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‘Last Dance In Kaloleni’ Will Show Kenya In New Light

 June 11, 2016 at 7:30 AM PDT

Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of the KPBS cinema junky podcast, I’m Beth Accomando. Okay when you think of Africa and film, what comes to mind, out of Africa, cry freedom, blood diamond? Female Speaker: You lost both your parents. Male Speaker: That's a polite way of putting it down, mom was raped and shot and dad was decapitated and hung from a hook in the bum, I was nine, Boohoo right, sometimes I wonder will God ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other. Beth Accomando: No matter how well intentioned or well crafted those films all gave us white central characters in stories about Africa, there's nothing particularly wrong with that except that it seems to be the only way that Hollywood can tell a story about Africa, even cried freedom; the story of Steven Biko seemed to spend more time on the parallels of white journalists went through than on Biko’s life. Male Speaker: Don Woods; white, a liberal editor of an influential newspaper, he had the courage to call Biko his predator. Male Speaker: You are forbidden to write anything but a private link of a publication. Beth Accomando: Perhaps the film that comes to mind is the Gods Must Be Crazy. Male Speaker: Humans avoid the deep Kalahari likes of play because men must have water to live, so the beautiful landscapes are devoid of people except for the little people of the Kalahari, pretty, dainty, small, and graceful; the bushmen. Beth Accomando: All this makes Bettina Ng’weno a little crazy; she’s the daughter of a Kenyan father and a French mother. She’s an associate professor in cultural anthropology at UC Davis and splits her time between California and Kenya, now she wants to make a movie about music, dance and trains in Kenya, she says most films made outside of Africa about the continent and especially those made by Hollywood fall prey to certain stereotypes and tropes, so in addition to giving us whitely characters, many films present the African characters as noble savages with a fissured through which others spine their humanity, when films move to an urban African setting, they tend to focus on disaffected violent youth as with Tsatsi; a film made in South Africa but which Hollywood picked up and distributed, she told me she couldn't remember any Hollywood films that told stories of urban Africans leading a normal life, and that the only urban African film she could find were anti-apartheid movies of the 1980s and 90s like; A Dry White Season, A World Apart and Catch a Fire, I have to confess I’ve known Bettina for decades because my grandparents and her grandparents were close friends, and she comes from a long line of people who are doers and not just talkers, so the fact that she was not seeing the Africa she knew being depicted in main stream films latter to not just complain about it but to actually do something, so she wrote her first screen play called Last dance in Kaloleni and she made a short film to help generate some buzz in the future length film and just launched a kick starter to help raise funds. She describes her film as bringing to life Kenya’s political, social and musical transformations in a dramatic romantic story of a love triangle and dance competitions, oh yeah and there’s trains, because part of the inspiration came from the fact movies such as Out of Africa, The Constant Gardener and Nowhere in Africa transfigured prominently in key scenes, and that begun to make her wonder why. I spoke with Bettina while she was at UC Davis and she gave me some of the music that served this key inspiration to her, so I’ll be playing some of that music during the interview. I know Bettina is a first time film maker and her feature is not even done yet, but she’s a delightful, intelligent, passionate person and she’ll make you see Africa in a new light. I began the interview by asking her to describe a little of her amazing multi cultural background. Bettina Ng’weno: Interestingly enough you know my grandparents on my mother’s side and a lot of influence for this film project that we’re working on come from my grandparents from my father’s side, so my mother who you know Flo went to Kenya in the early 60s, met my dad got married and stayed there, and has lived there for almost the rest of her life and we were born in Nairobi and my father was also born in Nairobi and his father moved to Nairobi as a young man to work for the railways, so I often describe myself as a child of the railways because we also grew up in a house very near to railway lines so I always heard the train passing in Nairobi and much of what became of my fathers family was shaped by the decision of my grandfather who was then a young man in Western Kenya who came to Nairobi in the 1930s to work as a train driver and that move shaped the trajectory of the whole family both from being quite poor to people who became middle class, from rural to urban and I think also then to this particular affinity and association with Nairobi as a city made that also afforded my aunts and uncles an education and almost all of them seven out of eight went to university which is quite amazing at that time, it forded us then the grandchildren an education and I remember the time we used to go with the railway, the train between Nairobi and Mombasa almost every holiday to go down the coast and then back up from the cost because its an elevation difference of 5,000 feet and a long overnight journey and we go by train each time and we would always run into some relatives who were still working on the railways so I often think of the railways as a part of my childhood and this project kind of grew out of that beginning. Beth Accomando: Your father and mother were also involved in journalism, I remember as a kid getting their rainbow newspaper that came from Kenya and I know that there was also, I believe there was also one for adults as well. Bettina Ng’weno: Yes so my… neither of them studied journalism; neither of my parents studied journalism and they both studied in the U.S. but actually met in Kenya, but my dad at that time was a budding journalist and he started his own news magazine somewhat similar to the weekly news magazine similar to time on news week but in Kenya, and it covered stories in Kenya regionally Africa and then a few stories of the world pertinent to that issue, and he ran that for about 23 years, I think it was 23 I’m not sure of the exact amount of years as it became a really major news and analytical paper for Kenya my mom then later started this rainbow magazine which was a children's magazine that had everything from natural history to cuttings and so they both worked in journalism most of their lives. Beth Accomando: Well its interesting that you mentioned that your parents weren’t actually trained as journalist but kind of moved into that and you are about to make a film but your background is very different from that so I believe you have a background in agriculture and anthropology, you're a professor at UC Davis so how did all this interest in film making suddenly come about? Bettina Ng’weno: That's so true, so I’m under a graduate degree here from UC Davis well in act science and management, and then I studied anthropology at Stanford and Hopkins afterwards and I’ve always been interested in property and the citizenship, and I have a book on citizenship and land issues that is about less in America, but this particular project fondly enough came up like about 20 years ago when I was doing field work, and I was doing field work on the inheritance of land in Kenya for my masters degree which I got at Stanford, people were playing a music that was just beautiful, that I loved and I was telling my dad about it and he said it reminds him of a music of his childhood and that people used to come to Nairobi to stay in their house because they were in railway housing and it was right in the middle of town, and they would come and stay over; the people would come and stay with them in order to participate in music in that competition, and so some 20 years ago I thought that would be nice but then did nothing about it [laughter]. And I did all this different anthropological work and I ran into Njane Mugambi who’s the person who I’m working with on this film project and he’s a musician and has worked in all sorts of different ways in Kenya, in music he’s a classical composer and has also studied Kenyan music; popular music and he… well I was just telling him a story about the music because we were talking about music to him and he kind of fell in love with the idea but so he said if I ever make into film, tell me about it I want to be part of the project and really strangely a year later he sent me a text message and said; I’ve written a symphony that's about the 50 years of independence, its for the 50 year celebration of Kenya’s independence and its about the building of the railways and so maybe you need it for the film you're going to make and then I said; yes I’m going to make a film and that's how the project began. Beth Accomando: So the name of this proposed film is going to be; Last Dance in Kaloleni, so tell me a little bit about the story that you are interested in telling with this. Bettina Ng’weno: Okay, so the story the we’re interested in telling about in Last Dance in Kaloleni is a story of Nairobi itself; the city itself and its set just before independence in Kenya, so its starts in 1959 and independence is’63 and its about the moment where everything is in upheaval its unsure where everything is going and how do you make decisions, and how do you participate in much greater things that are happening around you, so part of what we were thinking in developing that story because its also a story of music and dance, and how those are related to politics but in a sense it wanted the audience to take away something about ordinary people who build a world that we live in today and how new future can be built by making difficult choices and deciding to go in certain direction and then also about the close connection between dance and music and politics and finally we wanted to be able to show the sought of sounds, feelings, taste, tensions, hope, dream of that 1959 Nairobi which was a moment, perhaps it really great possibility but also of uncertainty because a new country was coming but no one knew when or how or what it would be. Beth Accomando: I have a lot of friends or I know a lot of people who have announced themselves as film makers and have taken quite a while to actually make something, you are this professor and you think about making a film and you like got down to doing stuff almost immediately after mentioning to me that you had this idea for a script so you started by making a short film that just debuted in march, so how did this short film come about and what is that kind of encapsulate that gives people a sense of what the movie is going to be? Bettina Ng’weno: Idea for the longer film lets just say it started 20 years ago and then it sat on the shelf and then it sought of took form when Njane said; hey I have a written symphony for you and that was about four years ago, three years ago; its three years ago and we said; okay we’ll give ourselves four years finally enough and we want to make a film and then it really took a lot of background work neither of us had ever done it before, what would it take, how to do it, what kind of a thing we wanted and it took about a lot of research, I interviewed a lot of people about the times and space of Nairobi in 1959, but there was very little written information and I also wanted to get the particular historic moment correct although its not a documentary or anything it’s a certain moment but we wanted to get that correct as well as the feeling of the time to people who lived there because Nairobi changes very fast, I wanted to get that correct, so we did all this research and then we wrote a script and the script was finished almost a year ago and I had to send incident into some of the screen white writers workshop because of friends suggested it, I had no idea I just went ahead and did it and we had in August of last year that we had gotten into the second round of that and funny we thought, oh my goodness we don’t know anything about film and there's no point going into if by some miracle we get in, there's no point in going to a workshop like a master class when you haven’t even done the beginners class so we said lets try and do something that can test up the concept and see what we’re also capable of and do a short. We didn’t have the money to do something like a trailer, we didn’t have the money to do anything big but what we did have was one, the musical expertise and a concept so we decided to do a music video and to try encapsulate in that music video, the combination of three lines of the bigger film Last Dance in Kaloleni, Last Dance in Kaloleni is a story of a consummation of music and dance, it’s a love story and it’s a story about politics, so we wanted this two things on it, music and dance changing a love story and a political story and we tried to encapsulate that in one short film and in one short music video that just gave a flavor of the possibilities of the bigger film. Beth Accomando: Let’s hear a little bit of music from that shot. Male Speaker: Ladies and gentlemen, they tell us we’re not allowed to vote political rallies but is this a political rally, this is why I have come to dance, ladies and gentlemen they tell us we must wait [song]. Beth Accomando: Now the music cutting short is actually something that was composed new, its not an old piece of music from those times so tell me about your decision to use that for the piece? Bettina Ng’weno: Okay so one of the interesting things is in the larger film because of it moving 1959 was an interesting musical moment in Kenya where it was beginning to develop a Nairobi sound a very particular music that was much more iconic of Nairobi as opposed to some of the play’s it came about in an number of ways, a lot of music from abroad was played on radio but it tended too be somewhat tensed by the colonial government as what could be heard on radio and not heard on radio and there was a large amount of the music that was played with Caribbean music from English speaking and Spanish speaking Caribbean like many places else in the world, Cuban songs cha-cha, rhumba, mambo were played and calypsos from the English speaking Caribbean and they were very influential in local music so people took out the sounds and rhythms of song in calypso and they also took out the sound and rhythms of the twist or more like rock and roll but much music in the 50s from the America not much music was making it in the same way into the radio in Kenya; the radio that most people listen to so the railway is an interesting place because radios were played 24/7 in the railway stations and then 1959 there was this massive railway strike in ‘58 and ‘59 and in order to sought of become more popular as the marking G tool the railway started a new program that was called Railways Showboat and it begun to play local musicians who were playing basically western instruments, they would have a band setup where the dominant stand with the guitar as opposed to traditional instruments and usually look like a setup like a lesson band setup horns, drums, string instruments and a number of people who became sought of nationally famous grew out of those new space for hearing local music, this includes Fadhili Williams and Daudi Kabaka who were playing at that time and it also put up sort of a new interest in the radio for as opposed to regional music’s of Kenya sought of national music pertained to that radio program, so the music that we chose for this short video the time is now, was music that needed to make some of the transformation from the influences from outside especially those of Latin sounds to a more Africanized sound so what we chose in this particular case was Cuban song, it starts off in a flow sound and ends up much more in a sound that was similar to the Congolese rhumbas of that time, so its music that became sought of Cuban song with an African twist to it which is always interesting because of course the song had a twist from Africa but an ancient one but then another one re-twisting it back to east Africa, its then sought of in the process as the song goes along, it changes to bring it different sought of sounds and instruments and the dominance of the guitar as a main instrument which came how a lot of music east Africa has played with the dominance of the guitar. Beth Accomando: The short film kind of gives you a condensed evolution of that sound, you sent me some music to listen to, to kind of give a flavor for some of the music that could influence the film, I want to play the piece Malaika, which you said… tell me about what that song is and why you chose that as one of the ones to send me, because you said that has a kind of distinct African flavor to it. Bettina Ng’weno: Yeah so the song Malika is also perhaps Kenya’s most famous song, and it’s a song that there’s been a lot of arguments that who owns the copy right to it, and it was a song that really interestingly just became over generation after generation after generation that song is sung and re-sung and re-sung and many people have heard of it, one of the people who sung it outside of Kenya was Miriam Makeba, and she first sung it when she came to Kenya’s independence celebration and sung it at independence with other Kenyan artists who were singing it at that time, so Malaika is a love story and it’s a song about a man who would want to get married but he doesn’t have enough money and so Malaika means angel so its about my angel, what do I do, I don’t have enough money to marry you, what can a poor young man like me do in this circumstances and it sort of became a song about romance, about the conditions of class conditions about how difficult things were in cities often many songs about the city are like that, the particular version I gave you is an English version but slightly different words than the original Swahili version and its sung by Fadhili Williams and his sister Esther who were stunning musicians of this time, Fadhili in particular became very famous and they still often listen to in Kenya. Beth Accomando: Alright lets hear a little bit of that song [song] hot music plays a surprising role in a lot of cultures, talk a little bit of how the pop music of that time and the late 50s and early 60s to help influence the times or played the role in the politics or in kind of social upheavals that were going on? Bettina Ng’weno: So one of the thing that is really interesting about this music that came out and were played on the radio this time were produced by local Kenyan artist is a lot of them talk about the city, they talk about Nairobi and they talk about the difficulties of living in a city at the certain time, so many of them are social commentaries either the difficulties of not having money or falling in love, of being in a city that is hard to deal with and issues of work and jobs but also style like some of them talk about the importance of being dressed in a certain way in dark glasses and a cigarette in those days I guess, often they were entertaining songs also so for dancers but they talked a lot about social issues, we had a politician at the time called Tom Mboya who was also a musician and actually a number of the politicians played in bands which is kind of a surprise for me, but he also used music and the ability of music and dance to draw people into a crowd into a collection of people as a way of doing politics so we’re very interested in Last Dance in Kaloleni to also explore that side of where the political meets the artistic. Beth Accomando: You mentioned that there was the influence of the twist in some of the music and you gave me bachelor boy twist so lets hear a little of that and then talk about it [song] now this song came out a little later than the first one you gave me, tell me why you chose that as another one to pick. Bettina Ng’weno: So the twist was really taking off by a lot of local musicians and you hear it has a very sought of pair down sound to it where the guitar is dominant but many of the songs that are coming in the form of the twist were really again a common trail on urban things and bachelor boy twist talks about this issue of being a bachelor in the city in Nairobi, so one thing that the audience might not know is that Nairobi was probably at that time about 60% male or more because all these workers came into the city but they weren’t allowed to bring their families and often the housing didn’t permit a space for families so you have this heavenly predominantly male city so its also a problem that that continues to be like an underlying theme in a lot of songs as this issue of love and competition in sort of what does it mean to be a bachelor in a city like that. Beth Accomando: Your film is going to focus quite a bit on in addition to the music, the dance element and there's a competition in your film regarding dance and tell me why that is important to include? Bettina Ng’weno: Right from the beginning I was interested insort of dance competitions because having talked to my dad about it, he had mentioned it as a way that people sometimes play, it was like winning the lottery and having new chance in life when youwon the competition and I was really interested that people would come from different parts of; different other cities to be in this competition, in the story the dance competition is essential because of this issue of what the price could mean if you won it and the need for that and also I think the dance is symbolic as other things, its symbolic of novelty and innovation as well as it can be a thing to tradition and form which is something that is really important in the discussion about independents and what shape a new country would take but in addition the politician that I mentioned before Tom Mboya and he’s very interesting for a number of reasons, one of which he had organized a number of students to come to the united states just before independence, he saw independence coming and decided you know we need an educated government and so as a young man in his 20s he helped start to raise from 1957 onwards money to help Kenyans to go to university in the state and one of those people was Nobel prize Laureate Wangari Mathai, she’s one of the people who went on his range, on the US side some of that money also came from donors like Kennedy and was helped in there was a community of people on this side mainly African-Americans to help organize the sort of fundraising to bring people to the united states so this politician Tom Mboya he also played music and he loved to dance and many people told me stories about him dancing but at a certain point in time because of different organizing all political rallies were cancelled in Nairobi and he instead called the dance and music rally which he turns into a political rally and that made it to time magazine so that was kind of interesting. Beth Accomando: What was it about telling this story that made you feel so strongly that you had to kind of leave your academic career not behind but kind of push it to the side a little bit and tackle this more creative artistic story and get it made? Bettina Ng’weno: So there are a number of things so heart and solo I guess I’m still a social scientist and I was interested in the sort of missing space of this urban African in all kinds of sort of artistic representation in most films on Africa the urban African seems to be someone out of place so either there are disaffected violence, angry man usually or you know victim woman and they are the never in place the city is never theirs and I thought this is something really strange in the way that we think cities in Africa and it doesn’t matter you can almost any film that you see that kind of works and often even the ones made in Africa so I was also interested in that sort of space of a kind of another tale about work and labor, colonialism and cities that again we don’t tell very often in Kenya either I also was interested finally in sort of writing a social science book are there other ways of saying the same thing, are there other ways of exploring; you know what it meant to live in the city at that time, what was Nairobi, are there other ways of seeing and hearing it so I think for me interestingly enough it has also led me to write academic work because the amount of research that I did to know the times for the films I’m also sort of doing a parallel a book on Nairobi that looks at some of the product of 1959 how its lived out today. Beth Accomando: Well knowing your grandparents and how much they did its not surprising that you are really tackling so much at one time [laughter] but that seems to be a tradition in your family. Bettina Ng’weno: I guess so. Beth Accomando: As you been progressing through this writing making this short music video what are you discovering about the film making process is this something that you are enjoying or is it daunting is it fun? Bettina Ng’weno: You know its absolutely daunting but its tremendous fun and what’s interesting what I’m really discovering is the most amazing people to work with I’ve had so much luck and such talented people who have put things together so far with no budget whatsoever so I think just to see what is possible has been really exceptional its hard even to describe an amount of people who so generously donated their ideas suggestions knowledge this is how you do this this is how do that has been so overwhelming its been just wonderful and so as a princess I think I’ve also been lucky everything has worked wonderfully well and maybe it’s the people we were lucky enough to find because it was an exciting set it was an exciting process of filming and really people put in a lot of their own thoughts, ideas, energy in order to get that product out. Beth Accomando: I think for a lot of Americans the idea of African cinema is a very foreign concept and probably most Americanshaven’t seen a film actually from Africa they might have seen something like Cry Freedom or a film where an American studio or a British studio has made a film in Africa but what is the film industry like in Kenya are there films coming out on a regular basis is it a thriving industry is it kind of subservient to cinema coming from outside? Bettina Ng’weno: At the moment it’s a growing industry there is more and more films made in Kenya we’re nothing like sort of Nigeria, Nigeria is the power house of movies in Africa, Nigeria and Egypt but Nigeria even surpassing all of us I think and they make the standards are often a little low but and making a huge number of them very cheaply and have sort of grown a very diverse industry out of that and a lot of Nigerian films are watched across Africa and they are very popular in that sense and have sort of cultural icons, in Kenya we tend to make really different sort of films and recently been in a few films that people were very excited about and hope we’d go much further than the sort of boundaries of Kenyan tourism one of them is called Nairobi Half-life and the other one was called Something Necessary very different films dealing in the contemporary period about one of them being struggles of being a migrant in the city and then coming to the city and that’s Nairobi Half-life and all those difficulties again in contemporary times Something Necessary had to with the last election violence and the sort of healing after that so and then there have been a number of projects on animation that have taken off I think Nairobi film industry has a good set of people who had worked in animation in certain ways because they’ve worked a lot in developing games for cellphones and other things so its interesting where the sort of tech hub is in Kenya which is in cellphone development but then can be mobilized into other film related things but the industry in general in Kenya is very young and just sort of finding its feet at the moment. Beth Accomando: Why do you think we’ve gotten so few films from Africa in the united states I mean there is a few filmmakers who’ve kind of made a bit of a dent but we don’t see them coming over the same way that French films came over, Italian, more recently Hong Kong? Bettina Ng’weno: Yeah that’s a really interesting question, I’m not 100% sure as to why it might be something about the stories or the marketing or the kind of money behind distribution that one would need to give into the US; the US market which I don’t think exist to the same extent. I don’t think most of the Nigerian film industry try to they were interested in much more local markets and then they are now interested in the Nigerian diaspora or other African diaspora so I think they went for a different kind of a market because it didn’t rise out of the same sort of tradition of filmmaking but it has been very, very hard I think for perhaps bunch of reasons and maybe sometimes story lines I’m not really sure if it is that maybe its also what people want to hear about Africa but I’m not really sure what the answer to that question is because I don’t think people have been given much options in what they hear about Africa, not really sure what they want. Beth Accomando: Yeah because I mean as somebody who loves to see films from different cultures and different places to me films are like these ambassadors that help you to understand and kind of get an entry way into another place, I think I had one friend who was trying to show some films from Africa here in San Diego and one of his suggestions was that kind of just the narrative style has a different kind of sense of time and place that Americans weren’t kind of falling in sync with I don’t know if that’s something you’ve ever noticed? Bettina Ng’weno: Yeah so it kind of depends where the film was made there are a lot of films made out of French speaking West Africa, whose narrative style would definitely have that issue and they tend much more to be art some in that sense I would say some the Nigerian movies have you know the old plot and that’s it kind of thing and its more familiar narrative style but they’re budget movies and they don’t pretend to be otherwise so they might not appeal in terms of visually in the same way to an American audience. Beth Accomando: As someone who has been a lot of the times both in the United States and in Africa does it frustrate you to see the way African culture in Kenya Nairobi are depicted in American films? Bettina Ng’weno: Yes, [laughter] yeah very much actually and it was one of the sought of pushers to think about in this films and one of the frustrations was this idea about the urban African as out of place but another sort of typical thing of outside movies on Africa if they have non-African characters old African characters are sort of fissured upon which the urban characters find their humanity and they themselves are either perfect or evil but they never transform, they are never growing real humans either so those were two things… and then third thing was any film on Kenya almost anyone from outside has trains in it but it is always filmed like as a way to show landscape the train passing through this gorgeous landscape and its never about what it takes to get a train on a track the sort of work hard of trains issue, so those are the thing that inspired some of the things we are looking at in this film. Beth Accomando: In making this film, because you were looking back at this period of time from the late 50s and early 60s what kind of challenges are you going to face in terms of trying to create that historical period? Bettina Ng’weno: So that’s quit a tough thing especially for the city scape you know Nairobi has changed phenomenally and especially in the last ten years it’s constantly a place of construction what’s interesting right now is the original railway housing still exists and some of it looks pretty similar to the time some of it is a bit changed, the actual Nairobi railway station has its general facade and layout is the same as in 1959 and for a number of years in the sort of 90s through to about 2010 trains didn’t really work in Kenya so then there are many things that never changed over that period so there are some interesting ways in which certain spaces are the same certain spaces are like the dance schools also selected some are in better or worse conditions it will be very easy to recreate what they looked like at the time I think the hardest part would be city scape and it might be something to move to other cities that haven’t change that much that might have that same feel and look of Nairobi of that time. Beth Accomando: Are you feeling any kind of pressure to get this done quickly because some of those things might change? Bettina Ng’weno: Yeah I’m feeling a huge pressure [laughter] and its very funny we called our first video The Time is Now, that sentence keeps running through my head all the time because a lot of those neighborhoods are scheduled for demolition because they are very old and the land is worth lots of money and they want to densify the center of the city and so the whole city is changing and it is also we feel the pressure not just because the actual structures will go but once they are gone how will anyone remember them and I guess that’s the other thing we are seeing a new city arise and no real knowledge of the history of the city that’s been coming down in a sense so its about trying to think about how to remember some of these phases even if they are going to be something else later and what the city might have been like. Beth Accomando: So what are your plans to get this film made are you planning any kind of a crowd fundraising? Bettina Ng’weno: Yes, so definitely we will have a kick starter campaign of a crowd fundraising but also interested I mean we are trying everything sort of the similar type of thing called m-changa in East Africa and we are also interested in sort of being in contact with people who are interested in that time whether they are railway enthusiasts as well as music enthusiast of the time and perhaps even some of the people who are involved in the politics of the time who might be interested in this kind of a film to go forward, so we are kind of doing a three pronged leg going to crowd funding, going to individuals who might have been interested in certain parts of the time they might be interested in funding something like this we already have a webpage for the film which is called Last Dance In Kaloleni so if you look up Last Dance In Kaloleni the movie and we are going to start a kick starter from that and any other kind of traditional sort of investors that we can find or get hold of. Beth Accomando: Does the government have any interest in trying to get this film get made in the sense of capturing a moment in history that was significant? Bettina Ng’weno: So far they haven’t expressed any interest but interestingly enough I was showing the short film to a tour guide and they said instantly; can I use this to show my clients and I think some of the areas of interests to us to pursue more would be the tourism board as well as the photo of Nairobi city as a city I know that the railway themselves have no money but they might be interested you know we have a new railway being built in Kenya will be finished next year so again its just a moment interesting things happening around railways in Kenya as well . Beth Accomando: Are the railways being cooperative in terms of if you need to go shoot there do they seem to be willing to help you out? Bettina Ng’weno: They used to be but the problem is we had a number of terrorist attacks in Kenya and recently there was a ban on filming in crowded public places like bus stops airports, railway stations one of the things that we did with the shot was to invite the station master and the different ministries so at least they are aware of us and that will be one of the things we are very interested in be able to try and get those permissions as a form of support for the film. Beth Accomando: So do you have a time line set in your head at all as to when you would like to actually start shooting or have the film completed? Bettina Ng’weno: We had a dream timeline which was four years, which will be up next year, somewhere in the middle of next year, we also have a dream timeline of those four years for a number of reasons one of them was that there will be elections in Kenya next year and we wanted to be done before that because things will slow down before election and also its an interesting historical piece would be interesting to think about during election the other reason that is interesting to us is that the name of the main area of Nairobi; Kaloleni where one of the dance completion is held was actually a home to Barrack Obama the president’s father he lived there, he was a great dancer and it’s interesting to us that particular connection in the moment while president Obama is still president so that too just as another side interest but when had originally given us four years it was about thinking of that as well. Beth Accomando: You also gave me a couple of more pieces of music that I want to try and fit in here because the music is fabulous so one is by an artist name Franco who you said was a Congolese musician and what song did you pick from him? Bettina Ng’weno: I picked a song Josephinie Nairobie [song] it’s a song that again has picked up certain Cuban sound and made them really Congolese and Franco was perhaps one of the most famous Congolese artist and that sought of what became known as Congolese Rhumba that song really plays with the relationship between the guitar and the saxophone but in the middle of it, it has a sort of instrumental break that was very typical of Congolese music and its called a Seben it’s a place that was just for dancing, it was a place where you change the style of dance that you do, you know you have a singer you listen to all this music the dominance of the voice and suddenly it’s the dominance of the instrument and where I’m particularly interested on that moment of the Seben as a place of innovation of doing your own steps, of having fun and really signaling a very African twist on Latin sound and so I think that particular song is just beautifully done in many ways it’s a lovely example of Franco’s music and also gives a very nice clear seben that people might be able to hear the changes going through the music and the seben is important to the story in the bigger film. Beth Accomando: Alright lets hear a little bit of Franco’s song [song] what did music mean to you growing up what do you remember specifically then having influence on you? Bettina Ng’weno: You know its very funny, I’ve thinking about it a bit because I realized I had all these musical instruments at our house I’m not sure I ever played them, well [laughter] I might have had lessons here and there but I never really played them well but music, there were two things my parents always spent money on even when thy had very little and t was music and food and music really was the things my father loved, my loved it didn’t love the same music it was different but it was, we had a piano in our house, my dad is the best musician in our family but the rest of us try and then my sister would say and so it was something that was always around in our house growing up and I think after going to college I fell in love with it even more and I came to the united states for college and it just opened up to a whole bunch of new music and I would say my favorite music is the sort of wide African diaspora music meaning music from Africa from most of Latin America from parts of Asia from Hawaii I mean there are all sorts of music that I adore and I also did field work in Latin-America in Columbia so I’m very much attached to those Latin-American sound, I guess I was never a musicianbut I’m a dancer so I dance flamenco which is a sort of an odd option off shore of the things and I’ve done performances in regional Latin American dancer s so but flamenco became my great interest because of its changing rhythm and its improvisational style and these are also some of the things that we are also working with in this film. Beth Accomando: One last piece of music is Western Shiloh which you say shows the Africanization of western instruments [song]. Bettina Ng’weno: In the late 1950s early 60s people were picking up all these sounds though calypsos and psalm and rhumba and cha-cha and twist and I think western Shiloh of all those songs Africanizes it the most moves the most off a lot of songs some of them are very obviously to anybody else’s ears; the twist but that song is really complicated and there are bits and pieces of it that are had to place then I think it has many layers to the music and so to me western Shiloh it’s a vocative of where music was going so it has bits and pieces of influence from other places but they are not that recognizable anymore ant it’s a song that has remained popular again over much time that’s quit different from much of the other works Daudi Kabaka did so it’s a kind of a unique song but one that has remained incredibly popular so people put out albums of old music and is always turns up there [song]. Beth Accomando: I want to thank you Bettina for taking some time to talk me about your film and I hope we can check in, in the near future to find out on its progress. Bettina Ng’weno: I hope so too very much I look forward to it, thank you very much Beth it has been a real pleasure. Beth Accomando: That was Bettina Ng’weno who is planning to make a film called Last Dance To Kaloleni and has a kick starter going on right now thanks for listening to another edition of KPBS Cinema Junky podcast coming up soon would be a discussion about The Curse Of The Scottish Play with some recommendations on which film adaptations of Macbeth are the best to see please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and leave us a review or comments, you can also follow me on twitter @cinebeth and like the Cinema junky Facebook page, online archives are available at podcast, so till our next film fix I’m Beth Accomando your residence cinema junky.

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When you think of Africa on film, what comes to mind? Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in "Out of Africa"? Leonardo DiCaprio in "Blood Diamond"? If so, then here's a fresh take on Africa from a first-time filmmaker from Kenya.
79: 'Last Dance In Kaloleni' Will Show Kenya In New Light
Episode 79: 'Last Dance in Kaloleni' will show Kenya in new lightFirst time filmmaker Bettina Ng'weno is tired of not seeing the Africa she knows depicted on screen. She is making a film that will “bring to life Kenya’s political, social and musical transformations in a dramatic romantic story of a love triangle and dance competitions.“ This podcast contains greats samples of the music that inspires her. Subscribe to the Cinema Junkie podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcatcher.

Companion viewing

"Black Girl" (1966)

"Lumumba" (2000)

"Hotel Rwanda" (2004)

When you think of Africa on film, what comes to mind? Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in "Out of Africa"? Leonardo DiCaprio in "Blood Diamond"? If so, then here's a fresh take on Africa from a first-time filmmaker from Kenya.

No matter how well-intentioned or well-crafted, those films gave us white central characters in stories about Africa. There's nothing particularly wrong with that except that it appears that's the only way Hollywood knows how to tell a story about Africa. Even "Cry Freedom," the story of Steven Biko seemed to spend more time on the perils a white journalist went through then on Biko’s life.

All this frustrates Bettina Ng’weno. She is the daughter of a Kenyan father and a French mother. She’s an associate professor in cultural anthropology at UC Davis, and splits her time between California and Kenya. Now she wants to make a movie about music, dance, and trains in Kenya.

She says most films made outside of Africa about the continent — and especially those made by Hollywood — fall prey to certain stereotypes and tropes. In addition to giving us white lead characters, many films tend to present the African characters as noble savages or the façade through which others find their humanity. When films move to an urban African setting they tend to focus on disaffected violent youth as with "Tsotsi," a film made in South Africa but which Hollywood picked up and distributed.

I’ve known Ng'weno for decades because my grandparents and her grandparents were close friends. She comes from a long line of people who are doers and not mere talkers. So the fact that she was not seeing the Africa she knew being depicted in mainstream films led her to not just complain, but to take action and make her own film, "Last Dance to Kaloleni."

She wrote her first screenplay, and then made a short film to help generate interest in the feature length version, and just launched a Kickstarter to raise funds.

She describes the film as “bringing to life Kenya’s political, social and musical transformations in a dramatic romantic story of a love triangle and dance competitions.“

I know she is a first-time filmmaker and her feature is not even done yet but she’s a delightful, intelligent, passionate person and she will make you see Africa in a new light so I hope you will take a listen. Plus she provided me with some wonderful music that inspired the film.