Interview: Director Katja Bentrah Talks her Harrowing Oscar contender ‘Watu Wote: All of us’

If your think shorts can’t be as powerful as feature-length films, then you probably haven’t seen “Watu Wote: All of us“. Based on a true story, this Oscar-shortlisted drama follows the harrowing experience of a group of bus passengers in 2015 Kenya, where tensions between Christians and Muslims are at an all-time high. As “Watu Wote: All of us” unfolds, the reason for this disharmony is revealed with palpable intensity, as a terrorist group attempts an attack. But what happens next comes as a surprise to both the terrorists and the audience. I recently caught up with director Katja Bentrah via phone, as we discussed how she turned this amazing story into an award-winning film. Below is an edited version of that interview.

Shane Slater: How did this project get started?

Katja Benrath: We read it in the newspaper and on the BBC Website. And it was around the time in university when we had to propose my final project. So I decided that this is the story we want to tell.

But it was a huge responsibility. There was a moment when I thought I never could tell this story because it’s totally not my culture. I didn’t want to be someone who tries to go to Kenya to “colonize” a story and tell it from a European perspective. We wanted it to be a Kenyan film.

So we had to find out if Kenyan filmmakers were already planning to make a movie about it and/or if they would team up with us and give all our passion and skills into this project together. Kenya has great and inspiring filmmakers and we were able to do it all together. We learned a lot from each other.

SS: Why did you choose the perspective of a Christian woman as opposed to a Muslim for the main character?

KB: That’s an interesting question. We were really thinking about making the Muslim teacher the main character, because he’s a very interesting person. Or even any other Muslim person who was saving the Christians. But again, there was a huge responsibility. It just didn’t feel right with my Christian background since it’s not just another culture, but another religion. So I felt that it would be bad for me to claim that I could tell the story from a Muslim perspective.

SS: What was the casting process?

KB: We had an open call and a great casting director. She just knew a lot of good people. Most of the people you see in the movie aren’t actors and it was the best decision to work with them.

We found some great actors. Adelyne Waimiru our lead actress was part of the big casting call. She was too young, but since the best makeup artists in Kenya already were on board (Suki Kibungury and Valery Mdeizi) we decided to work with her and make her older. We rehearsed a lot and worked on her part.

Bakhad Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed starred in the “Captain Phillips” with Tom Hanks. They also supported the project and flew in from Minnesota to help us make this happen.

The teacher played by Abdiweli Rakim Faarah is not an actor but was part of the project “Fishing without Nets”, so he had some set experience. He did a great job. Rehearsing with him and other non-actors was very intense. It is important to help the actors to enter the emotional area of the character. But even more important was to help them find their way out again. It took a lot of courage to be part of a project with this topic. There are people in the movie who lost family members to attacks like this. People who experienced a similar bus attack and also people who lost a family member because he joined the al-Shabaab.

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I should work with them, because I didn’t want to re-traumatize them. But they really wanted to be a part of this story. All those Somali extras and actors were really courageous because there were also stories of Somali people who were in another movie and one of them got shot. So some of them didn’t want to show their faces. But they really wanted to tell the world that Islam is not bad.

SS: Did you have any personal fears in telling this story? I’d imagine the terrorists wouldn’t want to project this image to the world.

KB: The good and bad thing about me is that I’m never scared. So I need to have people who are scared for me, just in case. Because I would go everywhere. So I always had people around me and I told them to please tell me if I shouldn’t go somewhere, because I just don’t feel fear.

SS: How was the awards circuit experience been so far, having already won the Student Academy Awards and now being shortlisted for the Oscar?

KB: It’s crazy. The important thing was to tell this story to the world, to focus on good things and not always on bad things. So that’s the good thing about the Student Academy Award and the shortlist. People really want to see the film and want to hear about it. We make movies for audiences and people, not for awards. But winning the Oscar would be great for Kenya. I really want that for our Kenyan crew.