Film school allows kids to pursue their passions

NAIROBI — It’s an unlikely place for a film school, and to get to it, you’ll have to dodge wildly careening minibuses, packs of roving schoolchildren, and the occasional goat plodding its way across Nairobi’s largest and most notorious slum.

But for the students of Hot Sun Films — a production company and film school in the heart of Kibera — the chaos is just a part of daily life. And for American helmer Nathan Collett, it was the perfect place to fulfill a promise he had made five years ago.

Collett came to Kenya in 2006, while studying at the USC Film School, to lense his short pic “Kibera Kid.” During filming, he found that young Kibera residents who worked on the production were eager to pursue their own dreams of becoming filmmakers.

But most Kibera youths faced impossible odds. Few had money to pay tuition at Kenya’s top film schools; many left school at an early age to find work.

Collett promised to return to Kenya after he’d completed his studies to turn “Kibera Kid” into a feature film. And when he did, he found that he was surrounded by young men and women who shared his love of making films.

They started informally. Collett would sit around a laptop with a small group, brainstorming for script ideas on what would become the 2010 feature “Togetherness Supreme.” They received basic training in camerawork and editing — a filmmaker’s boot camp — but there was no formal structure to what they learned.

“We discovered they had some knowledge, but they didn’t have enough to actually join the industry,” says producer Mercy Murugi, co-owner of Hot Sun.

So in 2009, Hot Sun Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Hot Sun Films, launched the inaugural semester of its Kibera film school. The school offered a rigorous, six-month filmmaking course to a small group of students, with instructors drawn from the professional ranks of Kenya’s film and TV industries.

The goal, says Collett, was to give people the information they need at a reasonable cost.

Part of that, he says, is an understanding of the entrepreneurial side of filmmaking. For residents of Kibera, that means working with limitations and developing self-sufficiency.

Students are forced to ask themselves, says Collett, “What can we do from here without any support? What can we do with the technology we have?”

That technology is on par with the best in Kenya today, with state-of-the-art equipment and editing software and East Africa’s first Red camera, which Murugi says they frequently rent out to local TV productions.

The school’s success has been a modest but significant step forward for Kibera’s young filmmakers. Students have worked on local features like “Soul Boy,” by Tom Tykwer’s shingle One Fine Day, and lent technical support to foreign docu crews. One graduate has done editing work on a number of international productions. Another has moved on to work on the popular M-Net skein “Changes.”

When production wrapped on “Togetherness Supreme” last year, the crew offered free screenings in Kibera. Audience members approached Collett afterward and accused him of lying.

“They just couldn’t believe that so many people from Kibera were involved in something like this,” he says.

In its own way, he said it sounded like the highest praise.

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