CENTER STAGE: Mark Maina on Africa & Kenya’s sole 2017 Cannes Showcase ‘Neophobia’
CENTRE STAGE on Nate’s Crest is a column that seeks to circumnavigate Kenya and the East African region in search of insight from leaders, visionaries and progenitors in the creative industry.
The film ‘Neophobia‘ gave Kenya reason to gasconade as the only African country having represention at one of the most prestigious film festivals on the planet, the invitation-only Cannes Film Festival.
This is by far a commendable achievement, especially considering this was a special edition of Cannes, being the 70th anniversary. Established in the 1940s and previously named the International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival is held in the South of France and often attracts the creme of the Industry and is an invaluable plaform for the established and the novice.
I recently got a brief opportunity to connect with Mark Maina, the Director of ‘Neophobia’, who had then just got back from France. He’s a really nice guy, level headed, focused and visionary. Here’s what he had to say:
Who is Mark Maina and what motivated you to get into Film?
MM: Well, I’m actually from Nakuru and chose to pursue a more traditional academic route; I took Computer Science as my major at the University of Nairobi where I graduated in 2013. My passion for film began in my first year in campus, where I started crafting visual effects, inspired by a behind the scenes featurette to the 2002 film ‘The Bourne Identity‘. The response I got from family and friends about these visuals made me realise that I had a talent for story-telling. I got involved in an NGO-sponsored film-making program in Kiambu where I was crowned Best Director, Student and Editor. So I was convinced of my abilities and decided to follow this route, mapped out by my strengths, interests and a burning ambition. I’m also thankful that short films which I have written and directed have also gone on to win international awards. I still maintain a day job however, working as a software developer.
Fiona Bosibori (played by Joyce Maina), the key character in ‘Neophobia’, is weary of new things, ultimately influencing even the title of the film. Why this particular subject matter? Why not more conventional themes?
MM: Well, looking at my body of work (these include Home, Consigned to Oblivion and now Neophobia), you will realize that I try to delve into different genres, with unique elements. Neophobia was inspired by interactions with various people, especially those in the Film Industry, who ‘wear different faces’ which I feel are not a true reflection of themselves. The character (Fiona) does things in old and rather predictable ways but ends up changing heart to doing new things. She realizes however that she’s still not happy. With the help of a psychoanalyst, she contends with the fact that true happiness comes from within and not what surrounds her. My ultimate intention is to push the benchmarks of Kenyan filmmaking up a notch, by introducing different filmmaking styles and genres rarely found in African film, that is whimsical storytelling.
As Director of ‘Neophobia’, what was your greatest challenges, especially considering you used a lean team to achieve a remarkable feat?
MM: Scheduling conflicts. Marshalling the entire team was the biggest challenge. As you are aware, in Kenya we don’t really have a commercial film industry, so most filmmakers prefer to do a film while maintaining a day job (I’m a great example) or sign up to several productions in order to have financial stability. Therefore, getting the entire cast and crew on the same day was not easy, especially considering the fact that there were also last minute location and equipment confirmations.
In media recently, your Cinematographer mentioned that this project was part of your growth as filmmakers. Do you feel you’ve grown in your craft since this project?
MM: Very much so. Breaking into an international arena is not easy and this project has made me realize that we have great stories and talent that can get international recognition. Every film we make should be better than the last one we did. That’s even my motto. Going up and up!
What was the selection process like, in order to be able to showcase at the Cannes Film Festival?
MM: The Festival de Cannes is the largest film event in the world. It aims to draw attention to, and raise the profile of, films. In doing so, it hopes to contribute to the development of cinema and boost the film industry internationally. In the midst of such a privileged environment of discovery and a vibrant mix of cultures, the Official Selection is revealed, which culminates in the award of the Palme d’Or to the best film entry during the closing ceremony. There is also a short film category which is basically a selection of 30 short films from around the world, to be screened at numerous theatres inside the Palais. My film Neophobia was selected to screen, after I submitted it on the VERY LAST DAY of submissions. It was later that I found out it was not only the only Kenyan film selected, but also the only African film.
Congratulations! Who are some of the most critical personalities you got to engage with at the Cannes Film Festival, and is there anything we can look forward to following your phenomenal trip?
MM: At the Festival, I met with very many people. Among those, I can specially point out Barry Jenkins who is the Writer and Director of Moonlight, the film that took home this year’s Oscar for Best Picture. I also met an exxecutive at Paramount Pictures with whom I am currently exchanging emails, regarding a current project. I can’t say much about the project, but just that it’s a mix of film-noir and neo-noir thriller. I also met with the Bilateral Affairs Advisor, International Policy Unit at the Centre for National Cinema in France and we are talking of co-production for a science fiction film.
So why is it that a good number of locally produced films end up premiering internationally instead of right here at home in Kenya?
MM: I honestly think it’s because in Kenya we don’t have much of an established or dedicated commercial film industry for locally produced content. Even beyond that, most of these films are often produced with the intention of exposing our work, that is, through various film festivals and film competitions which then become the priority.
With such an opportunity, were you able to secure any commitments from either the Film fraternity at Cannes or the Kenya Film Classification Board which sponsored your trip, with regards to your filming projects or those of other local films?
MM: Yes. The meeting in Paris with Julien Ezanno, the Bilateral Affairs Advisor, International policy Unit at the Centre for National Cinema in France (CNC) was one of the most fruitful. There were discussions on creating some kind of collaboration between Kenyan and French filmmakers – a conference is being planned for that with the aim of training government officers on sensitizing local producers on the available opportunities for funding by the Centre, and a possible benchmarking trip and workshop with a few selected Kenyan filmmakers to France.
Lastly, we keep talking about a fledgling Kenyan film industry. What do you think will help take things to the next level?
MM: I believe we have great stories to tell, but we should think outside the box. We should be engaged in high quality and creative storytelling for film, more than for TV. After interacting with a few international distributors, what came out clearly is that comedy is hard to sell, for the simple reason that what is comical in Kenya may not be comical in say, China. I think we are making good progress with comedy for TV, but we need to focus more on Film. There are many other discoveries I made about what would make the industry prosper and to top it all is to break away from what has been traditionally done, though we can still learn from it. My devotion now is to expand our genre benchmarks. Let’s have more risk-takers as we tell our stories, and in turn we will encourage financial risk takers to invest in our productions. KFCB was also advised that beyond regulating content, they should come up with a platform to help Kenyan producers premiere their work. We need to expose our films to the outside as well. It’s sometimes expensive to submit to these festivals, but I must say the fruits are worth the investment.