We’re very proud to announce that we made our first feature film as a collective!
On June 30, 2013, we began collecting and archiving the stories of persons identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex from Kenya. We called this project Stories of Our Lives - and we wanted to do this project for many reasons, but mostly because we wanted to tell stories that are not often heard, stories that characterize the queer experience in Kenya.
After several months of touring and collecting hundreds of vivid, compelling stories, we decided to turn some of these stories into short films. We wrote the scripts based on some of the stories we’d recorded, and we shot the films over the course of eight months using ourselves as the crew - and learned a lot as we went along (our accountant turned out to be a great boom operator, and our admin now doubles up as a bad-ass clapper-loader!).
We were very lucky to have the support and enthusiasm of a stellar cast who were excited about doing something different. Once the short films were finished, we had a chance meeting with Rasha Salti - international programmer at the Toronto Film Festival - who (to our surprise!) expressed interest in screening this film at the 2014 festival.
This was exciting, and a little scary at the same time. We never imagined our short films could get this kind of attention. This news also forced us to think more broadly about this project. First, what would Kenyans think of this film? Kenya - like many African societies - has strong cultural attitudes and discriminatory laws that make it difficult to live openly as a queer person - this makes it more difficult to find willing actors, locations and permissions to shoot and even screen such a film.
We had concerns about whether we’d get in trouble for making this film, and whether our cast would get in trouble for being in this film. We thought about presenting the film anonymously at TIFF, and the wonderful TIFF team were willing to let us do so to keep everyone safe. We then showed the film to our friends, families and supporters - and had many, many conversations about how to handle this. Our thoughts on the matter evolved and are still evolving as we go. After weeks of these conversations, we then decided to present the film at TIFF without the anonymity, for the following reasons:
1 - We’re damn proud of this film. We’re proud of the fact that we were able to pull this off ourselves as a team, we’re proud of all the cast and the wonderful performances they gave us, and we’re so grateful for all the lessons we’ve learned and all the support we’ve had in making this film.
2 - We think these stories are important. For us, this film is about recognizing the narratives of communities that are ignored, pathologised and misunderstood by the Kenyan mainstream. Queer people exist in Kenya, and it’s fine. Everyone knows - or should know - that the anti-gay agenda in Uganda, Nigeria and other parts of Africa is the unhappy result of an explosive cocktail of crazy, right-wing American churches and radical Islamic groups coming together with power-hungry local religious and political leaders, and a complex history of dealing with difference of all kinds, be it tribal, religious, economic, gender and many other differences that cause conflict. The anti-gay battles are just one of many global culture-wars currently taking place on African bodies. The war against terror, the resources war, and the capitalist economy all use African bodies as collateral.
Sadly, the pervasive anti-gay agenda serves as a useful distraction from the real challenges affecting our country and many other African countries. Cheap politics. Killing gay people won’t solve the issues of healthcare and livelihoods for young people. Killing gay people won’t fix the problem of land distribution and economic inequalities.
3 - As the NEST Collective, we believe that Kenyans and Africans - like all human beings - have multiple, complex identities, histories and aspirations. We think it is important to represent these complexities to challenge the anti-intellectual, anti-minority, hyper-religious, simplistic, puritanical, revisionist and conformist movements that are sweeping our country and the continent:
Some Kenyans are gay, and it’s fine. Some Kenyans don’t go to church very often or at all - and it’s fine. Some Kenyans have tattoos, or smoke cigarettes or wear mini-skirts some days - it’s fine. Some Kenyans are Christians - it’s fine. Some Kenyans are Muslims - it’s fine. We don’t all look the same, think the same and want the same things. In the case of this film, we don’t all love the same way, either.
So - for us - this film is about fighting openly for the right of Africans to have different opinions, different worldviews, different identities and dreams - and for all these multiple identities to co-exist. We made this film because we believe strongly that the fight for the right to define one’s self, the right to be complex and different and unique, should be fought for proudly and openly.
One question we’ve been asked often about this film is - are we afraid of what will happen to us as individuals and as an institution now that we’ve made this film? No, we’re not. We believe strongly that Kenya is a place where people can disagree with one another’s points of view without resorting to violence.
We hope that this film will give expression to the hopes and aspirations of queer people in Uganda, Nigeria and everywhere in Africa, who are often misunderstood and victimized for being different.
Stories of Our Lives has its world premiere today at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Screening details and tickets available here.
The NEST Collective are (in alphabetical order): George Aloo, Jim Chuchu, Sunny Dolat, George Gachara, Noel Kasyoka, Dan Muchina, Wilfred Mwangi, Wangechi Ngugi, Njoki Ngumi and Wakiuru Njuguna.