Samuel Dansette: Your movie From A Whisper is a fiction about the difficulties of Kenyans to come to terms with the consequences of the terrorist attacks in 1998. How did you decide to make a movie about such a sensitive issue?
Wanuri Kahiu: Initially I was approached to make a documentary about August 7th to contribute to the 10th anniversary of the attacks. I did not want to make a documentary, because I felt that I was not professional enough in this field for such a deeply emotional topic. Making a film about this story was important to me, because it was a national tragedy that has not been dealt with properly. Victims were never given proper compensation and rehabilitation to continue their life. Nobody ever addressed the fact that when 250 people die in a country, it also means that 250 families are affected. I wanted to remind people of the personal character of what happened. Kenyans usually have the habit to get past things without addressing them. They don’t deal with problems, never challenge the reasons behind them. Thus it was important to me to say that Kenyans were behind the attacks, not foreigners. It was important for me to bring that back and say: the person who blew up that bomb came from your home town. It is not “them” against “us”: we did it to ourselves. So who are we? It was important to me to tell that story.
Dansette: Has this movie led to more debate within the Kenyan society?
Kahiu: For sure. After the attacks, there was a huge movement to destabilize and persecute a lot of Muslims based on their faith rather than any concrete information. That was horrifying and chilling. I wanted to challenge that through the film and say: let’s address and debate how different types of people interpret their faith in different ways, so that there is a better understanding of what happened, to make sure that it does not happen again.
The film was actually released right after Ramadan. Initially, a lot of people had refused to watch it, including many Muslims who thought I would be showing them in a bad light. My point however was that like in any other faith, there are always extremes. There will always be people who interpret things in different ways. There are Christian fundamentalists, who interpret things differently than Christian moderates and that is the same in Islam.
Dansette: How did the government react to the tragedy in terms of compensation to the victims?
Kahiu: Honestly, I don’t think the Kenyan government would have ever been able to provide the victims of the tragedy with adequate compensation. I believe the Americans gave some compensation, but not what was asked for and not all of the victims got it. There were huge discrepancies. So there are still people who are living with the fact that their life has been irrevocably changed and they are unable to support their families as a result of what happened in 1998. I think the government was sympathetic, but they did not have the resources then to deal with it financially, as a national tragedy, nor do they have the resources now. If unfortunately another bomb were to go off in the middle of the city centre, emergency services, although better, are still not equipped to be able to take care of anything that happens on a large scale.
Dansette: Your most recent short movie Pumzi is a science fiction film that depicts Africa after a “Third World War on Water”, where human life has disappeared from the surface of the earth. How serious are environmental challenges in Kenya? Was it important for you to deal with this issue in your new movie?
Kahiu: Completely. I feel that I am an environmental activist as far as my films are concerned. I think that it is very important to be able to take a stand and say what is happening. At this very moment, they are evacuating people from their own land in the Tana Delta in Kenya so they can grow fields of Jatropha to create Biodiesel [Editor’s note: Ready-to-use Jatropha oil can be extracted from the seeds by simple pressurization]. But for that to happen they evacuate farmland and communities, among them some of the smallest, most sensitive indigenous communities that are on the verge of extinction in any way. I am all about the environment, but we have to strike a balance between the conservation of communities and environmental protection. We need to understand and discuss how we can live in harmony rather than one overweighing the other, but we are not there yet in Kenya.