“It’s All Very Natural To Me” Versatile Filmmaker Shuria Abdi Shares Insights On His Film Career

Shuria Abdi is a versatile Kenyan filmmaker with credits in writing, directing, cinematography, and editing, making him a multi-faceted force in the world of film. Together with King Muriuki, and Janet Chumbe, Shuria Abdi directed Showmax’s most recent original, ‘Faithless’ which has been amassing flattering reviews since its launch in June.

Throughout his career, Shuria Abdi has collaborated with some of Kenya’s most prominent production companies, including Protel Studios, MGM Studios, Mojo Productions, C-HUB, Translieu, and Live Eye TV. His work has garnered widespread acclaim, establishing him as a sought-after narrative, commercial, and documentary filmmaker.

Notably, in 2019, Shuria’s exceptional talent was recognized when he won the Best Director of Photography Award at the prestigious Kalasha Film Festival for his work in ‘The Whistle Blower.’ Furthermore, The Academy of Art University in San Francisco alumnus directed the 12th, and13th season of the award-winning political satire TV series, ‘XYZ Show‘ contributing significantly to the show’s popularity and acclaim. In addition to that, Shuria Abdi has worn the director’s hat in several other top Kenyan shows such as ‘Igiza.’ He has also been a cinematographer in productions such as ‘Ayaanle,’ ‘Baba Twins,’ and ‘Nafsi,’ to mention a few.

Shuria Abdi

Beyond his creative endeavors, Shuria Abdihas also dedicated himself to teaching cinematography and camera operations. His passion for capacity building within the local film industry is evident, and he strives to empower aspiring filmmakers and enrich the industry. He recently gave us a sneak peek into his illustrious filmmaking journey.

How was it working on Faithless?

It was a really interesting challenge, a very unique and strong story with a lot of potential to resonate with the Kenyan audience. I felt very at home. There’s something beautiful about filmmaking whereby people from all different walks of life come together to pursue one common goal.

Who would you say was your ‘Faithless’ favorite character?

He wasn’t initially my favorite character, but for me, it was ‘Manu.’ In the scripting process, we wrote this character to just slightly advance the story and bring in some more conflict. But the actor, Anthony K. Njuguna, was able to bring the character to life in a manner that really amazed me. He really stepped up his game and he made that character become something else that I didn’t even envision.

Was this your dream career path, or did it just happen by accident and you run with it?

My journey into filmmaking was somehow partially accidental. My father gifted me an old analog camera when I was a bit younger. So, I started taking photos and processing them in black and white. Then I was introduced to a digital camera and later to Photoshop. From there I could manipulate photos which I thought was really cool.

One day, my friend came over with a video camera and then from then, I was obsessed. I’ve never done anything in my entire life aside from this career. As soon as I finished high school, I was very blessed that my parents supported my career decision and I was able to study abroad. I pursued my degree in the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Cinematography. Then came back home to pursue filmmaking starting out in advertising and documentaries.

How do you find a balance in these roles and do you have like a specific role that you really enjoy more than others?

Being multifaceted came out of necessity. The Kenyan film market was not a very well-developed market, especially when I first came back. I was forced to wear many hats because the reality of it is that one can’t really make a living being a specialist. In regards to what role I prefer doing the best, having done this for a very long time, since 2007, it’s all very natural to me. I cannot think of one and not think of the other. I love everything that I do.

The first film that you directed and how was that whole experience?

One of the first projects I ever directed was a pilot series ‘#becauselove’ together with a very talented producer called Tony. We shot it in 2016 and unfortunately, the market wasn’t ready for it. Eventually, we put it up as a web series even though we wanted to produce a show out of it. So it’s one of those things that we had to shelve. However, in terms of quality and what we put into the storytelling and the effort, I think it came out pretty well considering what parameters we worked with.

What has been your favorite film project to do so far?

My experience working on ‘Igiza’ was not only the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life but also one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences that I’ve ever also had. In that production, I felt like all the conditions favored us and our team despite the challenges we encountered. Furthermore, I had a very good support system from Showmax. I have to commend them because what they have done for the local industry is tremendous.

They say that filmmaking requires a lot of creativity. What encounter of improvising remains most memorable to you?

That’s an interesting question. In ‘Igiza,’ I had a very interesting challenge where we had to shoot a car crash scene. We had to think outside the box because we can’t shoot it in the traditional sense as it would be costly. So, we had to do some trickery and play around with camera angles. We had to find two identical cars with one of them being crashed. I visited multiple junkyards to find a car and then try to convince owners to let me borrow a crashed car. It was quite an adventure. After visiting almost 20 different junkyards, someone allowed me to borrow their car.

Do you watch the films that you have made?

I’m a very critical watcher. Whatever I watch and whatever I show to the public, I stand by it. It might sound a bit arrogant to say this, but I don’t cringe when I watch my films. This is because, at the point of showing it to a public audience, I’ve watched it hundreds of times.

Shuria Abdi

What would you say is an ideal writers’ room for you?

An ideal writers’ room is one where all the writers, are students of filmmaking. By that, I mean people who are avid film watchers. You can’t be a chef if you don’t experiment with food, right? So, you have to learn how to watch a lot of content, not just any content, good content. The more you watch, the bigger the memory bank you’re going to have. A lot of these stories, even the concepts surrounding these stories are universal stories. Every culture has a story about a young man rescuing a young woman in distress, family issues, etc. It’s just how the story is just rearranged and what cultural context it takes.

Do you have a pre-shoot ritual? If so, what does it entail?

I don’t know if I have a ritual but for me, it’s all about planning and working with the right-minded people. This is a tough job, and not everyone can handle the pressure, working hours, and demand it comes with. For me, the most important thing is surrounding yourself with the right support system, and following the plan. Once you have a plan, it might not necessarily go according to the plan, but you allow plan A, plan B, C, and there’s always a strategy. As a strategic thinker, I always try to map my roots and think of options A, B, and C, so that the production runs as smoothly as possible.

What advice would you give to the younger Shuria Abdi trying to get into the film scene?

Be humble. It’s going to take a while before you get to a certain level, and the best thing to do is to just be humble and go along with the process. Don’t expect to be a head director at a very young age. Instead, work your way gradually. Through that, you earn the respect of not just your peers but the industry because they know you’ve done the foundation work. When you’re young, you have that hot head, you’re arrogant and overconfident and that can shoot you in the foot.

What money and career advice would you give somebody who is working in film?

Build the right networks and try and make it sustainable. Unless you’re highly skilled and sought after, which is very rare, the best thing to do is to share the pie. Instead of doing all the work yourself look to do smaller jobs, but more volume. But because the volume is a lot have a small team to work with. In that way, you are sharing the pie. Eventually, I end up having more pie for everyone because it’s a consistent flow. This career path requires the right mindset and attitude. Remember, you can’t be entitled as you have to prove yourself. This is an industry that is heavily reputation and relationship-based. So, if you don’t have that reputation that precedes you, it’s going to be challenging.

Have you ever made a film that you were not proud of and what did you learn from it?

For sure. I don’t want to mention names. Of course. But I’ll say that there are some productions that have definitely been challenging that I’ve doubted myself. Looking in hindsight, I think this industry also teaches you perseverance. I don’t believe a lot of people have the stamina and the capacity to work on one project at a high intensity for several months straight. I’ve been on so many shoots that haven’t gone right and that’s allowed me to learn what to do right.

Apart from the roles that you do right now, are there any other crew or cast roles that you secretly wish you could take part in?

Wow! Cast? Maybe. Down the line. However, in terms of crew, what I do, I’m very happy with what I do. I think I have a certain knowledge base in directing, cinematography, editing, and producing, and I feel very comfortable in my elements doing those things.

Which filmmakers do you look up to and why?

Christopher Nolan. I think as a storyteller, he has a unique perspective on looking at the world, life, and humans. I love stories that do that. He’s also very humble, intelligent, and talented. His stories always leave me with a lot of thinking to do.

Another filmmaker, but now in the business sense, would be Tyler Perry. He’s been able to do so much with black African-American content and cater to that audience base that was historically neglected by mainstream media. He has also been able to become a billionaire out of that which is just remarkable.

Do you think the government is doing enough to support the Kenyan film sector? What do you think can make things better?

I think the government has definitely improved but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Some of the things that the government does don’t necessarily make sense. We’re over-regulated and overtaxed in a lot of industries including film. For instance, the process of just getting a permit to shoot is ridiculous and inconsistent. It changes from county to county, complicates things, and has a lot of short-sightedness. However, I wouldn’t blame the government per se, I blame bad individuals that are working in it. The government as an entity as a whole, doesn’t have anything malicious against its population. But there are some certain bad actors in that system that are creating unnecessary barriers.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m in the process of opening a creative hub for the local industry to be based in Kileleshwa. Three fully dedicated podcast studios for people to rent for one thousand shillings per hour or even less. We’ll also be providing support for people to produce their content and a photography studio. The name of the game is affordability and accessibility. I want people to create content without stressing about barriers to accessing equipment or space.

Email me at agnesopondo@gmail.com