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Kenyan helmer see opportunity in sci-fi

Kahiu says genre provides window on society

JOHANNESBURG — Two years after her first feature film was released to critical acclaim, Kenyan helmer Wanuri Kahiu is poised to make a splash on the international scene — and she’s hoping the notoriety lets her challenge some of the lingering stereotypes about her homeland.

“I think it’s time to imagine a different type of Africa,” she says.

With two features in the pipeline and a TV pilot for Turner Broadcasting recently wrapped, the 30-year-old has come a long way since she left Kenya as a teen to study management science in the U.K., then moved to the U.S. and enrolled in a filmmaking course at UCLA.

After working on “The Italian Job” and other Hollywood productions, she returned to Kenya in 2006 and realized she’d found her life’s calling. Her feature debut, “From a Whisper,” which focused on the aftermath of the American Embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998, won a slew of awards, including best picture and director at the African Movie Academy Awards in 2009.

Kahiu went on to become part of the inaugural class of filmmakers chosen for Focus Features’ Africa First program, which helps five young African helmers produce short films each year.

Her short, “Pumzi,” envisioned a dystopic futuristic world whose inhabitants fight for water and pay for air. After screening at Sundance and Berlin, it established Kahiu as a promising director willing to push boundaries.

The exposure “Pumzi” gave her opened up opportunities. Last month, Kahiu wrapped the Turner-commissioned pilot for “Sauti,” a drama series about a Kenyan news magazine in Nairobi. The skein would be a promising step for Kahiu: The helmer realizes Turner would allow “Sauti” to have a more pan-African reach than local broadcasters, and would offer her more creative freedom.

Most Kenyan nets, she says, lack the coin to produce the ambitious series she envisions. Many are reluctant, too, to get behind a skein that tackles politically charged stories.

And Kahiu is moving ahead with other projects.

A plan to adapt a Kenyan novel for the screen is in development with South African producer Steven Markovitz — part of an initiative by Markovitz and Congolese helmer Djo Munga, dubbed ImagiNations, to produce six films based on contemporary African novels.

Kahiu is also planning to continue her pursuit of sci-fi themes with an adaptation of the Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor’s post-apocalyptic novel, “Who Fears Death.” Working with U.S.-based Completion Films, she’s planning a pan-African production that would lens in three countries.

In sci-fi, she’s found a genre to match the scale and creative bent of her storytelling ambitions.

“I really like the flexibility of the genre,” she says, “and the ability to use metaphors to say a lot more challenging things about the political or social climate in Africa.”

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