Movie makers out to take Kenyan films to the international

The power of film, and indeed the arts a whole, was best summarised by 19th Century abolitionist and Black rights activist Frederick Douglass, who said: “Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture makers — and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavour to remove the contradiction.”

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Placing female producers such as Betty Kathungu-Furet in this context suggests that having women with power and decision making capabilities in the arts could be a game changer in terms of the privilege of ‘naming’ and stamping their mark on the world.

At a time when female producers are in large numbers on the scene (Dorothy Ghettuba, Effie Marete, Faith Koli, Sarah Migwi and Anne Hamberger are some of the more prominent ones), it would be thrilling to examine their influence on popular culture, 10 years from today. But even though Betty is riding high with the anticipated release of her new production Kizingo in September, the path to her current place was a long and oft tumultuous journey.

“I started as an actor. When I was in form three at Kyeni Girls, our German teacher brought us to Miujiza Players to watch a play by a German writer. I saw Steve Muturi and Charles Kiarie on stage and decided there and then, ‘I’m going to Nairobi to act.’ I was inspired by people like Cajetan Boy and Caroline Odongo among others.”

True to her word, upon being sent to college in the capital city after high school, Betty dropped out and embarked on acting with Miujiza Players for the next six years. For anyone who knows the nerve wracking life of low pay and minimal acting opportunities, she survived it through sheer grit. It was not helped by the fact that she had kept her acting a secret from her parents, for six months.

PUTTING UP PRODUCTIONS

“My parents did not know for the first six months. I was sent to do computer programming but, what’s that? I’ve always been independent and so eventually I starting putting up productions for myself.

We did school runs, made a little money. I did all this and then TV opened up and I decided to go to college because I wanted to be a producer, make my own content because TV and movies were exciting for me.”

The end of the course at Andrew Crawford Media Training School, which she joined, required students to produce their own film. Ever doing things her way, she informed her lecturer that she would get professional actors — her friends in the industry—

and not just do an amateur shoot. The resulting movie was Wangai’s Cross, a film that has been on Mnet and Zuku and is currently screening on K24.

Having gotten into the film world at 17, Betty counts 22 years in the sector. She turned 39 in May and within her oeuvre has been 20 productions as an actress and about five productions as a producer and director, some series running up to 52 episodes. For her passion and dedication, she cuts an inspiring figure.

What does she feel about where she is with her life right now? “I’m good, I feel good. I feel I have a new lease of life. I have the ability to do my job. I’m in a position where I can do more. I have my own equipment and all that. I had to save for a period of eight years to get it. But now, even as bleak as the industry looks like right now, I feel like there is a future. I am happy. You have to look for the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how little it is.”

Of the productions by herself that she is most proud, one is a documentary — Castle of Love — which revolves around British settler Lord Egerton, and was part of a historical series, Unveiling the Colony. “I created it for a long, long time and I’ve been able to sell it to many places — to Mnet, Zuku, K24, TV1 in Tanzania. I wanted to do a 12-part, but I don’t know why I stopped. I have to continue. I’m also proud of Mazagazaga. It’s a comedy which was on Mnet and is now on KTN. My viewership is up to one million people. My audience likes it, they talk about it. They don’t know me but they know it, they know the actors. Some of the actors in this latter series include Fahamu Kazungu, Mohammed Juma Said and Ali Saibu.”

Betty nevertheless does not think she has done enough. “I could have done so much more work but it’s very difficult to work alone. I’m not a writer, I have to look for scripts. Sometimes the money is not available and it’s a challenge to get people to take the journey with you.”

She is, nevertheless, clear on what she aims to do as a producer. “I want to entertain. Life is really tough. During the day you’re struggling with everything — kids, work, bank loans, mortgages. So when you go home, it’s important to relax from the hustles of life, and that’s what I try to give my audiences an opportunity to do.”

But she also has bigger ambitions. “I want to win awards, I want my shows to be watched all over the world. I want to make Kenyan content and sell it internationally. I want people to like my work. The money is a bonus. If it was money I wouldn’t be doing this. I love TV, I like to get lost in the story, I want my work to have that same kind of effect on others that powerful stories have had on me.”

Betty avidly devours films and TV series from all over the world to benchmark her own work. “I really like how Shonda Rhimes creates gripping productions. I mean, I’m in the business and I’m actually able to watch her work without remembering it is fiction or stopping midway to critique it. I get lost in the story. I like the way she writes her stories.

“I also like Woody Allen because he’s a great story teller and his productions are not overtly fancy. I study him, I have five of his books. I like how he tells his stories and his attitude of being true to his art.”

Even as Betty studies others, she also has her own signature style. Her movies and TV shows are much of the time set in the rural areas and depict simple village life. The new movie Kizingo, for instance, features primary school children who come across money dropped by the local boda boda operator and a thief.

“Maybe it’s because I grew up in Embu and came to Nairobi when I was older. Another thing is, I like stories that include kids. I think children are an untapped market for this sector.”

Of the challenges she has faced along the way, Betty cites selling content as the biggest one.

“The traditional film making channels do not make money, that’s a fact. If you wanted to have a job, the best way was to have a show on TV. I made so many pilots, I knocked so many doors trying to sell my pilots but no one was biting. But traditional TV of the box is not the only way you can have your content sold. There’s also video on demand.”

Even though her father was disappointed at her quitting school, Betty avers that he has now come over to her side. “He was a head teacher at Kangaru School and at this time, my sisters were getting good jobs and going to good universities, so I was the odd one out. But now he’s so proud of me. He only came to my side when he saw I was still going on at it.”

It is just a beginning but best wishes for the future.

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