You people of Nairobi are a rather peculiar bunch. I’m not talking about your calling habits or how you lose your minds when it starts raining, that’s old hat.
You flood bars on weekends to watch The Barclays Premiership soccer matches, ignoring live Kenya Premier League action in various stadia; idolize politicians in conversation instead of honoring your real heroes such as your sportsmen; and jam movie theaters to see films that have absolutely nothing to do with you such as WANTED, sidestepping films about you and your history, such as Wanuri Kahiu’s From a Whisper, currently showing at the 20th Century.
I’ve seen it thrice in the past week. At all the screenings there was an average 10 people out of a possible 500. Of these, several were crew members. You’d think that the good people of Nairobi would want to spare time to watch Kenya’s first serious attempt at a historical drama made by a UCLA graduate. I found myself thinking that perhaps if I wish to make a historical film and make money I should be more bold and call it MOI: THE MOVIE or RAILA: THE REBEL YEARS. At this rate I don’t think Kenyans would care to see a film about Janet Jepkosgei, Peter Dawo or Wangila Napunyi. Even a Wangari Maathai project would risk colossal failure.
Or maybe we have this perception that paying money to watch a local film is an act of charity. Imagine a mainstream movie about 9/11 that only 200 people in the states showed up for. That is essentially what is happening right now, while all the time the film industry is lying in its deathbed.
Several audience members I spoke to blamed poor marketing for the dismal showing. I tend to agree somewhat. They had a really good trailer but a poorly designed and unconvincing poster. Still, I find myself thinking that word of mouth alone and the media coverage that it has received so far should have resulted in better returns.
From a Whisper is a partly fictional account-told in past and present-based on several characters whose lives were affected by the blast. TAMANI (CORYNNE ONYANGO) is an angry teenager back in Kenya having spent the years following the bomb blast in the states. She believes her mother went missing in the confusion that followed the attack on the US embassy and is still alive. Her loss drives her to paint pictures and inscribe them with the initials J.K for Joyce Keziah-her mother’s name perhaps in the hopes that someone will find her. Occasionally she also finds time to deface the walls of the memorial park with heart symbols, an action that doesn’t endear her to most of the security detail at the park.
Enter ABU (KEN AMBANI) who is presently the security manager. His subordinates wish he would have TAMANI arrested, but he is more fascinated with what drives this young girl to paint these images. Plus his wife is a big fan of the paintings. It’s not just fascination that draws him to Tamani. He understands her point of view, having lost his close brother FAREED (ABUBAKAR MWENDA) in the attack. She becomes something of a pet project for him.
The story shuttles back and forth between a bright and colorful past and a gloomy dark present. The genius is in how everything seems to unravel and yet come together simultaneously while all the time we bear witness to Fazul Abdallah Mohamed and company planning the terrorist attack all the time.
From a Whisper features some of the best on screen performances I’ve seen in any Kenyan production so far. Ambani and Abubakar are exceptional as two brothers following different paths in life. Their body language in every scene they share is sincere and heartfelt. You do feel an invisible kinship between them and this makes their characters emotionally accessible. These could be people you know or have come across, friends or neighbors perhaps.
Corynne is probably a good actress, but this was the wrong film for her. I was thrown off by her accent and soap opera theatrics. She has one scene in the film that is supposed to be dead serious but comes off as laughable. The film fails in this regard because you’re supposed to be feeling sympathetic to her and what she is going through but you cant simply because she comes across as a wealthy spoiled brat who hangs out in a run down building (forsaking the luxury of her wealthy father’s house), but has the resources to dress up in trendy clothes and maintain perfectly styled hair.
Is it a great film? Not in my opinion. It has several gaping holes in its plot, some bloated and silly scenes. But it has great moments-enough great moments to make it worth seeing. It also features great music by Eric Wainaina, Maia and Lavosti. The visuals are beautifully rendered by the cinematography of Marius Van Graan. On the whole it’s well worth a trip to 20th Century where it’s being screened up until the end of September-if you care that is.