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A History of Film in Kenya

Kenya has over the years been a preferred destination for filming movies, many of which have become Hollywood hits. The development of the film industry in Kenya, however, has been slow and tortuous. Cherry Keaton, a wildlife photographer who filmed the American President Theodore Roosevelt when he came on a hunting safari in Kenya in 1909, captured the first images of the country on tape.

President Roosevelt had hired the British wildlife photographer to film his expedition. The resultant film, Theo in Africa was screened in 1910.

This heralded an era of hunting, travelogue and fictional films shot in the country, such as Mogambo, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Trader Horn and others showing Europeans battling with dangerous elements of nature and a new culture in Africa, while at the same time loving the breathtaking scenery and warm people. Kenya’s independence in 1963 also ushered in Africanisation in the arts and film training started. The Kenya Institute of Mass Communication was inaugurated to train Africans in film- making, and replace the Europeans working at the national broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

The first Kiswahili film, Mlevi (Drunkard) by Ragbir Singh in 1968 inspired Kenyan filmmaking. Other local filmmakers who made a mark include Alan Root whose wildlife films won many awards, including Oscars. International films continued being made in Kenya. Out of Africa, which in the 80s bagged seven Oscars, high- lighted Kenya’s beauty to the world, making it a prime location for international films. Local film industry made its mark with Sharad Patel’s Rise and Fall of Idi Amin(1981), Sao Gamba’s Kolormask (1986) and Ann Mungai’s Saikati (1993).

Other notable movies include Albert Wandago’s 2002 production Naliaka is Going, which retailed in shops in VHS, making it the first movie to be sold through local retail outlets. The digital era inspired Kenyans to use the technology for filming, giving birth to Nairobi’s River Road film- making niche, Riverwood, which is similar to Nigeria’s Nollywood and India’s Bollywood. Njeri Karago made the film Dangerous Affair, directed by Judy Kibinge, which inspired other filmmakers to go for independent feel good films dealing with contemporary urban themes.

Kenyan women have been at the forefront in the development of local movies. They include Jane Murago Munene (Behind Closed Doors,2003),Wanjiru Kinyanjui (Battle of the Sacred Tree, 1994), Christine  Bala (Babu’s Babies, 2004) and Wanuri Kahiu’s From a Whisper (2008) and Pumzi (2009).

Kenyan films can now hold their own internationally, with Wanuri Kahiu’s From a Whisper (2009), receiving 12 nominations and winning five awards at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) in 2009, namely Best Picture, Best Original Soundtrack, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and AMAA Achievement in Editing. The film also won the Best Feature Narrative award at the 2010 Pan African Film and Arts Festival, and was honoured with the 2010 BAFTA/LA Festival Choice Prize. The movie portrays a realistic story of the aftermath of the 1997 terrorist bombing in Nairobi, by capturing the lives of the victims and their families who had to pick up the pieces of their lives shredded by the blast.

Jane Murago-Munene won Kenya’s first FESPACO with Monica Wangu Wamwere’s The UnbrokenSpirit, which took home best documentary 2011. Vincho Nchogu became the first Kenyan to have her film, The Resurrect, played at the Cannes, in 2009.

Bob Nyanja’s The Rugged Priest won the prestigious Golden Dhow Award for Best Feature Film at the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) in 2011. The film is based on the life of Father Anthony Kaiser, whose out- spokenness on land and human rights issues saw him lose his life in 2004. Another Kenyan film, Togetherness Supreme, produced by Nathan Collett, won the Silver Dhow award at ZIFF. Like The Rugged Priest, Togetherness Supreme is also based on true events – the 2007/8 post-election violence. The story takes place in Nairobi’s Kibera slums and contains a strong message for inter-ethnic peace and understanding.


Polly Renton started MEDEVA, an agency which revolutionised training for young people who couldn’t afford the few available but expensive- film and TV schools. MEDEVA has groomed several new generation of filmmakers, who include Angelo Kinyua (First Kenyan to win CNN journalist of the Year while still under MEDEVA), Willy Owusu, Simiyu Barasa and Joy Wanjiku. MEDIAE, and now Ginger Ink with Film Africa/One Fine Day, quickly followed this mode of training.

Death of movie theatres

While the entertainment scene has witnessed tremendous growth in the past 10 years, the movie scene has seen a decline in fortunes. Movie theatres continue to experience declining attendance, resulting in financial difficulties which have forced theatres to close down.

Some of the oldest and popular movie theatres that have shut down include Odeon, Cameo, Casino, Nairobi and Kenya cinemas. The few remaining ones are struggling due to harsh economic times:which have hit the average Kenyan hard. Many have no disposable income to support a movie-going culture.  Advances in technology have also taken their toll on movie theatres. The Internet makes it easy to download movies at cheaper rates. More and more people are now investing in gadgets and equipment that make watching movies from the house almost similar to that of a movie theatre.

These technological advances have also contributed to an increase in movie piracy. Pirates are illegally downloading movies, including latest Hollywood blockbusters, and selling them at prices that make going to the movie theatre a worthless venture. Local TV stations are now investing in local programmes (dramas and comedies), which Kenyan audiences identify with and therefore posing serious competition to movie theatres in the fight for viewership.

Kalasha Awards

The Kenya Film Commission and Ministry of Information launched the Kalasha Kenya Film and TV awards  in 2009, to honour actors, directors, producers and writers in the local movie industry. The following were recognised in the 2011 Kalasha Awards.

TV Category

Best Lead Actor in a TV Drama Raymond Ofula – `Richard Mwako in Nairobi Law

Best Lead Actress in a TV Drama

Nice Githinji – `Lisa in Changing Times

Best Supporting Actor in a TV Drama Vincent Mbaya – Be the Judge

Best SupportinActress ia TV Drama

Nelly Kuria – `Abby in Mheshimiwa

Best TV Drama

Siri – Al Is On Productions

Best Performance in a Comedy

Eric Omondi – Churchill Live

Best Talk Show Capital Talk – K24

Best TV Documentary

Kitale Nature Conservancy – Montage Media Services

Best TV Comedy

Vioja Mahakamani – KBC

Best TV Entertainment

Churchill Live – Cinematic Solutions/ Laugh Industry

Kituo Halisi – KBC

Lifetime Achievement: David Mulwa

KFCB Award for Best Watershed Compliant Station: NTV

Special Awards

Best Animation Production

The Legend of Ngong’ Hills – Apes In Space

Best Student Feature

The Brief Case – Kenya Institute of Mass Communication

Best Student Documentary

My Horn My Dilemma – Kenya Institute of Mass Communication

Film Category

Best Feature

The Rugged Priest – Cinematic Solutions

Best Short Film

Me, My Wife and Her Guru – Flick 7 Pictures/Jitu Films

Best Documentary

Destination Mara – Department of Film Services
Best Sound

Brian Nyamu -The Rugged Priest

Best Cinematography

Martin Munyua – The Rugged Priest

Best Original Score

Nina Ogot – Issa

Best Editing

Joy Lusige – The Rugged Priest

Best Scriptwriter in an original screenplay

Mark Mutahi & Bob Nyanja – The Rugged Priest

Best Director

Bob Nyanja – The Rugged Priest

Best Lead Actor

Kamau Mbaya – `Obi’ in The Brief Case

Best Lead Actress

Serah Ndanu – `Alice’ in The Rugged Priest

Best Supporting Actor

Lwanda Jawar `Ian in The Rugged Priest

Best Supporting Actress

Millicent Mugadi – `Esther’ in Me, My wife and Her Guru



The year 2012 is set to be big in Kenya’s film industry. There are three major films scheduled to be released in 2012. Top on the list is Tosh Gitonga’s Nairobi Half Life, which has German funding, and is as a result of the One Fine Day film workshops in Nairobi. The other is Guerilla Boy by Simiyu Barasa, shot on a Red One Camera, and funded by Global Film Initiative, an American funding organisation.

The third is Captain of Nakara written by Cajetan Boy and directed by Bob Nyanja, funded by ACP/EU fund. Simiyu Barasa, is also doing a documentary, Charlie Pele, funded by London-based PUMA/Channel4 Brit-doc foundation.


Raphael Tuju as Minister for Information when the Narc Government came into power in 2003, directed that television stations dedicate a certain percentage of airtime to local content. The move was meant to develop  local talent and, hence, productions.

Citizen TV leads the way in the number of local productions. The station is today the market leader in terms of viewership and advertisements. These local shows have also proved popular with Kenyan audiences, as they easily identify with them. Some of the local productions being aired on Citizen include: Inspekta Mwala, Tahidi High, Machachari, Papa Shirandula, Mashtaka, and Mother-in-Law.

Other local shows that have continued to excite Kenyans over time include Makutano Junction, Siri, Beba Beba, Wash and Set, Cobra Squad, Vitimbi, Vioja Mahakamani, Wingu la Moto, Higher Learning, Changing Times and Mheshimiwa.


While Kenyan theatre has over the years struggled to cement its place in the entertainment scene, it has in the last few years endured competition from television and to some extent, movie theatres. This state of affairs has seen many theatre artistes shift to the more prestigious television. This shift can be attributed to, among other things, more money on offer from TV stations and assured wide audiences.

The wide audiences are also behind the ‘celeb’ culture, with the artistes being easily recognised and, there-fore, adored by their fans. Some of the easily recognisable artistes who have moved from stage to screen, include Charles Bukeko, who plays Papa Shirandula in the comedy series under the same name on Citizen TV. Others are Angel Waruinge, who plays Miss Morgan in Tahidi High on Citizen TV, and Ainea Ojiambo, who plays Snake in Makutano Junction and is also featured in movies.

There is also Daniel Ndambuki, who despite his success as a radio and TV comedian started off on the theatre stage. It is also instructive to note that Ian Mbugua, has spent almost all his acting career in theatre at Phoenix Players, only rose to national fame when he became a judge at the popular musical show, Tusker Project Fame, aired on local TV.

Apart from migrating artistes, theatre has also suffered decreased audiences. In spite of these difficulties, there are personalities who have not given up on theatre. Heartstrings, for example, have kept at it and are today among the better recognised theatrical outfits. Heartstrings seem to have struck the right chords by coming up with productions that touch on day-to-day Kenyan lives. Their 2011 produticions include Oh my God, Men are from Kenya, Women are from Pluto, Kenyan Playboy, Think like a Kenyan and Act like a lady.

The Festival of Creative Arts group under Eliud Abuto has also been quite active on the theatre front, but their repertoire, mainly include adaptations of European bedroom farces. Some of the plays staged by Festival of Creative Arts in 2011 include, It is Now or Never, Take Away the Lady, Disturbia,Husband Flogged and Nuts. Heartstrings and Festival of Creative Arts stage their plays at Alliance Francaise auditorium and the Kenya National Theatre. Other groups that perform at Alliance include Friends Ensemble and Next Level Productions.

Phoenix Players have been the oldest theatre group in Kenya, although they are still bogged down by the unhelpful image of catering for the elite, the so-called Kenyan cowboys and the expatriate community.

This, however, is not to deny that like Heartstrings Kenya, their plays are original, which means that they reflect local realities. Until recently, patronage to Phoenix has been through membership, although that has changed and tickets are available at the gate.

Phoenix Players staged 17 plays in 2011. They include, Changing Generations, Romeo & Juliet, Local Murder, Fallen Angels, Minister Karibu, Wife After Death and Pirates of Nairobi Dam. There are theatre groups that exclusively target the school market with adaptations of set books for stage, guaranteeing them handsome returns. Jicho Four Productions and Fanaka Arts Theatre dominate this market

In 2011, The books that were adopted for stage include The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Utengano by Said A. Mohamed, Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, Kifo Kisimani by Kithaka wa Mberia and Mayai Waziri wa Maradhi a collection of short stories edited by Kyalo Wamitila.

New set books were introduced in 2012 and will, therefore, be adopted for stage. They are When the Sun Goes Down, a collection of short stories edited by Waveny Olembo and Emilia Ilieva, and Damu Nyeusi, a collection of short stories edited by Ken Walibora and Said A. Mohamed. Other groups adapting set books are Theatre Players, Planet Theatre, Theatrics Arts Ensemble, Starlight Productions and Mwangaza Theatre.

There is also a growing market for vernacular productions. The main ones are Culture Spill Productions (Dholuo) and Fanaka Arts Theatre (Gikuyu). These vernacular productions specialise mainly on comedies. They follow in the path of the late humorist Wahome Mutahi, who popularised Gikuyu political comedies.

In 2011, Culture Spill had five productions. They are: Dhako Pap! (Instant Wife!), Dhako Sirikal (Wife is the government of the house), Sindan Lit Gokinyi (Injections are most painful in the morning), Krismas Bebi Warom Kisumo (Baby let’s meet in Kisumu this Christmas) and Mayie Otanda (Oh my God, the bed!). Culture Spill Productions have been performing to full houses and have changed venue from the concert hall at the Kenya Cultural Centre to the main auditorium at the Kenya National Theatre.

They are now planning to introduce a concept called Extreme Luo Theatre Nights, featuring stand-up comedy, a play, a live band and dinner for one ticket. Like Culture Spill Productions, Fanaka Arts Theatre also exclusively features comedies. In 2011, they also had five productions. They are Benta Horera (Relax Benta) in April, Ndaguthaitha Tigira Hau (Please don’t go any further), Njuguma Ndungu (A huge club/rungu), Uka Murio Ngurie (Pleasure let me enjoy you) in October and Krismaa Mbembe ni Muthandurano (Christmas is a time of sharing – lose translation).

Fanaka Arts Theatre have moved their productions across the country, starting with Nakuru, Thika and Nyeri. Other groups doing vernacular plays include Johari Five and Grass Hut Productions. NGOs also enlist the services of theatre groups to disseminate their messages to the public.  Some of the prominent stage actors include June Gachui, Sam Kihiu, Erick Ndungu, Lydia Nyambura, Carol Ngorobi, Derrick Amunga, Nancy Shiko and Kamu Ndundu. Others are Marion Wambui, Triza Kabue and Krysteen Savane.

Some of the active directors include Victor Ber and Sammy Mwangi of Heartstrings, George Mungai (Phoenix), Carol Adongo and Mumbi Kaigwa.

Stand-up comedy

Stand-up comedy in Kenya can be traced back to the late thespian Joni Nderitu, who, in the early 1990s, used to perform skits before plays were staged at the Kenya National Theatre. Nderitu is credited with being the first artiste to mimic prominent politicians, such as President Moi and Opposition chief Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

Soon after, Carnivore Restaurant introduced the popular Comedy Night, which featured among others Shabbir, Steve Muturi and Kachumbari. There was also Fanya and Family which featured Fanuel Odera, Baba Zero and Jeff Shigholi. KJ, Walter Mong’are and Tony Njuguna also fea-tured as guest artistes. KJ, Mong’are and Njuguna later established the Redykyulas Comedy Group, which went on to become the first stand-up comedy act to screen on TV, both on KTN and Nation TV (Now NTV). Redykyulas proved to be so popular with Kenyans that they landed regular invites to perform in the UK and US.

Redykyulas paved way for Publik Noisemakers who staged the Intru-kalas show on NTV. Intrukalas had started off with the Who’s Stupid Now? shows at the Kenya National Theatre and were later approached by NTV producers. Intrukalas introduced Kenyans to comedians like Mshamba (James Chanji) the late Joshua Maina (Chieph) James Sangoro (Sheriff) and Kariuki Thige.

Other comedians who were dis- covered by Intrukalas included Daniel Ndambuki (Churchill), Makokha, Nyengese, Mdomo Baggy and Kajairo. The Redikyulas trio of KJ, Mong’are and Njuguna introduced another stand-up TV show on NTV called Red Korna. Some of the artistes who featured on Red Korna were Mdomo Baggy, Kajairo and Churchill.

Red Korna gave way to Churchill Live Show, again on NTV, whose main act is Daniel Ndambuki. Churchill Live has discovered comedians like Eric Omondi and his brother Fred, Ayeiya, J.B. and Malboro, among others.

Starting November 2011, a group of comedians came together and started monthly shows at the Hilton Hotel called Crazy Monday Comedy Night. Some of the artistes who feature on this show are Mshamba, Jalang’o, Wilbroda, Chipukizi, Othuol, Oyoo, Lucky Balaa, Kenzi, Zuleta and Kasuku Fred.

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