In my on going engagement with this beautiful film industry of ours in Kenya, I have met enough of my peers who have no idea that in Kenya, our government actually owns two 35 millimeter film cameras, a good set of cinema lenses, two 16mm film processing stations and a couple of Telecines... lying unused. The last time we used our 35mm cameras was in 2002 during the inauguration of Mwai Kibaki as Kenya's third president.
A couple of weeks ago I traveled down to the Coast to have the final look at our film processing plant in Mombasa before it was fully demolished. It was, personally speaking, an emotional and ravishing experience being there, looking through all these tools and gadgets that at one point in the 70s and 80s were ragging with stories. The scent of the chemicals can be quite overwhelming but it doesn't matter, for a filmmaker born into the world of cinema in the digital era, you constantly walk around with this inward beckoning - how would it feel like to shoot and process film? It's almost as if the day I do, I will finally be at peace with myself and my craft.
After the demolishing of the Mombasa film processing plant, I will sadly tell you the remaining one which is actually the biggest of the two doesn't work as well. The history of how Kenya's biggest film processing station, located at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication came to a stop in the 90's is the most interesting part of this whole story. You wouldn't believe it.
To give you a bit of history, Kenya's Film Industry was established by the British who used film to make propaganda films against the Mau Mau, but it is the Germans who build Kenya Institute of Mass Communication and set up the film processing plants in Nairobi and Mombasa. KIMC was an elite school and very few people made it through the selection process, to give you a sense of context. Training a filmmaker then was next in line to training a doctor. The capital the government had invested in setting up all the facilities was huge.
To put matters in to context, by that period in time none of the teachers in the institution had made films. The cost and requirements of making one was far fetched so they stuck in the craft of making documentaries. Documentaries were less demanding cost-wise and that did not appeal to these two students, they just couldn't see themselves making documentaries. They wanted to make action films.
So in 1994, they did the impossible, they set out to make a film, it was their senior year at the institute. The film would be called 'Splash Yesterday' (strange title but hey, am not gonna judge) and so in 1994 the two raised 50 thousand shillings each from friends and family. The news spread like wild fire - Two KIMC students are making the institutions first feature film. This was the beginning of the end.
How could students be the first to make a feature film? What would it make of their lectures!
So a few days into their project with the main scenes being shot in Ukambani and sent to Nairobi for processing and development of dailies. It is said, that someone intentionally (allegedly the teachers) sabotaged the film processing station and it all came to a sad halt. The film was never finished and the station could not be used.
It is said whatever was done to it was something minor and repairable but sadly, since then the station has never been operational. The dawn of the new digital age spelt disaster. It has never recovered.
At this point I felt both angry and saddened. We had such an opportunity that lays in ruins and dust. In the 70's and 80's we would have the Kenya News Reel that screened before movies at the cinemas. It was shot on 35mm film by Kenyans in Kenya. Interestingly enough, the last year this material was taken to the cinemas was in 2003. Why is all this material? If our processing plant were brought to a sad halt so early, I feared for our archives. Luckily most of our film negatives were first stored in Australia but now it's all Archived in Britain. Am crossing fingers that it's all still there.
A lot of the 1975 to 1994 students moved on with their lives and for those who stayed in film, only a few were able to adopt to the new digital world. Having met a couple of them they are trying as much as they can to keep up with this constantly evolving digital age. I also hope to learn from them before all this information and experience passes us by.