A notorious criminal gets abducted in the middle of a carjacking by a group of vigilantes. Broadcasting his captivity to an online audience later that night, they ask viewers to decide on his fate. When the votes are in, his execution is live-streamed over the internet.
It’s a gritty and dystopian introduction to the world of “Tuko Macho,” an interactive web series by Kenya’s The Nest Collective, set in the harsh underbelly of Nairobi. It’s a world full of rampant crime, corruption, and mob justice — one that its creators say mirrors the hard reality of life in the Kenyan capital today.
Two episodes of “Tuko Macho” will be screening at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival as part of its Primetime program, which features innovative TV shows from around the world. The only African selection, it will appear alongside critically acclaimed series like “Black Mirror” and “Transparent.”
The show marks the second trip to Toronto for The Nest, a multidisciplinary arts space in Nairobi, after the 2014 world premiere of “Stories of Our Lives,” five vignettes about Kenya’s LGBT community.
While the group cut their big-screen teeth on “Stories,” “Tuko Macho” offered a fresh set of creative problems, according to co-founder and creative director Jim Chuchu, who says the team was forced to grapple with the narrative challenges of a web series that plays out over the course of several months.
“I think we were hyper-aware that we could really fail,” said Chuchu with a laugh.
It’s been an invigorating but unpredictable journey. After the first two episodes aired, the show’s Facebook followers urged its creators to open up voting to its real-life audience, allowing viewers to decide on the characters’ fates.
While this posed practical challenges in the editing room, it also created an eerie parallel between art and life — one that was echoed in an episode where dramatic scenes were interspersed with real-life CCTV footage from the streets of Nairobi, perhaps reminding viewers of the meaning of the show’s Swahili title: “We’re watching.”
“It’s really scary,” said Chuchu. “There have been many moments…where the line between fiction and reality was very uncomfortable.”
The online platform has given the show’s creators a chance to straddle that line in a way that might not have been possible with Kenyan broadcasters, who are constantly wary of running afoul of advertisers, or the country’s notorious censorship board.
Taking “Tuko Macho” online had other built-in advantages. The group chose to post new episodes to Facebook because they felt it was “better designed for conversation” than other platforms, like YouTube, allowing them to “build a community around content,” according to Chuchu.
“It’s been really nice to have a thing that stays in the imagination and kind of grows with you,” he said.
Collectively, the show’s eight episodes have been viewed over a million times on Facebook, surpassing the group’s expectations. Another surprise: according to The Nest’s research, 65 percent of the show’s viewers are watching on mobile devices.
Those eyeballs have even caught the attention of Kenyan networks, who have come calling with offers to broadcast the series.
“I don’t know if they’re really aware” of the show’s graphic content, said Chuchu. “I get the feeling that they haven’t really watched yet.”