A politics of nuisance
Political activist and award winning photojournalist Boniface Mwangi wants to remake Kenyan politics. A new film charts his journey.
Sitting in the Kenya National Archives in downtown Nairobi, it is common to hear a certain amount of commotion: preachers, healers hawking the latest cure, political rallies. I even recall a bomb scare that kept us holed up for a few hours for what turned out to be two small explosive devices set off in the busses that converge in front of the Archives. But this was a first: in 2013, hundreds of people gathered in the streets in front of Parliament as pigs branded with graffiti targeting “MP” greed (for Member of Parliament) and covered in blood were released to protest government corruption. It was an iconic moment, perfectly orchestrated for the social media era under the #OccupyParliament hashtag with emerging political activist and well-known photojournalist Boniface Mwangi as conductor. The story was picked up worldwide, where reporters were quick to note that MPs in Kenya were some of the highest paid in the world (second relative to GDP, according to the Economist in 2013, and still 40 times the average wage in Kenya after a 15% cut in 2017). Riot police fired tear gas and arrested the leaders.
Softie, a new documentary from filmmaker Sam Soko, opens with a montage of elusive figures buzzing around in the night: making deals, buying blood, chasing down pigs among heaps of garbage, and painting the mud-covered swine, all to a pulsating Afrofunk soundtrack, as if harkening back to another era in African politics in the late 1960s and 70s when art and protest were deeply entwined. “Softie” is Boniface Mwangi. As the title card bursts on screen, we see Boniface, arms raised, standing in front of a tank, just under a rainbow of tear gas aimed indiscriminately at the crowd of peaceful protestors and onlookers. “Ng’ong’a wa Mwanjalo”—a 1970s East African classic by Nashil Pichen and the Eagles Lupopo—announces “Softie”—the film and the man—with an infectious beat, reminiscent of the late Manu Dibango’s classic soundtrack and final, defiant shot from Ousmane Sembene’s iconic film Ceddo, and a fitting lyrical cue: “Ng’ong’a,” a fly that buzzes around filth; sign of contempt; a nuisance that needs to be stopped.
COVID-19 may have interrupted the release schedule of Softie, but the global crisis has, in some ways, made the film’s message even more urgent and relevant, connected to a global, though also intensely local, struggle.
Boniface first rose to prominence as a photojournalist after the 2007 Kenya elections when he was assigned to cover the post-election violence that engulfed the country for two months and left over 1,000 people dead and several hundreds of thousands internally displaced. Twice earning him the distinction of CNN African Photojournalist Of The Year, Boniface’s photographs of the violence put faces to the trauma and forced viewers to confront the culture of impunity in its aftermath. In 2008-2009, a traveling public exhibit of the photographs entitled “Picha Mtani” encouraged Kenyans to interact with the photographs and tell their own stories and became the site of protests. These early scenes in the film capture the energy, immediacy, and power of images to shake public consciousness, with viewers literally tearing down the images, sharing stories, and confronting their shared trauma. Producer Toni Kamau remembers interviewing a man during the exhibit who was living in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp. Having never spoken before of his experiences, he related his personal history of being a squatter in Nakuru and having his house burned down in the violence, forcing him and his wife to move into the camps with his mother, which for a Kikuyu man was devastating: “I am not even a man … next time, I am the one who is going to have a panga [machete].” It is this cyclical process of elections and violence, hope and corruption, that drives the film, as much as Boniface’s own story.
Softie, which started as an activist manual conceived in the artist/activist collective PAWA-254, takes us on a ten-year journey through Kenya’s recent history from the 2007 elections navigating through elections, wide-spread violence, ICC court cases, protests, deaths, commissions, and finally Boniface’s decision to run for office in 2017. His was a people’s campaign, revolutionary in many ways: innovating new fundraising techniques, avoiding the trappings of “tribal” or party politics, prioritizing policy, and grassroots mobilization. There was at the moment a certain excitement building around the possibility of a generational shift—with the election of Bobi Wine in Uganda and the emergence of activists like Alaa Salah in Sudan among others. His opponent, the flashy musician-turned-politician Jaguar, however, had the backing of the ruling party and patronage to distribute. Death threats that had dogged Boniface’s activism for the past few years escalated and began to extend to his family. The 2017 election was fraught, from the torture and murder of a top election official a week before the election to serious charges of voter tampering that led the Supreme Court of Kenya to nullify the results. But Boniface’s loss was felt immediately, and the film captures the deep sense of ambivalence, aimlessness, and futility felt by many.
In his 2015 TED talk, Boniface tells the story of transforming from his youthful persona, “Softie,” into a troublemaker, a rebel often standing alone in protest against a corrupt system. With this film, audiences are given a glimpse inside this seeming contradiction: Boniface the tireless, isolated and tormented crusader and Boniface the “Softie”—husband, father, son, neighbor. It is these two scales—one sweeping, fast-paced, full of energy and dangerous, and the other more intimate, slow, and quiet—that humanize the struggle, and make this film so unique and compelling. The photos of the spectacular violence and trauma of 2007-8 are intercut, in life and in the film, with shots of Boniface’s wedding and birth of his first son; pain and joy entangled. The film seamlessly blends an epic political thriller with an intimate family portrait. Nairobi is beautifully captured, saturated in all of its layers, colors, and vibrancy while the space of the home provides a sanctuary and sense of play, hope, and normalcy. Njeri, Boniface’s wife, becomes an important counter-balance, with carefully chosen words (“I’ve given my children my life, but you’ve given your country your life”), pregnant looks (her silent but piercing reaction to his announcement that he will run for office), and emotional personal asides that remind the viewer that every decision Boniface makes impacts and implicates their family. Nation and family, at odds for Boniface’s love, attention,, and commitment. And this tension remains until the last frames: Boniface alone on the dark streets of Nairobi after losing his electoral campaign; Boniface alone with his family, smiling into an uncertain future.
It is clear that filmmaker Sam Soko developed not only a close and trusted relationship with the Mwangi family, but also a deliberate approach to the relationship between art and activism: political commitment, camaraderie, and friendship bleed into the film’s fabric.
Soko also sees the film as reaching “beyond Boniface.” At one point, Boniface laments how one’s very name identifies and betrays you in Kenya’s ethnic politics, seeds planted by colonialism but nurtured and allowed to grow during the postcolonial period as the film thoughtfully illustrates. Soko aimed to center Kenyans as a character: “This film has to be for Kenyans, for that person that actually wakes up at 5am goes to vote. That person has to see themselves.”
Kenyan producer Toni Kamau, for her part, has turned her attention to how to get the film out there in the midst of global shutdowns, most importantly for Kenyan audiences, which will take navigating not only the restrictions of the crisis but also the Kenya Film Classification Board, who’ve recently demonstrated the lengths they are willing go to in order to keep certain kinds of content off Kenyan screens: “When people watch this film, it’s going to open so many wounds. We are not a country that likes to talk about our history, especially when it’s painful, even from independence.” While filled with a rich tapestry of music, graffiti art, and creative protests as backdrop to the stories of its compelling characters, the film is also brave and unflinching in speaking what is so often whispered, or better grumbled, across Kenya. As they discuss different festival, digital, and theatrical options, Soko added: “We genuinely want Kenyans to reckon with this film … in the right way … together … so that we can have that conversation.” Following in the tradition of Third Cinema, the film act must include the audience, film as an unfinished dialogue and another weapon in the struggle.
As for Boniface, in the midst of a pandemic, he is still out in the streets, alone and armed only with his camera, documenting police violence, revealing what appear to be the deplorable conditions of Kenyans placed in quarantine, and calling out the corrupt politicians who continue to rule.