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Riverwood tells Kenya’s stories

Unassuming industry builds a mountain of movies

NAIROBI — From the outside, Nairobi’s Simba Center might look like any other commercial plaza in the Kenyan capital, with signs advertising Internet cafes and hair salons and promises of instant cash.

Inside, though, is the nerve center of a local film industry that produces more than 100 pics a year.

Dubbed “Riverwood,” after the chaotic stretch of Nairobi’s River Road where the industry got its start, it’s Kenya’s homegrown attempt to give a local face to filmmaking.

The industry was born in the late-1990s, when stand-up comedians began recording their live sets on the cheap, handheld cameras that were starting to proliferate in the Kenyan market. If the production values were shoddy, these Riverwood precursors managed to tap into a desire for local storytelling and performances.

The videos were a hit. “Many of these guys became millionaires,” says Mbugi Kimani, chairman of Third Force, an association that represents more than 500 producers, helmers, actors and distributors.

Around the time Third Force was founded in 2000, ambitious filmmakers were starting to see potential beyond the tripod-mounted shoots that had given rise to the format’s early stars.

Popular comedians were recruited; scripts were written; actors moved from nightclub stages to locations around Nairobi.

In 2003, helmer Kibaara Kaugi lensed what would become Riverwood’s breakout pic, “Enough Is Enough,” for what was the unprecedented cost of 1.2 million shillings — about $7,000 at the time.

By the middle of the decade, Riverwood was producing 150-200 films a year. But when post-election violence hit Kenya in 2008, the industry stagnated. “People did not want to spend their money on entertainment,” says Kimani. Many filmmakers, hoping to find job security, moved to TV. Things only now are getting back to normal.

On a recent Sunday afternoon at Simba Center, business is brisk. In an elaborate maze of stalls selling cheap films and gospel CDs, customers browse through shelves stacked with local hits like “Babu nuu?” and “Landlord” volumes 1 and 2.

Daniel Kamburi, a producer, distributor, shop owner, and part-time Christian rapper, says he produces movies for an average of $500, and typically makes back his money fourfold.

“If I produce my movie, I go to the field and produce another one immediately,” he says.

The speed of production, with shoots ranging from a few days to a few weeks, is imperative for an industry where a typical film costs around $1,000 to produce. After a film is lensed, it’s produced, printed and packaged in Simba Center before hitting the streets.

Most films sell for around $2; a good print run can reach 50,000 copies, with distribution chains starting in storefronts on River Road and extending to towns and villages across the country. Vids that aren’t sold for home viewing make it to informal video halls — small, tumbledown village shacks where screenings run for about 20¢.

The industry is still struggling for greater acceptance from the government, which is finally considering a plan to give Riverwood a seat on the Kenya Film Commission. Piracy, too, continues to hold the biz back.

“It is not just our films,” says Kimani, of Third Force. “Hollywood films flood the market for 50 shillings (about 50¢). “How can we compete?”

For helmers like Kaugi, who got his start producing docus 17 years ago, the future of Riverwood rests on the desire of Kenyans to see their own stories told onscreen.

“I see myself as a griot,” he says, referring to the traditional West African storytellers. “I’m passionate about our history, how we record it.”

Next year he hopes to begin production on his first feature since “Enough Is Enough.”

“People are already asking me, ‘When will it be ready?’?” he says.

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