Kenya’s official submission for the 93rd Oscars Academy Awards

Monday, December 21st, 2020 00:00 |
Maia Lekow, Karisa Kamongo and Christopher King. Photo/Courtesy

On December 10, 2020, Kenya’s official submission for the 93rd Oscars Academy Awards in the Best International Feature Film category The Letter, premiered in Kenyan cinemas. Njeri Maina talks with its producers and lead cast about the inspiration behind its making

During the war for independence in the colonial Kenya, one of the most effective ways that colonialists used to subdue freedom fighters was by labelling them and spreading propaganda about them.

The British, for instance, labelled Mekatilili wa Menza a witch, in a bid to try and subdue her.

She had oathing ceremonies for Giriama freedom fighters, which were also labelled as witching rituals.

It is interesting that the witch label is increasingly used today by the younger Giriama generation on the older members of the society, especially in Kilifi county. It is a clear remnant of colonialism.

This is one of the issues we discuss with Maia Lekow, Karisa Kamongo aka Kaladze Vidze and Christopher King, as we look at how their documentary film The Letter tackles witchcraft and the intergenerational gap which is a ripe breeding ground for conflict.

The Letter was filmed and produced by Maia and Christopher, and stars Karisa and his extended family.

It explores how Karisa’s family handles the incidence of their 95-year-old grandmother being accused of witchcraft by a family member.

The film is Kenya’s official entry for the 93rd Academy Awards, and is currently showing in cinemas in Nairobi and Mombasa.

“In 2013, we read a children’s book that had Mekatilili’s story. We started researching that and immersed ourselves in the Giriama community for about four years.

Our subject slowly morphed to include the hackings of the older generation by the younger one and how claims of witchcraft were at the centre of it all. 

“So, in 2017, with about 500 hours of footage, most of which was in Giriama, we started looking for a translator.

A friend recommended Karisa, who as fate would have it, had just received a message on Facebook that his granny was being accused of witchcraft.

Karissa then consulted with his granny on whether she was okay with sharing her story with the world.

After her consent, we started filming,” Maia and Christopher told Spice in an interview.

The take off

They talk about working as a team and trying to make Karisa’s family comfortable enough to share their stories naturally.

They share how they both went into Karisa’s family with just two cameras, so that the family would feel more comfortable sharing in a smaller and more intimate space.

The process took two years, with multiple family members being interviewed resulting in more hours of incredible footage.

“I love documentaries. You never know what is going to happen and only learn on the go.

Karisa’s story unfolded as we filmed it. It is also important how pivotal a role the editor of a documentary plays.

We worked with Ricardo Acosta who helped us edit the footage into the thought provoking and conversation starter film it is today rather than a serial fetishisation of what is largely a human issue,” Maia explains.

Maia also shares how she worked with Ken Myrrh on the film’s original score, which is made up of 11 original tracks.

The tracks include one Giriama singing game she was taught by Karisa and another track that Karisa made for the film.

Karisa, a community worker and musician, talks candidly about how witchcraft allegations and hackings are quite common in his community.

He attributes this to the intergenerational gap between the young and the old and the scarcity of resources.

“The witchcraft label is bandied around quite often, at times by my generation and those slightly older.

I feel that part of the reason why we believe such claims without proof is out of lack of knowledge or understanding about the older generation.

We cast them as grandmothers and grandfathers and people who should pave way for the rest of us and do not give them room to be the nuanced humans that they are.

“These beliefs are ripe grounds for fake pastors and diviners to come in and fan fears and propaganda to levels that can easily translate to violence.

I know granny, and I was sure that anyone who knew her would have realised that these claims were false.

I hoped that sharing her story would help my community better resolve issues without violence being the first resort,” Karisa emotes.

Family malice

He shares how the entire process was eye opening for him, as he confronted biases and beliefs that he would not have believed would be harboured by his own family members had someone told him before.

He talked with friends and other community members and learnt how the older generation was being hacked by the younger as the latter looked for ways to faster inherit ancestral land.

The hackings would be legitimised by levelling witchcraft claims against the hacked.

Karisa shares how hearing stories from other elders who had been accused of witchcraft highlighted how important it was to share granny’s story.

He says that he never knew her story would be as big as it is now or that it would win awards on the world stage. He just wishes his grandmother was still around to share this triumph.

“She passed away in July from natural causes. She was 95. I am glad that we managed to share the final film with her.

She hoped her story would educate the community and help reduce the threats and witchcraft allegations often levelled against the older generation. I feel like this project in a way immortalised her,” says Karisa.

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