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How (And Why) A TIFF Premiere Put A Character’s Life In the Audience’s Hands

TIFF: Kenya’s experimental digital series "Tuko Macho" asks audience to become judge, jury and executioner — live.

"Tuko Macho."

“Tuko Macho”

Courtesy of TIFF

If you had the chance to condemn a criminal to death, would you do it? That is the question the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) posed to its audience at a very unique and experimental screening of the first two episodes of interactive TV series “Tuko Macho,” created by Kenya’s The Nest Collective and directed by Jim Chuchu.

READ MORE: The 2016 IndieWire TIFF Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival

“Tuko Macho” tells the story of a vigilante group in Nairobi who decides to take the criminal justice system not only into their own hands, but also into the hands of the public. The first episode in the series introduces us to Charlo, a petty thief in the middle of terrorizing of a young man before his abduction by the vigilantes, who call themselves Tuko Macho (Swahili translation: “We Are Watching”).

Presented with his crime via livestream, the fictional audience of Nairobi — and, last night, the very real audience sitting in the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre — were asked to decide his fate: Guilty or Not Guilty?

In the series’ original run, which was available to stream on Facebook, the question was posed as a real link the viewers could go to and deliver their vote after an episode. In Toronto, the viewers were asked to connect to a survey through their phone, getting only minutes to deliberate, determining not just a verdict, but which of two episodes would screen next. In Kenya, the verdict was a definitive one: Guilty. In the case of Toronto, audiences were far more divided. Out of 45 votes, the guilty verdict came in just over 50 percent. That means that the alternate episode (in which the accused is set free) has not yet premiered anywhere.

The results were a surprise for Chuchu and executive producer George Gachara, who went into the screening anticipating a Not Guilty verdict.

“I prepared a whole response and thought process based on the assumption that the Toronto audience would follow the other direction,” said Gachara.

Chuchu, who said seeing the vote happening live and in real time, was both “surreal” and “creepy,” left the theatre regretting having not asked the audience why they voted Guilty.

“This whole thing has gone like that, where we’re usually left with more questions,” said Chuchu. “The audience gets, in a way, to have a say — which leaves us with more questions because we’re not completely in control.”

"Tuko Macho."

“Tuko Macho”

Courtesy of TIFF

Chuchu revealed that when putting together this screening experiment, they had considered making the vote a show of hands, but thought it would be overwhelming to have the audience own up to their votes in such a visual way.

“Anonymity is an incentive for honesty,” said Gachara.

When the series first debuted in Kenya, Chuchu says they were hesitant to open voting, and opted not to for the first episode. But after popular demand, the voting opened.

READ MORE: TIFF 2016 IndieWire Portraits: Women in Film at Toronto

The result of Toronto’s vote was a matter of debate for many viewers. One pointed out later on that the organizers missed a 46th crucial vote, one that turned the results into a stalemate. IndieWire spoke to a few of the Not Guilty viewers on why they made their decision. The overall sentiment was that it wasn’t up to to decide who lives or dies, and one death doesn’t justify another. “It’s innocent until proven guilty,” said TIFF viewer Sohrab.

So why the Guilty votes?

“The same things that moved the Kenyan audience are the same things that moved this audience — the injustice of it all,” said executive producer Mukami Kowino. “I think it’s a pleasant surprise.”

When asked about the innovation behind this experimental digital series, the filmmakers proposed that it’s not so much innovation as it is a natural progression.

“It’s a general movement to where everyone gets to determine what they see, how they see it. In all other fields, marketing, advertising, any consumer movement is going to have the individual as the person who controls the experience,” said Gachara. “It’s not necessarily innovation, but a response to the consumer that we are now becoming, or already are. It’s creating the opportunity for a need that exists. In terms of innovation, I think we’re just jumping in and trusting the audience more than the traditional system allows other people to do with their filmmaking.”

It was a trust exercise that appealed to the filmmakers because of its non-linear narrative, which Chuchu said they thought was cool but “a nightmare to produce.”

"Tuko Macho."

“Tuko Macho”

Courtesy of TIFF

Regardless of the outcome, the numbers told a story: If it had been a stalemate in Kenya, as it nearly was in Toronto, it would have meant to them that audiences had built a strong opinion on both sides.

While “Tuko Macho” is very much a narrative that explores concepts of life and death, as well as the topic of human rights, it was also created to hold up a mirror to the city of Nairobi and reflect the real events happening there. The hope was that the voting results would follow the same narrative that the creators had envisioned, and they did.

“The numbers were different, but the sentiment was the same,” said Chuchu.

The series allowed audiences to bring their personal experiences and opinions into the story. Chuchu himself was a victim of several robberies as a child, which he admits has affected his perspective on the situation.

It was also a chance for filmmakers to forge a type of personal connection with an audience in a way that not many artists have the chance to do.

“The opportunity to trust the audience is something that’s precious to us. For a lot of people, the body of work is important to them — the process of creating what is usually private, guarded and owned by the artist,” said Gachara. “The only time you get to present work is at the complete end.”

So, in his words, “To open up the system somehow for the audience and be able to trust them is such a learning experience for us and… the audience did not disappoint. They’re now deeply and intrinsically involved… the city co-created with us. That’s really beautiful.”

All eight episodes of “Tuko Macho” are currently available to stream online. A second screening of the first two episodes will take place Friday, Sept. 16 at 9pm ET at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. This time, will Charlo receive a reprieve? It’s up to the viewers to decide.

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