‘Vote for Kibera’ Presents a Fresh Take on Kenyan Shanty Town

“Vote for Kibera,” winner of the audience prize at the Ji.hlava Documentary Film Festival, is the result of two years of working outside the box, says director Martin Pav.

When Czech non-profit worker Eva Krutilkova approached him, Pav was immediately intrigued by the challenge of portraying life in Kenya’s largest shanty town, home to at least half a million people and intense poverty, as a world somehow full of color, art and hope, he explains.

Not wanting to work within the structure of a non-profit organization itself, the team set about to make a doc that is “independent from a Western-centric idea.”

Filming a story that was unvarnished yet transcendent was the goal, Pav says. “We don’t close our eyes to the problems but also look at solutions.”

Estimated to be the largest urban slum in Africa, official census methods measure the population of Kibera at just over 170,000, but independent groups have pegged it as high as a million-plus. Most live on less than a dollar a day, HIV and AIDS cases are rampant, schools and healthcare are scarce, and basic hygiene is poor.

Yet the production team, led by Zuzana Kucerova, was determined to create a fresh look at their subject wholly apart from the usual depictions, says Pav.

Focusing on artists, teachers and a boxing coach, whose struggles in many way parallel those of Czechs in the same professions, was key to the film’s structure, the director says.

Starting with a crowdfunding effort in 2016, the doc team managed to raise some $9,000, with which they were then able to put together a trailer they could present at various European pitching and development events.

The film has strong appeal to Czechs, the director believes, in part because of the Czech Republic’s Slavic-dominated population in which few have daily experience with blacks or African culture.

The local title of the film, “Pribeh slumu” or “Story of a Slum,” does not have the same negative connotation in Czech that it would in English, says Pav, while the international title, “Vote for Kibera,” might have been confusing to local audiences.

In any case, politics are just one part of the picture of Kenyans struggling for success, he says.

Kibera resident Don Wilson, a photographer who sets out to show the world images of his home that transcend images of trash mountains and crime, was a crucial discovery from the first foray to Kenya. Wilson is part of a group of artists who demonstrate an aspect of ghetto society that Pav says is key to understanding life there: “Togetherness.”

The idea is more than a platitude, the director explains. In a community without reliable resources, infrastructure or security, belonging to a group that organizes these things for itself is essential for survival.

The film’s lush imagery was also no accident, Pav says, explaining that his background in commercial features taught him the importance of strong visuals. Besides shooting some of the footage himself, the work of cinematographer Petr Racek and Kenyan lenser Simmon Okongo do much to elevate the film’s aesthetic.

Indeed, its drone footage and splashy steadicam work allow viewers to glide through a world that looks almost dreamlike despite its unpaved streets jammed with shanties and open fires.

The original compositions by Ondrej Mataj and sound mix by Adam Blaha, which incorporate stirring African music encountered on location, aid in the inspiring depiction of life in Kibera, Pav says, as does the upbeat montage created by editor Matej Beran.

Working with local production company Frame Films (“Central Bus Station”), the team is next focusing on a doc on the re-introduction of wolf populations in Czech border areas, dedicated to the same goal of confronting and overturning old prejudices.

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