Hollywood Blueprints – Nairobi Half Life (2012)

By Alex Lyons

As an outsider, the social landscape of Kenya and its capital Nairobi appears to be dominated by a concoction of politics, tribalism, violence, poverty and crime. Typically understandings are warped by the producers of international media, my main source of insight into the country. The idea of Nairobi Half Life (2012), before its debut, was intriguing. Theoretically it was to offer a fresh perspective, to gain new insights and evolve an internal view of this place, its inhabitants and its varying cultures.

The film is the directorial debut of David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga and from reading his background one can quickly draw parallels between his personal life and the film. Tosh was born into a small town in the East of Kenya before he moved to Nairobi to study marketing. On completion of his studies he began working for production companies and assisting on productions such as Afrika Mon Amour (2007), Gardener Of Eden (2007) and The First Grader (2009). Following this he joined One Fine Day Film Workshops where he was selected to direct Nairobi Half Life (2012).

Portraying Reality

“Most people you see in movies have very little relation to real people. That isn’t bad either that’s one of the conventions of art. But the relation of art to real life is very complicated, very ambiguous… In the average Hollywood movie you don’t see real people, either mainstream people or marginal people. You see ideas people have about what people are supposed to be or the way people are supposed to be represented.” (Susan Sontag)

By doing what Sontag suggests, Nairobi Half Life naturally fits into the traditional Hollywood mould. In this mould, characters are either homeless or gay or a prostitute or a hero or a carjacker. Simply put they are either good or bad.

Nairobi Half Life’s (2012) premise encapsulates the city’s nickname ‘Nairoberry’. By attempting to portray Nairobi as a city full of cliché characters: thieves, corrupt policemen, prostitutes and homosexuals, the film fails to inform us of the realities of Nairobi’s inhabitants. In a realist approach, a director’s understanding of people’s psychology is pivotal to creating believable fictional characters. The characters in Nairobi Half Life reveal the observational arrogance in Tosh Gitonga’s knowledge of individuals, regardless of whether it’s intentional or not. The main character, Mwas, is consistently wide-eyed. In the city, everything is new to him: the robbery, the police corruption, the prostitution, the urban culture.

Mwas looks on in awe after he is robbed on arrival in Nairobi.

Because of the filmmaker’s posing of Mwas’s naivety, he becomes increasingly monotonous. Mwas’s character development, therefore, stagnates. Mwas is so clueless to city life that the humor becomes slapstick. This is evident as you watch him fall through a roof, or robbed of his baggage at the bus park. From watching Mwas, one could think that there were no newspapers, televisions, radios or travellers in rural Kenya to inform him of the reality of Nairobi life. His father’s warning shows him to be rather foolish.

Gitonga misses the complex game of cat and mouse often played by Nairobi’s inhabitants: they must always be one step ahead of the thieves, and the thieves are in return getting smarter. He, thus, misses the psychology of thieves in a city where they are constantly being hunted.

Even though the car thieves are killed in the end, its not their death that is interesting. The lack of internal conflict shows the whole sub plot—for example in Mwas’ taking of Oti’s girlfriend—lacks any sense of drama.

Then there is the periphery supporting cast who only ever appear in scenes with Mwas. Cedric, who is transformed in two scenes from an irrelevant extra into the gay admirer of the protagonist. This lack of progressive development in his character appears to portray gay people as silent predators who lurk in nightclubs and within confines of theatre props. It is very obvious and even cliché when the play director bellows in the stage rehearsal scene: What are you doing in there?

In a Hollywood mould, the subplot is intended to communicate a moralistic message. The filmmaker allocates this moral to a theatre cast recital in the final scene.“We’ve come to remind you of our existence. The question is have we chosen to live our life or have we taken it for granted. It is your choice. To look or to look away.”The words assume that the ‘we’ does not exist within the audience watching. The audience are not thieves, prostitutes, or homosexuals. In this way, the filmmaker attempts to persuade the audience into thinking that the characters are ‘good thieves’. Yet, this revelation also creates an archetype of the audience. It underestimates their life experience and their intelligence. By forcing the audience to judge the thieves as good, he brings to mind a quote by a famous African auteur.

“I tell you, in Africa, especially in Senegal, even a blind person will go to the cinema and pay for the extra seat for a young person to sit and explain the film to him. He will feel what is going on. Personally, I prefer to read because I learned from reading. But I think that cinema is culturally much more important, and for us in Africa it is an absolute necessity. There is one thing you can’t take away from the African masses and that is having seen something.” (Ousmane Sembène, P.43)

Cedric (right) begins to reveal himself to Mwas (left).

Imagining Nariobi

Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, featured in an advertisement earlier this year, which was aired at the Cannes International Film Festival. During the commercial, he appeals to filmmakers to visit Kenya due to their great “hospitality”, “unparalleled film locations” and “fantastic weather”. Similarly, Nairobi Half Life (2012) compliments Kenyatta’s appeal. The Hollywood-esque production, especially in the cinematography, sells the city to filmmakers and audiences alike.

Although realistic in content, the typical shots of mutatu-lined streets with women bent over plastic brightly coloured basins are simply any commercial cinematographer’s dream. Even the mazes of alleyways can so easily be manipulated to look dark and mysterious. Nairobi Half Life (2012) does not attempt to divert itself from this blueprint. In fact, it is more appropriately overly cautious of it. Christian Almesberger, Half Life’s cinematographer, uses tracks, cranes and steadicams to make even the most ugly scenes look beautiful. Since, as audiences we are more accustomed to feeling and relating with a scene than just viewing, personally the robbery scenes did not deliver a real element of fear or an adrenaline rush.

Gitonga should have fully developed his ideas and methods and relied less on the ‘beauty’ of the set. As an early career director, he should be experimenting.With such a canvas and seemingly endless realistic subplots, why was this attempt seems far too conservative.

Alex Lyons is a documentary filmmaker and visual artist who is a keen observer of African cinema.


Ousmane Sembène: An Interview by Gerald Peary and Patrick Mcgilligan/1972 (P.43)

Susan Sontag and Agnès Varda Interview (1969): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYNSJ0jCHFY

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s message to the Cannes Film Festival (2013): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXouVA1CCr4

4 thoughts on “Hollywood Blueprints – Nairobi Half Life (2012)

  1. I had exactly the same feeling about Viva Riva Samuel. I think Roger Ebert’s review of Viva Riva reinforces the mentality of these directors, “The plot would be at home in many countries, but the African locations are a gripping bonus here. You might learn more about Congo from this film than in a documentary, and you’d probably have more fun.”

    It seems as if shooting in Africa is just a bonus to the universal plot line. However the second part of his statement intrigues me more especially after watching Dan Snow’s History of the Congo documentary for the BBC. Is it possible to believe that Viva Riva offers a more insightful or truthful representation of the DRC and its people? Do film industries inform us more than documentaries? Think Nollywood.


  2. I agree with David. All I have heard of NHL are praises. Your review of the film (which I must mention, I have not watched) is real. I like the way you analyse the subtle elements and what we should really be looking at.

    I also like the fact that you mention a key element in contemporary African cinema when you say, “Gitonga should have fully developed his ideas and methods and relied less on the ‘beauty’ of the set.” Directors focusing a lot on the beauty of the set rather than the story is becoming ever so common. A film that comes to mind is Viva Riva (DRC) Nice opening scene, nice shots but weak plot. I strongly believe that without a solid plot line, there is not point for a film. I wouldn’t want to waste 90-120 minutes of my life for a bad story with good cinematography.

  3. Owch! Astute and acidic. Thanks for avoiding the usual rush to praise a ‘professional’ African production. I sense a patronising lilt in other reviews of NHL, as they pat Kenya on the head for so wonderfully imitating Hollywood. Give me Who Killed Captain Alex any day!

Comments are closed.