Thursday, February 14, 2013

TBFF Film Review - Nairobi Half Life

Mwas (Joseph Wirimu) is a small town dreamer. He lives in rual Kenya and sells counterfeit movies for 50 a piece. He often acts out scenes from the films such as the five point exploding heart technique from Kill Bill Vol. 2 to sinch the sale.  Mwas wants to be an actor himself and decides to go to Nairobi to make his acting dream come true.  As part of his plan Mwas makes a deal with a member of a travelling acting crew that comes through his small town to represent him as an agent.

After gathering his affairs and different levels of reaction from his father brother and mother, plus accepting a package from a relative and local gangster Mwas heads out to the big city.

The first day in Nairobi does not go well. Mwas is rolled almost the minute he gets off the bus and ends up spending his first night in the city jail. There he meets Oti (Olwenya Maina) who becomes one of is pals when they both are out of jail.

Eventually Mwas does make it to the local acting house The Phoenix where he auditions and lands a role in a play. He also spends time with Oti and his friends taking for themselves anything that Nairobi puts in their paths.

Director David Tosh Gitonga presents an entertaining film filled with many comedic moments. The film captures small town Kenya and the big city of Nairobi equally well. Gitonga gives you the sense of the haves and have nots in Nairobi. On the one hand you have people that have next to nothing. The men steal anything they can and the women only option for money appears to be the sex industry.  On the other side the rich in their suits and designer dresses work in the downtown office towers and drive their SUV's home to their gated residences outside of town. Even Mwas' play has as it's central theme the gulf between the rich and the poor in the city. Somewhere in the middle are the corrupt cops looking for their cut from crime then turning on their criminal partners when they have out served their usefulness. The viewer gets the impression that what Gitonga is portraying on film is not far off every day life in Nairobi

Cinematograph Christian Almesberger presents a rich visual of the Kenian countryside.  The bright vibrant colours of the dirt roads, the browns in the setting sky and shadows engulfing the actors on screen. A dark back lit foreground dominate Mwas' last night at home before he leaves for Nairobi. The presentation really sets the mood for night-time in a village where light is scarce.  The visuals give the audience the strong impression that they are under a Kenyan moonless sky.

Costume Designer Abul Mhammmed takes a minimalist approach for the film. Mwas is in the same clothes the first two days he is in Nairobi. A change in outfit is the device used in the script to show that he has been in town for a while and established. The other characters are outfitted in standard young people wares.  The young prostitute females are dressed rather normally in shorts and halter tops.

Xaver von Tryer's soundtrack is understated and does not overwhelm the action or dialogue. The musical choices back the action sequences and slowly build to match the events on screen. Selections supporting Mwas criminal life are more gritty then the pieces underpinning his acting related scenes.  The backing music for Mwas first appearance at the National Film Board is light, airy, woodwind driven and almost Asian in its feel.  The haunting main theme Half Life mixes drums, bells and guitars in rich mixture of native beats, rhythm and sound.

Mwas develops a close friendship with Oti's girlfriend Amina (Nancy Wanjiku Karanja) and feels that he can only trust her with his dream of becoming an screen actor as he continues to be part of Oti's crew in his down time.

Nairobi Half Life is a well written piece. The dialogue is direct and is full of local flare. The characters switch easily back and forth between Swahili, Kikuyu and English sometimes even in mid sentence. The story moves at a fast pace that keeps the viewer engaged.  The main characters are multi dimensional and the audience quickly becomes invested in their fates. The writing team create a bathroom scene in the first act that makes the toilet from Trainspotting look like the finest the Ritz Carlton has to offer.

Joseph Wairimu is well cast as the central figure Mwas. His first impression is that of the town jester but shows himself to be very loyal, witty and extremely protective of his friends.  Oti is equally good as the crew leader and Mwas best friend in Nairobi.  The aforementioned Karanja is very strong as Oti's girlfriend and Mwas friend and confidant Amina.

David Tosh Gitonga has crafted a film that shows the good and bad parts of every day life in Niarobi and has a theme running throughout of the separation between the rich and poor.  Nairobi Half Life is a film that I can recommend.

*** out of 4

Nairobi Half Life | David Tosh Gitonga | Kenya / Germany | 2012 | 96 Minutes.

Opening Night Gala Inaugural Toronto Black Film Festival.

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