NAIROBI — With the release of his feature film “Otto: The Bloodbath” earlier this year, Kenyan director Joseph Kinuthia had hoped to probe traditional Kenyan beliefs about the dead — to “examine the consequences of not respecting (their) wishes,” as he describes it. If those consequences were to include a certain amount of carnage and bloodshed, as the title implied, it seemed organic to what he was trying to do in directing Kenya’s first horror film.
Not everyone agreed. In an unprecedented move in the short, unheralded history of Kenyan film, “Otto: The Bloodbath” has earned the dubious distinction of this country’s first ban. A letter to the film’s distributor, Jitu Films, from the Kenya Film Censorship Board, claimed that the movie was guilty of “showing dead human characters for too long,” and that it was “too horrific, even to an adult.”
Jitu fired back. “We do agree with the censorship board that the film was too horrific,” said the company in a statement, “but how else would you do a horror film?”
A controversy was born.
Despite the setback for “Otto,” the row was a publicity coup for Jitu Films, a two-year-old production company that has slowly found a niche among Kenya’s moviegoing public. Using local actors, shooting on shoestring budgets, and distributing their films through supermarket chains around the country for little more than $1 a DVD, Jitu has found a formula for creating a homegrown product in a country starved for local cinema.
The demand is there, says BBC veteran Nick Hughes, head of Jitu’s parent company, Vivid Features.
“At the moment, the Kenyan audience has never had any Kenyan films,” he says. “They have Nigerian films, or they have Hollywood films.” Looking at East African countries that share Swahili as a lingua franca, he notes that there are “200 million people without film.” Jitu is the first production company to come along to try to fill that niche.
It is a long time coming for Kenya’s fledgling film community, where, according to Hughes, the number of talented actors, writers and technicians outpaces the demand for them.
Independent filmmakers, who have received increased recognition abroad in recent years, continue to labor in search of funds and support, only to struggle when it comes time to distribute their films to a wider audience at home.
“There are some Kenyan films out there being (screened) in festivals,” says Alex Konstantaras, head of Jitu, “(but) they’re not out on the market. So if the average Kenyan wants to see them, they can’t.”
Jitu’s guerrilla marketing tactics have given the young company visibility in the Kenyan capital. Advertisements for new releases are plastered across the windows of matatus, the city’s ubiquitous minibus-taxis. A rack of Jitu DVDs is prominently displayed by the checkout line of most Nairobi supermarkets. So far, sales have been brisk: according to Konstantaras, the company is selling around 10,000 copies of each DVD. But because their films have been priced low to discourage piracy, the company has struggled to turn a profit.
The often antagonistic relationship between government and the film community has been a thorn in the side of many Kenyan filmmakers. Local productions are forced to navigate an endless maze of red tape: fees to the censorship board, pre-approval of scripts from the Dept. of Film Services, battles with the Ministry of Information. The government, too, has been accused of double standards: While “Otto” was deemed too horrific for Kenyan audiences, pirated Western horror films are readily available on the streets of Nairobi.
For Jitu, which has more than a dozen comedies, dramas and horror films in production, the “Otto” controversy is ultimately a question of giving the consumer the freedom to decide for himself.
“I’m not telling people that they have to like everything,” says Konstantaras, “(but) you have to give a choice to the audience.”
As for “Otto: The Bloodbath,” Jitu continues to appeal to the Kenya Film Censorship Board to lift its ban. Board CEO David Pkosing, meanwhile, insists the ban is “permanent.” Judging from the titles of upcoming Jitu films — “Blood Honeymoon,” “The Devil Dentist” — the battle is far from over.