One of the most interesting developments in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film this season was the selection of the Kenyan film. After the much publicized controversy surrounding the LGBT-themed “Rafiki,” many presumed it would be the country’s final pick. But the official list of submissions came with a surprise, as Likarion Wainaina’s “Supa Modo” was named as Kenya’s representative. Telling a touching story about a cancer-stricken young girl and her love of cinema, “Supa Modo” has since emerged as significant dark horse for to progress to the upcoming Oscar shortlist. As we await that announcement, I spoke with Wainaina about the meaning behind the film and its place in the promising future of Kenyan cinema. Below is an edited version of our chat.
Shane Slater: You pack quite a lot into this relatively short film. How did you arrive at this final version of the story?
Likarion Wainaina: I think it’s because there was so much going through my mind. We just wanted to find the best way to tell this story. One of the main things we wanted to tackle is the perception people have of cancer in Africa. It’s not considered a “normal” kind of disease. It’s still considered a Western disease unfortunately.
We also wanted to tackle the influence of Western media on us growing up. We all grow up with Western films and there were no local films that we could grow up watching. So that was one of the issues we wanted to address. Initially we wanted to do a number of films but we were like, no let’s just try and pack in as much as we can.
SS: Your lead actress Stycie Waweru is such a natural on screen. How did you find her?
LW: This was her first time acting, so that was a surprise for all of us. We auditioned about 500 kids before we found her. During the whole audition process, I wasn’t looking for amazing acting skills or talent. I was looking for a connection. I believe if you find the right connection with an actor, you can shape characters.
We found her on the last day of auditions. I walked into the casting holding area and I wasn’t even allowed to go in there. I found her seated there and I had a 2-minute conversation with her and asked her what was the last minute she watched. And I was expecting an animation like “Frozen” or “Moana.” But she told me such a mature movie, a really dark film. And the moment she said that, I knew she was going to be the one. I went to the casting director and told her she was going to be the one, whether she knows how to act or not.
So we auditioned her and she was very nervous and the whole crew saw it. But the minute we cast her and she came to sign the contract, everyone who talked with her knew it was the right decision. From then on, we just worked together to make such a unique character. She was so dedicated on set. She wanted to learn more about acting and I think that was the driving force for her.
SS: As you mentioned, the actress has such a mature outlook and it’s the same for her character. How did child audiences respond to the film, considering some of its dark themes?
LW: That was an issue when we were making the film. When it came to our lead character, I was really afraid to talk to her about death because of the perception people have of kids. That they cannot handle it. So I didn’t want to tell her that her character was going to die, because I didn’t know how she was going to react. But she came in a few days into the shoot and she was like, are you going to talk to me about my character dying? And I said, how did you find out? And she said, it’s the character, I understand.
So we had a 45-minute conversation about death. And to be honest, kids are smarter than we think. We went to a ward for kids with terminal illnesses and we talked to them for 5 minutes and I learned more about death from them than anything else.
We showed the film with parents who were nervous about going in with their kids. But we’ve had emails and calls from people telling us that because of watching the film they are able to talk about death with their kids. And they found out that their kids actually knew about it and had accepted it in a way. So the reception has been amazing. We thought the kids would be terrified about death. But for them, it was more about the life she lived than her actually dying. And that was the whole point of the film.
SS: On a lighter note, there’s a movie theater in this film with so much character to its design. Is that a real place that exists?
LW: Yes. Actually that’s how most of my generation was raised watching movies. I grew up in a slum area for part of my life and that’s how I watched movies. In fact, the Jackie Chan movie Jo watches is the first movie I watched in this kind of cinema. It’s a wooden shack at the edge of the village, with one fan inside. And you go in and some movies, you’ll find they have their own audio to make it more interesting and help us understand better. So they’ll do it live in the theater, just like the character did in the film. The actor who plays Mike in the film actually used to do that for a living. And we found out after we cast him.
So it made so much sense. And when we were talking to the writers, almost all of us had gone through that experience. Right now they are on the downturn, they aren’t as possible in modern towns. But when we were doing our research and looking for locations, every village that we went to had one. It was something that shone out of modern society. They are very important in villages because it connects them with cultures that they are not used to. In fact, when we were looking for locations we actually lost about an hour of our time because we found one that was showing a very cool movie and we all sat down and watched it. So that’s something that we really wanted to bring into the film.
SS: As you know, there was a lot of controversy surrounding “Rafiki” this year. The way it was covered in Western media gave the impression that it was the only possible Oscar submission for Kenya. What is your take on the current state of the Kenyan film industry?
LW: I think the reason there’s a perception like that is because we haven’t really had our films go outside of our borders. Up until about 5 years ago we only had one big movie. But this year alone we had about 7 films released in Kenya and another one coming up that we are all excited about.
So there’s been tremendous growth in terms of the Kenyan film industry. But I don’t think it’s hit the Western world yet, in terms of our reach. We are not known for producing mass media. We are not like Nigeria. They have mass media because of their numbers. They have a huge population. So I think Kenya is kind of underrated because of that. But slowly but surely we have films that are being released. And I give it about 2 or 3 years and everyone will know about Kenyan cinema. I’m not just saying that as a Kenyan, I’m saying it as a filmmaker. There’s such a revolution coming and we’re so excited about it. Audiences in fact, are more excited to watch a movie of their own at the cinema. It’s been a very good year and I think there’s going to be more to come.