Nairobi Half Life (Bow Tie Cinemas, March 21, 2013)

 
When the film ended and the house lights re-emerged, there was a flood
of smiles and cheers from a subset of the audience. A majority of
those who came out to support the premiere of “Nairobi Half Life” were
of African origin, perhaps most from Kenya, as is the film. They
whooped and seemed lighter than before the piece began; proclaiming,
“This is how it is! This is life.” If nothing else, the film to them
was a success in that, tonight, in over one-hundred theatres across the
country, the typical American audience had the chance to see just how
fucking hard life can be for some people.
“Nairobi Half Life,” the first feature to reach screens from The
Manhattan Feature Film Project, is also the first film from Kenya to
have been submitted to the Academy for consideration as a Best Foreign
Language Film nominee. It didn’t make the short-list, but why is the
Academy the authority on worthiness in World Cinema anyway? After all,
there is an award for Best Feature film and another award for Best
Foreign Language Film: and only very rarely is a foreign language film
ever good enough to be considered for both categories (last year’s
“Amour” being one).
“Nairobi Half Life,” the directorial debut of David “Tosh” Gitonga,
is the story of Mwas (Joseph Wairimu), a youthful dreamer from the
rural outskirts of Kenya, who makes his living selling movies such as
“300,” while he acts out scenes clad in his “Kill Bill” T-shirt. His
wish is to be an actor, and when a traveling acting group from Nairobi
arrives, he believes his chance may have finally arrived.
“Can you help me?” he asks one of the actors.
The actor—Jose, by name—responds that the first thing Mwas would need
to become an actor is an agent. Of course Jose will be his agent—for
1000k. Mwas provides all the money he has, and of course we know that
he will never see this money again. But young Mwas heads out in to
Nairobi, hoping to make his way in this world.
This is the first hardship that befalls young Mwas, but it will not be
his last, as this is simply a taste of Nairobi life: “Don’t take it
hard. Nairobi is like that,” Jose answers when Mwas happens upon him
again, realizing he has been had.
When Mwas arrives in Nairobi, he is almost instantly mugged, thrown
into jail, and welcomed into a gang. It’s like that in Nairobi. The
remainder of the tale follows Mwas’s double life, both as a wannabe
actor, and as a surprisingly versatile criminal. “Nairobi Half Life”
sticks pretty close to the fall-from-grace journey of the innocent
that we have seen in so many stories and films.
The characterizations and performances mark the distinction that makes
this unique from most others of this ilk. Mwas seems innocent, sure.
So he should be: he is our protagonist. But he is also conniving;
in a well-handled scene by Gitonga, he is given the chance to either
return a stolen cell phone from an innocent woman or follow the
thief who stole it, he carries the phone and follows the thief: Serves
her right for carrying on like that in Nairobi. He quickly becomes
accustomed to this lifestyle: when he discovers that undercover cops
take a bite of his gang’s action, his first response is how he can cut
them out or scare them away.
And what about the thief who took the phone, Oti? As portrayed by
Olwenya Maina in his film debut, he is the strongest and most complex
character; it is one hell of a performance. In a scene set in a scrap yard where stolen car parts are stolen,  the viewer sees  that he is just trying to
get by. It is Mwas who has more of a knack for the game—he knows how
to deal and barter.
A love triangle develops between Oti’s girl and Mwas. Notice the
amazing reaction when the truth will out and Mwas has to confront Oti
with his affection for Amina. “I really like her though.” Oti, distant
and lost, quietly responds, “That makes two of us.”
That is how the film goes, and that is what is amazing about it. The
characters are people, not objects of crime, or of evil. Gitonga does
an amazing thing here. He doesn’t shy away from just how ugly their
lives and deeds are quickly becoming, but he also doesn’t shy away
from the fact that these are people, and believe themselves to be
good: and maybe even are. A scene that erupted laughter from the
audience involves Oti and Mwas stealing parts from a man’s Corolla.
The man catches them in the act and chases them into an alley. Once in
the alley, they quickly turn around, and with the rest of the gang,
point at the man and accuse HIM of being the thief. Now think about
this. What if this was your car? But you have to admit that it is
clever, and the man runs away a few parts short of a full car, but
fully alive.
That is the balancing act Gitonga plays. He keeps us close to this
gang. He doesn’t judge, nor does he incriminate the audience. How
would you survive in Nairobi? Sure, we occasionally see men in
business suits, but Gitonga’s Nairobi is a land where the only
occupation other than selling stolen goods, is selling your own body.
When, in the film’s final act the piper must be paid, the audience
realizes how much like Mwas we really are. How naïve and stupid we
must be: we were having fun and not taking it too seriously. How did
we think it would end?
Gitonga is no slouch behind the camera either. He is at his best in
evoking the sordid Nairobi landscape. His employment of cranes along a
busy city street and his favored wide shot positioned just behind the lead
protagonist of the scene evokes the land in all its beauty as well as
all of its tragedy.
Reflecting back on Mwas at the beginning of his journey, is there
perhaps a comment on the rootless and pointless violence of the
Western Cinema? Where CGI gladiator violence and 4 hours to kill a guy
name Bill are the source of entertainment here; on the other side of
the world live men like Oti and Mwas, who have seen too much of it
already, and are not quite sure what’s so fun about it.
In the film’s slightly soap-box-ish final moments, Mwas, as the actor
he always wanted to be, realizes he is not quite sure who he is or how
he feels any more. And neither are we. And maybe that’s why the
audience roared and cheered. Mwas, in all his uncertainty, disillusion,
and doubt on the big screen for all to see, may have just made them
feel a bit more certain there is reason for hope.

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