Those with a keen eye will notice in the closing credits of David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga’s energetic and immensely entertaining film, Nairobi Half Life, that Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Cloud Atlas) is listed as supervising director. While Tykwer and his One Fine Day Film Workshop, which sponsors an African film per year, oversaw the production, it is Gitonga and lead actor Joseph Wairimu whose names will keep audiences talking. The pairing is a match made in heaven as they deliciously infuse new life into familiar cinematic tropes.
Nariobi Half Life is a crowd-pleaser that will have audiences laughing one moment and gasping in shock the next. The film tells the story of Mwas (Wairimu), a young man who spends his days selling pirated DVDs around his rural village. His ability to quote key lines from various Hollywood blockbusters, such as 300, make his sales pitches even more entertaining than the films he is selling. When a theatre troop from the city of Nairobi visits his village, Mwas is inspired to fulfill his dreams of being an actor. Leaving his parents home with only a little bit of money, and a bag full of car stereos he promised to deliver for an acquaintance, Mwas sets out for life in the big city. However, Mwas quickly realizes that life in Nairobi is nothing like what he thought it would be.
It only takes a few minutes after stepping off the bus in Nairobi for Mwas to be assaulted and mugged. Mwas’ poor luck continues as he finds himself thrown in jail, before the day is even half over, for a crime he did not commit. During his brief stint in jail Mwas meets Oti (Olwenva Maina), a low-level thug who decides to take Mwas under his wing once he is released. Living in the Gaza district of Nairobi, were crime and corruption are a way of life, Mwas assists Oti and his gang in stealing car parts for the black market.
As Mwas descends into a life of crime, he never loses sight of his desire to be an actor. He even lands a supporting role in a local play despite not understanding the play’s symbolic message at first. While it is clear Mwas has a natural gift when it comes to acting, he cannot leave the criminal aspect of his life behind. Struggling to juggle the double life he leads, Mwas can only hang on for so long before the world around him comes crashing down.
Nairobi Half Life, Kenya’s official 2012 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film, is reminiscent of former Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire. Gitonga’s camera beautifully captures life in Nairobi; the vibrant colours help to emphasize the overall pulsating energy of the land. His direction crackles with youthful exuberance, as he keeps the film moving at a brisk pace without being afraid to occasionally push the limits when it comes to the film’s dark humour. An example of this comes early on when Mwas is forced to clean the filthiest washroom to ever be captured on film. The sequence is both hilarious and cringe worthy and makes the toilet scene in Trainspotting seems like child’s play in comparison.
Gitonga’s gift for finding the right comedic moments to break the tension is frequently on display in the film. This allows Nairobi Half Life to explore themes of poverty, corruption and violence in a way that is neither too hard hitting, nor overly sentimental. Gitonga presents Nairobi as two distinct halves that each need to change their ways to unify whole. There is the upper class part of the population, which houses the Phoenix Theatre where Mwas is acting, that snobbishly looks down on anyone who is deemed to be not up to their standards. This aspect of Nairobi life is nicely juxtaposed with the slums in which Mwas spends most of his time. Gitonga portrays the Gaza as a place where the police are more crooked and ruthless than many of the thieves and prostitutes in the area.
As the audience’s connection between these two worlds, Joseph Wairimu gives a star-making performance as Mwas. He perfectly encapsulates Mwas transition from a naïve youth to a man who experiences the harsh realities of life. Wairimu’s charisma skillfully handles both the comedic and dramatic aspects of the film.
While Nairobi Half Life wraps up in a far too convenient manner, the film is far too entertaining for audiences to dwell on the minor missteps. The film firmly cements Kenya as a force to watch in the coming years.
Thursday, March 7, 9 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
This review was original published as part of our TBFF 2013 coverage. Nairobi Half Life is screening as part of the Goethe Films: One Fine Day – Africa Now retrospective.