insult but it really isn’t. Define taste, taste is one’s own unique affinity for a particular thing belonging to a wider spectrum in a given field. So, when I say a lot of people from underexposed areas have no defined taste, I don’t mean they like inferior films – what I mean is that they’re not sure what it is they respond to the strongest. I have had chats with people who told me they only go see a movie when it’s an ‘event’. These are the types of movies in which once you miss it’s theatrical run, you’ve basically missed the movie itself. See, I don’t blame these people at all because their perception of cinema is exactly how mine was not too long ago. But why is that?
Theaters in Nairobi mostly only screen wide release films, even out of blockbuster season. I’ve been to most of them and while there might be a few exceptions, my previous statement is mostly gospel. I understand that this is due to strict distribution regulations imposed on our small theatres, which additionally don’t have a large number of screens in the first place. To make matters even worse, there will almost always be at least seven big studio movies running at any given day of the year, leaving no space for independent cinema. Therefore, seeing a film such as Roma in the theater was downright impossible for me. But on the other hand, for most people who like to watch movies casually, watching Roma was and still is undesirable. A black and white movie with subtitles about a ’70’s middle class maid?? NOPE, no thanks! Which brings me to my next point: psychology.
Most of this stuff is subject to interpretation so here’s mine: People pay too much attention to gloss. I don’t know if it’s some sort of hard wiring or conditioning. Hey, if you use the medium to pass time after a long day at work, that’s fine but I still believe that a significant amount of people are just under-exposed. And this runs deeper than just watching movies, because if people were active and progressive in terms of cinema, our own local film industry would grow to levels it’s never been at before. Psychology is a big reason why this industry has been struggling for the past couple of decades.
A bigger idea encapsulates my ramblings: viewer integrity. Advertising and marketing are so damn powerful. People will be convinced and cheated into liking a movie purely because of what’s being said about it or how much is being said in the first place. I remember rumors about Netflix paying people to post memes about Bird Box. There was a hype train to be ridden and boy, did people ride that train. All of this comes about because of the absence of viewer integrity. The masses are simply too overwhelmed with the world (which is getting crazier) to be bothered with having to think about what media to consume, what movies to watch, which directors to be excited about. So, the message subconsciously delivered to people is ‘everything you should care about is in the theaters and on twitter’ (and don’t forget most of their feeds aren’t like film twitter, at that).
Personally speaking, I got deeper into film because at the age of 13 I began to write amateur TV-pilot scripts instead of studying, since I was way more interested in TV than I was on movies. To me, TV was like a bridge that sparked my love for filmmaking and its craft that ultimately led me to where I am now. Most of the concepts I instinctively hold and apply to my own writing were from my TV binging years (not that I stopped binging, cause I still do). However, there are people who have no interest in filmmaking and its craft, they just like movies. So how can we help expose said people to various kinds of cinema from different parts of the world?
I’m friends with a lot of these people and what I do, is tell them to go back to movies they love. I advise them to go and re-watch films they saw years ago and frequently think about. Because 9 times out 10, they’re some pretty good movies if they can stick with someone for that long. Plus people – my past self included – aren’t in the habit of re-watching movies they’ve already seen. I know how it goes, no tension. But that’s not how good movies perform on a second viewing. Great movies just get better with time. They age like fine wine. Once your friend has gone back to whichever movies they choose, ask them why they react to it in that special way that they do. Different reasons come up, but mostly it’s because of the emotions or because it ‘takes them to a specific time in their life’. Then, inquire if there any special movies similar to the ones they saw that have been released recently. They say no, they say old is gold. You loved The Matrix? Have you heard of Annihilation, or maybe Edge of Tomorrow? For the latter most people say yes but the former not so much. You could argue that it’s marketing was weak and timid but the movie was on Netflix, I’m sure a lot of people saw it on their homepage and didn’t bother looking it up. See how viewer integrity plays a role in all this? You may not be able to discover your next favorite movie because we’re already used to being told what they are. In western countries and Europe, there’s a healthy dosage of outlets for smaller movies to get themselves heard & widespread, but these issues aren’t immune in those places either. They’re present, but to a significantly lesser degree. We need to emulate the systems in place there, and implement them here. I think there are possible solutions to combat these issues.
A good place to start would be film festivals. Don’t you just love getting excited for one of these things knowing damn well you won’t be attending? Cause I do. It means getting reactions and reviews to new movies you won’t be able to watch until after like ten months. The major tent pole festivals that happen every year take place in far off lands. Wouldn’t it be nice to really globalize film culture? I’m not blaming anybody but we as the people of these nations here in Africa, should help each other organize more film festivals all around the continent. No half-assed jobs, really put the work in. Then what should follow, is international filmmakers supporting our cause by premiering some of their movies here & give them a little prestige to start. I see a lot of film festivals here, they exist. However, they don’t match the levels of excitement and energy the likes of Sundance and TIFF have, partly because they hardly show new movies exclusively. Most of their lineups consist of older films (not that old maybe 6, 7 years old, but still). It is commendable how most of those are local movies. But then I ask myself, how come they only have the luxury to show older films in order to fill their lineup? And then it hit me, it’s cause we’re not making enough movies to justify holding, how many festivals a year. It all comes back to viewer complacency.
The image that comes to mind while thinking about this conundrum is that of a pyramid. Cinephiles from under exposed countries find themselves at the bottom of that pyramid, with the top being Film Distribution. I’ve seen tons of theater chains only screen a film once it’s been proven to do well in the States for a week or two, and you cannot believe how torturous it is, to be at the mercy of American film goers just so I can see this movie I’m excited about – no offense. But that’s not going to change anytime soon. What I really care about, is getting some sort of film independence for us. We need more production, but that needs the support and integrity of our own people.
Again, it all comes down to the audience & population at large. To take a step back and talk more broadly, I think we have a generation problem. I’m not one of those millennial naysayers, I actually like us cause of our uncompromising candor in being who we are, but sometimes while doing that, we forget to be active in life. Just in general. We maybe get too caught up in our own little bubbles, a lot of us involuntarily sink into passivity. To quote the lovely Olivia Cooke from a line her character said in Thoroughbreds, “The only thing worse than being mean, unkind or evil is being indecisive.” When I heard that I jumped up and screamed, “That’s my whole philosophy!” Indecisive and passive aren’t exactly synonymous but they carry the same essence in this context. Passivity is the enemy of almost everyone. People who are passive don’t know they’re passive because well… they’re passive, blissfully happy making it to another day. I’m no psychotherapist but the one thing I can tell everybody reading this article is that the worst thing you can be passive about is the media you consume. The music you listen to, the films you watch – because it all affects you as a person. Especially if you’re young, it kinda shapes your personality to some degree. Just a little extra thought and personal insight into these things could go a long way in making your life better.We can’t dictate to each other what to see and what not to see, but we can at least push one another in the right directions. We can really show the distributors what we’re genuinely interested in and want more of. But we have to be sure what that is, first.
I once recommended Brian De Palma’s 1981 masterpiece Blow Out, to this girl I knew in film school who said she wanted to be a writer (I recommend that to anybody who wants to write screenplays) and she joked, “Wow, that’s a really old one. Might give it a try.” You’d be surprised at just how many film students from these underexposed areas think movies from the ’80’s are really old. Isn’t Gone With The Wind a part of their syllabus or something? I don’t know, I’ve never been there. Their mindset, which again, was mine not so long ago – is yeah it’s probably great, but I’d rather watch this new blockbuster instead. I love blockbusters, but inputting enough consideration and weight behind each and every film from every time period would be nice too. Which means more people should have their eyes open and be able to see through the mirage formed by co-operations and passive thinking (When I start reading like a conspiracy theorist is when I know I’ve driven my point home).
Bringing it back to my trademark sappiness – once I really started watching films and appreciating them on different levels, jumping out of consumer passivity; so many aspects of my personal life improved as well which just fueled my passion for cinema even more. How we watch movies is important because movies are important. Roger Ebert said something of the sort, but about criticism instead. Movies are important, and how you treat movies maybe shows how important you are to yourself.
Churchill Osimbo is 19 years old. Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, he now resides in Midrand, South Africa for flying school. He’s training to be a pilot, but don’t worry, it’s not like Top Gun or anything.