“Where are you going?” asks the young son of Boniface Mwangi, as his father heads out to work with a purposeful stride. “I’m going to topple the government,” comes the casual reply. It’s not the answer most parents would give, and while Mwangi says it with a twinkle, he’s not joking: A liberal-minded photojournalist turned activist turned independent candidate in the violent quagmire of Kenyan politics, he’s decided to tell his children straight, in case he never gets to tell them at all. As death threats mount from opposing forces, he isn’t ashamed to admit that he puts politics before family: “When you fight for your country, your kids benefit,” he argues. In principle, it’s noble. In practice, it’s impossible for all concerned — as Sam Soko’s smart, attention-seizing documentary “Softie” shows in even-handed detail.
Having premiered in competition at Sundance — where it won a well-deserved prize for its fleet, efficient editing — “Softie” subsequently played the digital editions of CPH:DOX and Hot Docs, and would likely have completed a more extensive festival run in a normal year. Now receiving a digital release in the U.S. this week, with PBS’s documentary outlet POV having secured broadcast rights, the film should attract a keen, politically engaged audience, particularly at a time when the U.S. is undergoing its own electoral drama. The problems faced by Mwangi in Kenya may seem far removed from those of the American left, but they’re underpinned by equivalent democratic ideals and frustrations.
Not that many American liberals have considered taking their grievances to Washington with gallons of animal blood and a truckful of pigs painted with anti-government slogans. That’s how Mwangi and his fellow protestors descend on the Nairobi parliament buildings at the outset of “Softie” — making a statement, certainly, but also prompting the kind of alarming, police-aggravated riot of which we’ll see several more before the film’s 96 minutes are up.
Mwangi is unfazed by such danger, having begun his career as a photojournalist documenting the extreme violence surrounding the country’s 2007 elections, marked as they were by vicious Kikuyu-Luo tribal conflict, cynically stoked by the competing parties. It’s a divisionary tactic, Mwangi explains, that was started by British colonialists and maintained by Kenyan leaders, and has come to define the country’s corrupt political landscape.
Frustrated by the local media’s refusal to publish his disturbing pictures — and further dismayed when a traveling exhibition provokes only the disbelieving ire of the sheltered public — Mwangi moves into full-time activism, vocal in his resistance to president Uhuru Kenyatta, the first head of state to be called to The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity. The charges are dropped, as witness after witness pulls out with security fears; Mwangi, too, is among those violently menaced by Kenyatta’s supporters. (“Softie,” it turns out, is his outdated childhood nickname, disproven by his stubborn resilience.) As he wearies of futile activism, his anxious wife Njeri hopes he’ll settle for a lower, safer profile; to her consternation, he instead decides the only remaining course of action is to get into politics himself.
Cue a long, hard-fought and almost certainly doomed regional electoral campaign, tracked by Soko with equal parts state-of-the-nation exasperation, despairing gallows humor and intimate domestic tension — as Njeri, fearing for the family’s safety, seeks asylum in the U.S. with their three children, leaving her distracted husband to fight his ideological battles alone. (And uphill: Mwangi’s unconventional campaigning style, which invites donations from supporters rather than offering them cash bribes, doesn’t endear him to the public.) Eye-opening as “Softie” is as an immediate account of toxic Kenyan politics, it’s an equally moving marriage story, unsentimental but generously sympathetic in its study of a family brought to the brink of collapse for a greater good cause.
“Softie” clearly sees a beam of long-term hope for Kenya’s future in Mwangi and his political allies — including his no-bull, vinegar-tongued campaign manager Khadija, as delicious a documentary scene-stealer as we’ve seen this year. Yet Soko doesn’t go in for easy, crowd-pleasing uplift: The ground they have to cover is still too rocky and blood-stained for that to be appropriate, with Kenyatta still in power following a dubious, initially annulled 2017 victory, and the Kenyan public far from ready for Mwangi’s brand of democracy. “There’s always next time,” people keep telling him, with a hint of a question mark: One hopes Soko, at least, is around for an equally riveting rerun.