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Nairobi Half Life | AFI Fest 2012 Review

Carpe Dealer: Gitonga’s Debut Lands Distinction of Kenya’s First Oscar Submission

David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga Nairobi Half Life PosterDirector David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga, mentee of Tom Tykwer, (whose One Fine Day Film workshop financed this project), will forever have the distinction of directing Kenya’s first official submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film with his debut, Nairobi Half Life. While the film is far from perfect, despite the lofty honor already bestowed upon its reputation, the production value of the film is definitely superb and Gitonga lucked out with his casting of largely unprofessional actors, gleaning some notable performances from his crew. While the film doesn’t manage to stray very far from predictability, Gitonga still manages to build a compelling empathy for his protagonist, a young man doing his best to live his dreams in a city that seems designed only to kill them.

Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) is a young man from a small village in Kenya, specializing in hawking bootleg DVDs to the community, often acting out famous sequences, much to the enjoyment of his clientele. One day, a traveling caravan of actors known as The Vultures passes through his village, and Mwas is instantly smitten, begging the troupe to let him become a member. He is told by one of The Vultures that he needs an agent, and luckily, he can find such representation with them, but first he needs to front them some cash, half now and half when he can meet up with them in Nairobi.

Mwas decides to carry some stolen merchandise for a relative of his involved in various illegal activities to come up with the second lump payment for The Vultures, and thus, much to chagrin of his mother and alcoholic father, heads off to Nairobi where he is promptly robbed in broad daylight. And shortly after that, he is rounded up by the police for being at the wrong place at the wrong time and placed in prison. Forced to clean the dreadfully kept toilets, Mwas impresses Oti (Olwenya Maina) the head of a gang member with his offbeat and entertaining nature, and upon leaving the jailhouse, Oti helps Mwas by involving him in their own illegal activities. “We live for the day,” he tells Mwas, trying to teach the naïve young man some street smarts. Eventually, Mwas finds a community center that stages plays, and he has the opportunity to try out for a politically charged play. Landing the role, he gets to live in the world of his dreams by day, but by night (inevitably, his cousin comes looking for the money owed him for that stolen merchandise), he lives in a gangland world of carjacking, prostitution, and drugs, which soon threatens his role in the play.

Besides having the distinction of its unplumbed locale, there’s not terribly too much originality injected in the basic premise of Nairobi Half Life, which is basically the tale of a small town guy with talent and ambition that leads him to pursue his dreams in the big city, only to find that he has to do some very bad things in order to survive. Nairobi, considered a city of opportunity, also happens to be, as Mwas’ mother tells him, a place rife with “poverty, disease, and the devil.” And she’s right, more or less.

The climax, a culmination of circumstances that leads to an all too timely moment of melodramatic mush showcasing Mwas’ tear stained monologue, acquiring the added weight of the past twenty four hours experience. This only succeeds in beating its message over not only our heads but also the audience members watching the play production, that message being that every one of us has a personal choice to look at what’s going on around us or turn a blind eye to everyday horrors right in front of our noses. The ending of the play turns out to be an eerie reenactment of the terrible events Mwas just personally witnessed, and the film is not without a certain gravity and certainly manages to create a moving tapestry of life in Nairobi.

While the narrative could certainly use some brushing up, Joseph Wairimu gives a stirring performance as Mwas, and Gitonga is definitely a director of talent and interest. It’s just too bad that, while the films looks superb, the events it portrays aren’t as particularly memorable as they could have been.

Reviewed on November 05 at the 2012 AFI Film Festival – BREAKTHROUGH Programme.
97 Min

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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