I didn't really know what to expect when I sat down in the theater to watch Nairobi Half Life at this year's Pan African Film Festival. I heard about the film in passing, but not much beyond that. The storyline is familiar, a young man from a small town ventures to the big city in hopes of pursuing his dreams. Only in this film, the young man is Kenyan, comes from a small village, and ventures to Nairobi in hopes of becoming an actor. As soon as he arrives, he is blitzed by the commotion and danger of urban life. But its Director David Tosh Gitonga's distinct spin on this premise that makes it comparable to other landmark films of this genre, such as Midnight Cowboy, and even Slumdog Millionaire.
There's a warmth, or closeness, we feel toward lead character Mwas, played by Joseph Wairimu. His performance speaks a certain inner innocence. His fresh-faced naiveté, his stiff, reluctant walk and the way he winces and grins at the new, frightening world around him allows the audience to immediately embrace him, to enter this story even if the circumstances of his world are unfamiliar. He is outrageously funny in a scene where he "acts" as a mentally unstable religious zealot inorder to avoid being framed for a car theft. Even in his descent into the grittier Nairobi life, he is likable, like a mischievious cousin you can't stop loving.
There's a lot of discussion around whether films about characters of a particular race/culture should be written and directed by someone from that culture. Nairobi Half Life is definitely one of those stories. What could've been a film about desperation and criminality in "Africa," becomes an affecting, funny narrative, bringing us into layered, tumultuous lives of people born into a corrupt infrastructure that they didn't choose, but are forced to navigate. In this way, a prostitute, played tenderly by Nancy Karanja, becomes a trusted confidante to Mwas, and rampant car theft becomes a way to survive (sometimes comically so), rather than an unforgivable transgression.
The film is deftly scripted with some evocative lensing, especially in scenes where light trickles onto the distraught faces of Mwas and his friends in a dark prison. Characters never quite amount to the recognizable tropes that they could become in another movie, partly because sober humor replaces expected melodrama. Police corruption is interweaved in a way that doesn't become preachy, but just a natural part of the character's world.
There's also a fascinating parallel related to the old saying, "Art Imitates Life." As Mwas advances in his artistic life, taking the role of a compassionate thief in a local theater production, he also becomes entangled in a web of criminal activity that enables his survival in Nairobi. The final scene comes as both emotional revelation and direct commentary.
Co-sponsored by the One Fine Day Film Workshop, which is a German/Kenyan program founded to foster African cinema, the film was Kenya's second-ever selection for the Academy's Best Foreign Language Award category. After seeing it, I don't understand why it didn't make the final short list. Sitting in the theater, I observed heads bobbing to the Kenyan hip hop soundtrack, heavy sighs, deep laughter, and bodies moving around in seats from suspense. This is what a film should do.