Director Ekwa Msangi-Omari puts Kenyan cinema on Global radar

Story by George Orido for The Standard

“Lights on, camera rolling, action!” the director’s voice booms with instructions as a scene in a popular film, The Agency, being shot on location in Nairobi’s California estate starts. When happy with the action, she shouts, “Take!” meaning the crew can now prepare for the second scene. If not happy, she will shout, “Stop” and everything will come to a halt, forcing the crew to start the scene all over again.

But once satisfied, Ekwa Msangi-Omari goes back to the script as the crew adjusts set in readiness for the next action.

Ekwa’s coming to Kenya three years ago has dramatically changed the film scene in the country.

Then she will lift her head from the script and strut towards the lead actors on location and ask them, “What if you tried this way?” She goes ahead to demonstrate her idea and the actors would certainly try it out.

Ekwa, 28, a Tanzanian born in the US, raised in Kenya and now living in the US, came to the country three years ago to work with M-Net and immediately put Kenya in the global map, film-wise. Her high quality productions such as The Agency, the first ever Kenyan M-Net TV series, was aired internationally.

Shrewd Director

While The Agency was televised continent wide, her films Taharuki (Suspense), Weakness and Dollar Van have been official selections at such events as New York African, Pan African, Durban International, Imagem dos Povos, Roxbury International, and Zanzibar International film festivals.

Ekwa also put together a fast-paced local TV drama, Block-D, that earned accolades for its subtlety and amazing picture angles.

But for the shrewd director, who has this unique insight to break into virgin frontiers, Ekwa has embarked on a massive Africa wide film projects that will see Nollywood and Ghanaian silver screen stars work hand in hand to bring you Sweet Justice. It will be Taharuki’s sequel and will be ready in a few months.
Notable is the inclusion of Ramsey Nouah considered to be one of Nigeria’s hardest working and most sought-after actors.

Nouah was honoured with the best lead actor award at the 2010 Africa Movie Academy Awards for his role in the Nigerian thriller, The Figurine.

Co-starring with Nouah is Kenya’s Miriam Chemmoss, the riveting performer in the TV drama Taharuki. Chemmoss is the mysterious character and icy double agent ‘Waridi’ in Sweet Justice. “Sweet Justice is the product of my love affair with rich and complex character-driven crime dramas, and with Nairobi city: one of the most innovative cities on the African continent,” says Ekwa, who teaches Spring Documentary Production in Havana, Cuba.

Block Buster

Sweet Justice’s plot is a blockbuster set in a healing society after shocking politically-instigated violence. An apolitical college professor comes to Nairobi city after post election violence to collect her dead husband’s remains and discovers his death was a murder.

Against better advice, she hunts for answers through Nairobi’s underbelly. In the process, her son is kidnapped and she has no choice but to turn to her only allies — a cocky street urchin, her husband’s ex-lover and the secret underground liberation movement that they worked for— to rescue him before it’s too late.

The story opens with conservative and attractive, Prof Saran Mushana with her son Justin, six, on a bus ride heading to Nairobi.

Her first stop is the City Mortuary where she identifies her dead husband Kevin, found amidst the melee of the 2007/8 post-election violence.
His best friend, Detective Isaac Ibrahim, a ruggedly handsome man, meets her and promises to ‘leave no stone unturned’ in catching the murders.

At Kevin’s flat, Saran discovers the life that Kevin actually lived, versus the one that she assumed he had lived. His surroundings, acquaintances and work are all suspicious.

The story was inspired by Ekwa’s experiences in Nairobi. Having grown up in Nairobi during an era where money, status and social class were the only sure way of being able to maneuver the city, was surprised when she was recently held in police custody for a minor traffic offence and the only person able to help her was her location manager.

“He is a working class man with no political influence or money, but who knows all the city cops, street kids, gangsters and civil servants,” she explains.
Within an hour and without paying any bribes, she says she was identified as a ‘friend’ and not a ‘rich kid’ and released with apologies.

“Throughout my six months of shooting in one of the roughest neighbourhoods in the city, I was completely protected. My protection didn’t come from all the rich people I knew, but from the mostly poor and working class people that I knew,” she says.

As long as she was cool with the ‘people’, she could walk the streets without fear, because the ‘people’ control the streets. Looking back at these experiences made her come up with Sweet Justice as a story to tell on film.
She decries the severe inequalities in Kenya today; that classism lives on the same way it was under colonial rule.”

Shadows and Light

The Sweet Justice script has been accepted into the first round of the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab, as well as the Babylon International 2011 Programme for Development, with the aim of developing the script and producing a trailer which will be presented at the Berlin International Film Festival 2012. This is good news for any producer.

“I plan to shoot the film for under $1 million (Sh86 million) on high definition in a film noir (black) style with low-key lighting and unbalanced compositions,” reveals Ekwa.

It will be shot on location in Nairobi with a mix of local and regional crew and cast.

If Ekwa’s other productions are anything to go by, the feel of the film is expected to be fast-paced, with strong play on shadows and light, and will be told from the point of view of the heroine, Saran “Sweet Pie” Mushana.
The film will use the expert eyes of South America’s Milton Kam as the director of photography and award-winning producer Appie Matere.

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