An interview with Jim Chuchu "Kenyans are our most important audience"

The film Stories of our Lives by The NEST Collective portraits five authentic stories of queer life in Kenya. Internationally the film is talked of in glowing terms. In Kenya it is currently not possible to watch it after a ban through the Kenyan Classification Board. From the initial research to the post-production the collective did every aspect of the film themselves, even though most of them did not have any experience in film making. We spoke with Jim Chuchu, the director of Stories of our Lives.     

Before “Stories of our Lives” developed into a film project it was a project about collecting stories of queer people in Kenya. How did the initial idea came about?
JC: It was partly curiosity as a collective, as well as wanting to dismantle things that people say about being queer. We’re very interested in the ways societies treat minorities. People keep saying that homosexuality is imported from the West, that it is a Nairobi thing, a city thing. We were wondering what a record from the entire country could do to that idea. How could it affect us and our understanding what it means to be queer?

Giving back to the queer community

How did it then develop into a film project?
JC: After we collected about 40 or 50 stories, we began to ask ourselves what we would do with the interviews after we were done. One idea was to make a book of the stories. But some of the stories were so vivid and visual that we felt the written form wouldn’t capture the nuances of such visual stories completely. There is a way that the written word strips the emotions out of it. Then the idea came to make a few short films based on this one, and this one, and this one. So we started writing scripts. The idea was to make short movies that we would give back to the queer community. UHAI/EASHRI - an East African activist fund - stepped in with funding. They were interested in the idea of Africans telling indigenous queer stories, instead of the usual documentaries created by foreigners with outside perspectives.

How did the short films develop into a feature film?
JC: After we had made three of the eventual five short films, Rasha Salti - a programmer from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) - happened to be in Nairobi, and she accidentally saw one of the short films. She expressed interest in presenting the films at the TIFF 2014 once we finished shooting them. This transition from a collection of short films with a limited audience to a feature film that would premiere at an international film festival was a big shift for us. It meant there would be a level of visibility that we had not expected and had not planned for when we started. We had to discuss whether we wanted that, and whether that level of visibility was safe for everyone involved in the project. The TIFF team proposed screening the film anonymously, and we considered the idea. Eventually, the catalogue of the film festival omitted the credits. But then we decided to change that and premiered the film with the entire credits.

But it wasn’t spontaneously that you decided to reveal your names at the premiere?
JC: No, there was a lot of back and forth about what we should do. I remember Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina spoke to us and reminded us that presenting this project anonymously would send the wrong message - that we were ashamed of our work. We definitely were not ashamed of this project. It’s been very dear to us, and we’ve learned a lot while working on it. We first screened the film in Nairobi to the cast and to a small audience of friends and partners before going to Toronto. It was a really emotional screening. The most emotional we’ve had until now.
How was it taken in Kenya, when people found out about the movie and your identities?
JC: It was a weird week. There was good stuff and bad stuff. We got a lot of interest and support from old friends, partners and the queer community. Then there was the surprise as well. Some family and friends were wondering why we made a film like this, and what that meant about our identities as individuals and as a collective. We also discovered the ways in which Kenya and Africa are seen out there. Ever since this film came out, we’ve interacted with a lot of well-intentioned foreign media and audiences, but the idea that Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya are all one big, homogeneous, dark block called Africa is persistent even in 2015, when you would think most people would know better.

"Just existing as a queer person is revolutionary" 

Do you see yourselves as activists?
JC: At first, we were hesitant to accept the label activists, because we felt like that erased all the hard work that has been going on in Kenya for years and years with people we consider ‘real’ queer activists. People, who have been on the front-line for minority rights and sexual rights for a long time. It is their networks that allowed us to even conduct our research in the first place. After a while, we realized that sometimes just existing as an artist or as a queer person is revolutionary. Just being alive as someone who embodies a different way of seeing things, or with an opinion that is different from the majority dogma makes you some kind of activist.
What is the relation between art and the fight for social justice?

JC: Activism can get very theoretical sometimes. Often you are no longer talking about people and the rights you fight for become disconnected from lived experiences. We used to run a theatre programme here at The NEST that was based on the Theatre of the Oppressed, where the audience gets to intervene in a play. We always noticed the difference between people who are being lectured about an issue, versus people who are watching the issue play out in front of them and are given the power to say or do something about it. In the latter case, they are engaged, opinionated and honest. There is a way in which people connect to other human beings that makes them a little bit more honest than when they talk with experts about grand theories. I suppose that this is where art easily goes, to a place that is a little more honest.

What were some of the achievements you have had in making the movie so far?
JC: I think for every member of the collective the achievements have been different. Some of us didn’t consider ourselves filmmakers, but in helping to create the film, everyone had to learn one aspect of filmmaking and be part of the technical crew. Our technical skills and confidence grew as we went along. In a way we are all very different human beings from who we were when we started working on this project.
Among many other places you have shown the movie at the Berlinale 2015 in Berlin in February. What were your experiences there?
JC: The audiences at the Berlinale were engaged with the work in a way that I have not seen in many other film festivals. They had a deep appreciation for the craft of filmmaking and were aware of the politics surrounding this film, the context of its making. The festival staff was also very dedicated to presenting the films in the best possible way.

The USA and Africa's "homophobia problem"

How about the reception of the film in other places around the world? Where did you have the most unique experience?
JC: Toronto was our most emotional experience because of it being our first screening; all our fears had to be confronted. New York was also interesting, because of America’s relationship with Africa’s ‘homophobia problem’, which is a very close relationship, even though most Americans don’t like to admit that. America is simultaneously a great source of support for the queer and the anti-gay movements in Africa. People from the same country lend support to both ends of the spectrum. We were hesitant to highlight that issue in the beginning, but we could not let the American audience sit there and ask us why Africa is so homophobic when crazy American right-wing churches are so involved in supporting the anti-gay movement.
Despite its content, it is also praised for its good quality in terms of cinematography and soundtrack. You decided to shoot in black and white, what were your reasons for that?
JC: We had two reasons. One, cutting out the colour allowed us to focus on form and shadow, it simplifies some things technically. The second reason was more a question of representation. When you look at films that are set in Africa or about Africa, you always find the same colours: brown like the savannah, green like the jungle, and golden like the sunsets. When you look outside of the window, you will see that this is not a brown city. Kenya comes in many different colours. People talk a lot about changing the negative imagery coming out of Africa, but that discussion has never studied the formal structure of the images coming out of Africa. There is a chromatic hegemony that needs tackling as well. That’s something we want to break away from, hence the decision to shoot it in black and white.
How does it make you feel that Kenyans can currently not see the movie since you never made the movie for an international audience, but for Kenyans?
JC: I am somewhat amused that the Classification Board thinks they can control Kenyan adults. If you ban something, everyone wants to see it even more. This world has changed, and it is very difficult to control adults in that way these days. But it is also very infuriating. This idea that there is a government body whose work it is to look at cultural works and decide what is not fit for adults to see. It is an outdated way of seeing the world, it is annoying and it is sad, because the first screening we ever had with Kenyans is still the most powerful one. This film plays very differently for Kenyans. For us they are always our most important audience because it’s about them.