Countless stories remain untold because filmmakers and directors do not have access to the resources or training they need. “Nairobi Half Life,” thankfully, was not one of these stories. The director, producers and actors have created a masterpiece; the film weaves a relatable, human story of ambition and redemption while also commenting on the disparity between the upper and lower classes in Kenya.
The film follows a young idealist named Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) as he leaves the protection of his small village for Nairobi, a city of both opportunity and corruption, where in order to succeed as an actor, he must learn to survive in the dog-eat-dog Nairobi streets.
One Fine Day Films produced the movie through an annual workshop they have been running in Africa, which they developed in order to tell African stories to a larger audience. The workshop runs for two weeks, introducing the African artists to professional filmmakers and demystifying the process of making a movie; at the end of the two weeks, they choose one person to direct the film. In 2012, that person was David Gitonga.
“Nairobi Half Life” is Gitonga’s first film, and his inexperience lends a fresh view to film-making that leaves the audience feeling that they have seen something both new and timeless. Gitonga explores why and how people become thieves, and in doing so, he points out the arbitrary nature of the class we are born into. Although “Nairobi Half Life” is set in Kenya, the themes are relevant on the global stage. The film shows how a life of crime is not something chosen, but something necessary.
At the outset, Mwas is an optimistic young man who spends his days in a vest made of movie posters, dramatically acting out Hollywood films for the people of his village. When he arrives in Nairobi, his naiveté (and the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time) lands him penniless and in prison. In his holding cell, he meets Oti (Olwenya Maina), a seasoned carjacker, who teaches him the tricks of self-preservation in Nairobi’s dangerous back alleys.
Thus begins Mwas’ double life: one-part a young, aspiring actor; the other a member of Oti’s gang, a stealer of car parts for sale on the black market. But what began as a carefully managed game on Mwas’ part soon spirals out of control, and he is forced to refocus his perspective when gang violence leads to multiple deaths. Mwas gets the part in a play about crime and wealth disparities, and, ironically, the stage ends up being the place where he is able to be the most truthful about his feelings. His final monologue becomes a medium for him to express his regret and redemption for the path his life has taken.
Gitonga’s determination to maintain authenticity makes “Nairobi Half Life” successful. He is extremely detailed in his use of dialects; throughout the movie, the actors switch between English and two other regional languages, often over the course of a single conversation or even a single sentence. The effect of this goes beyond keeping the audience on their toes (as they have to go between listening to English and reading subtitles); viewers end up drawn deeper into the lives of the characters. It is also worth noting that Gitonga did not use extras; when they shot in public places, the surrounding crowd was made up of regular people going about their days.
“Nairobi Half Life” also demonstrates validity when it comes to portraying the human condition. It would have been easy to make the film a serious, self-important tragedy, but the script weaves humor throughout the struggle, making the experience much more human. A great example is when, during a black market transaction that is meant to be “cool,” Mwas loudly recites a monologue from “300” in order to demand more money for stolen tires. Wairimu does an excellent job as Mwas, as he expertly demonstrates the universal pain and joy of self-discovery; additionally, his theatrical humor keeps the audience chuckling throughout the film.
“Nairobi Half Life” is under consideration for an Oscar for best foreign film, and it will be extremely surprising if it is not chosen. The film is a beautifully woven story of how societal pressures can twist and mutilate human ambition until it is unrecognizable, and it serves as a reminder that art is not determined by the size of the budget.
“Nairobi Half Life” is an absolute must see, not just because of the brilliant acting and directing, but also because, according to Gitonga, “the story is universal, it’s just set in a Kenyan back road.” Gitonga feels that the movie has something for everyone, and he and the producers are slowly working towards spreading the movie throughout Kenya and the globe.