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Tom Tykwer: "Africa is so foreign to us because it is so rarely mentioned"

December 19th, 2016
in:Arts
by:Nicole Sagener
located in:Kenya
tags:Kati Kati, Kenya, Tom Tykwer

"Kati Kati", the debut film of Kenyan filmmaker Mbithi Masya has been released in Germany. The German filmmaker spoke to fairplanet about African myths and why working with young African filmmakers is so important.

fairplanet: Mr Tykwer, you set up the One Fine Day association with your wife Marie in 2008. It supports young Kenyan filmmakers with workshops, which allow them to develop artistically. Where did the idea come from?

Tom Tykwer: At the beginning, One Fine Day was a project of my wife's, which brought art classes to the slums of Nairobi and to its schools, which were only teaching arithmetic, reading and writing. Two or three dozen teachers now teach art in every possible discipline to over a thousand children, honing their talents. So I asked myself, what can I bring: obviously, it was films. Suddenly, I found myself in a world full of enthusiasts and movie buffs.

In Kenya, there are many people that want to experience another film language, different to what television and the very frugal, existing cinema has to offer. So we have teamed up with them and realised there is so much of substance on which we can build.

They demand that a film should be plausible and socially relevant and not pursue mere aesthetics. Friedrich Hebbel said that, "art is the conscience of mankind": How do you transfer that to your workshops?

The project works as I would imagine the ideal film school should operate. I still believe that one does not have to go off to school for years on end in order to learn filmmaking; you learn by doing. We have put together a sort of crash course that people can do at a hotel, surrounded by mentors from around the world, mostly Europe. These instructors are versed in camerawork, directing, screenplay writing and most other disciplines.

People from around Africa can apply and many come from Egypt, South Africa, Rwanda and Ethiopia, in addition to Kenya. From that group, a feature film can be put together in a relatively short time. The films are the core of the workshops and each is a unique and specific East African movie. And some have gone on to have real success around the world. "Nairobi Half Life" is now one of the most successful Kenyan films of all time. For us, that is overwhelming, when you consider how small this initiative really is.

What have been and still are the main obstacles?

It is always complicated to get something started. No one ever believes at first that something will last. But it has.

Of course, there are an incredible number of associations and institutes, like the Deutsche Welle Akademie, that have opened the door to financing opportunities for us. It has meant that we can now run these workshops for the sixth and seventh times. Let's see what happens next.

Has anything happened at an official level in Kenya?

The Kenyan government is now seriously considering whether to do something at a political and infrastructure level, in order to make filmmaking economically attractive too. For a small industry that can both reflect cultural identity and also build a new outlook on the world, it is necessary to attract foreign investors and put co-production into action. For example, by offering tax incentives. We have been co-sponsoring expertise and that is now being considered at the highest, presidential, level.

So like in South Africa, which for years has been Africa's Hollywood and has worked on international films like Blood Diamond, Lord of War and Zulu...

Yes. One has to temper expectations and look at what has actually happened in South Africa. The film industry's rapid rise has much to do with the tax programmes that have been offered. Suddenly, any film set in Africa was filmed in South Africa. In a short time, so many projects relocated there, that a fantastic team emerged.

We've set up these workshops without that help, producing everything from makeup artists to directors, who are ready to work at an international level.

We are particularly proud that Netflix has decided to work on a big series in Kenya. There's a team working on that that is made up almost exclusively from people that have participated in our workshops.

What attracts your team to cooperating with African artists?

The important thing is that it is all about give and take. The distinctness of the material and the ban on copying anything means that people are forced to express their own style. The participants really understand what films can achieve: making an invisible world visible to the naked eye. And even the visible can remain unknown to many people.

That's an important thing that we have to change, also in Europe, so that we can give a better insight into what is actually happening on the continent. Up until now, African films barely make it to Germany. At the same time, many people from Africa are coming here...

Africa is so foreign to us because it is so rarely mentioned. Aside from in the news or when linked to natural and humanitarian disasters. Look at East Africa. The space between South Sudan and Kenya continues as many different cultures and living standards as are between here and Siberia.

Europe still has little to offer beyond pity and words of comfort. We can help our media to show more of the continent's details. Our horizons are broadening, many more people are travelling and engaging with other people. I have the feeling that the next generation will be more critical in handling this issue.

Article written by:
Nicole Sagener
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