- March 18, 2021
Over the weekend, comedian Eric Omondi was arrested for shooting his much-hyped Wife Material reality show without a filming license. Questions over the practicality of regulating online content aside have revived the debate over film and film regulation in Kenya.
There is such a thing as over-regulating
Even long before Eric Omondi’s arrest, he and Ezekiel Mutua were at each other’s throats. Posturing, Eric had already dismissed the whole idea of licensing the production. As with any reality show, appearing to operate without a script is a winning strategy.
On the other hand, the Kenya Film Classification Board, (KFCB) issues filming licenses on the story script. As per the oft-quoted Film Act 222, a full script, a story synopsis, a storyboard, and a filming schedule must be submitted to the board to get a shooting permit.
This level of control amounts to regulating ideas and results in stifled creativity. Did you know that Kenyan filmmakers are required by law to get fresh approval to edit their movies as well?
Quite honestly, Cap 222 couldn’t be any more forbidding if it simply read: “Thou shalt not make film.” It seems like that is the unstated intention, at any rate.
If these are the conditions they have been working under, then Kenyan filmmakers deserve the heartiest of commendations. That they have been able to make anything at all with Ezekiel Mutua breathing down their necks is a scientific wonder. I felt my creative juices congealing just from reading the terms!
Here’s the problem with such a regulated industry; studios don’t make creative market decisions. They make regulatory decisions. They choose stories that are more likely to be approved, which may not always be the most exciting stories. There’s also the small matter of Ezekiel Mutua and his church-elder sense of humour to content with.
No filmmaker sets off to produce harmful content, but we must also be realistic. First off, foreign films don’t have to deal with the prohibitive Cap. 222 law on script verification beforehand. Second, and most importantly, scripts are much too raw to be used for rating.
Check out any major filmmaking destination (Nollywood, Hollywood, even Bollywood) and you will find that they all rate film content AFTER production. Only in Kenya do we regulate film from the time they are conceptualized. One can only imagine how many fantastic stories have been trashed just because a staffer at KFCB didn’t like its tone.
Filmmakers have to contend with market forces like every other industry. So why don’t they get the same commonsense regulations?
The film act stifles creativity
Film Act 222 makes so much more sense when you consider its assent in the twilight of colonialism in Kenya in 1962. It’s precise (if unstated) objective is to put film production in the control of the government. Never mind how this affects the creatives involved.
First off, studios, producers, and TV stations in Kenya will never greenlight anything more exciting than Tahidi High. The decision does not lie with them, after all. The government dictates what gets made and what doesn’t. As currently constituted, sticking to what is working right now pays in the Kenya film industry. Pushing boundaries is just too exorbitant and risky.
Eric Omondi pushed the boundaries with Wife Material – maybe a tad too much. He is the case we all know, but only because he faced off publicly with Mutua. How many more have been smothered by KFCB’s gauntlet of creativity?
The film industry is often accused of being closed off to new talent. I made an unsuccessful but very spirited attempt to ‘get in’ some time ago, so I know. No one will open their doors for you. No one will look at your script synopsis.
But after reading the Film and Stage Plays Act 222, I feel positively impressed with Kenyan filmmakers. I am quite inspired by the spirit of the Kenyan filmmaker. I am sure lawyers have to jump through fewer hoops to try a murder case!
So intimidating has Ezekiel Mutua become that he is now acting as a gatekeeper to filmmaking in Kenya. I have a friend who has vowed to shelve his filmmaking ambitions until the market is more open. His argument; “why bother when Ezekiel Mutua will censor anything I come up with anyway?”
Competition from Hollywood, Nollywood, et al
One cannot help but wonder what exactly KFCB fears from filmmakers. Ezekiel Mutua has made a career out of the refrain; “to protect our children from immoral content”, but that argument carries little weight in commercial filmmaking where viewers determine a film’s success. It’s even less compelling in relation to online content.
Because Kenyan productions have to be regulated from ideation, all through execution till distribution, the quality can never match that of more established film markets. You know, markets where filmmakers are given a freer hand.
So, really the only thing that Ezekiel Mutua’s campaign against local content is fulfilling is giving foreign content the upper hand in our market. Simply put, Cap 222 is the boxing equivalent of sending a competitor to a boxing match with their hands tied to their back. They will just get their faces pummeled raw.
Can someone tell Dr Ezekiel Mutua, Kenyan filmmakers are tired of being punched in the face?
In a free-market economy like Kenya, consumers get to choose what they spend their money on and what to give a pass. The problem with the Film Act is that it purports to make this choice for the masses at the cost of filmmaker freedom.
And look, this is not an article calling for zero regulations. Filmmakers recognize the need for age restrictions. My biggest issue is that as currently constituted, KFCB serves as more of a blockade to creativity of any sort. Speaking as a scriptwriter, the very notion that my work will be judged first by the government and second by the people with whom we’ll make the film … there goes my creative juices congealing again.
The Kenya film industry has the potential to reach over 120 million Swahili speakers alone. And with English as the lingua franca to half the world, Kenyan productions ought to be aspiring to the international film market. We can’t do this effectively with KFCB looking over our shoulders from start to finish.
So why not let the market set the standards for itself? Why not just rate the output and regulate distribution? Hollywood does this and it dominates the global movies market. If Kenya is to have half a hope of growing from its current cottage industry-standard to command the world market, there goes the formula.
The best investment that the Kenya film industry can make right now is to start a strong and active Filmmakers Association, a body with the muscle to lobby for better laws and regulations. Laws and regulations that make sense and that leave room for filmmakers to express themselves without having their creativity choked out.
Another area of improvement for Kenyan filmmakers is the need to start investing in the industry’s growth. With Netflix and Showmax shaking up distribution channels, the market is set for explosive growth in the next few years.
However, for filmmaking to really take off there is a need for more investments. Not just in the funding of movie production (which is critical) but also in the human resource capability. Admit new talent into the game. Let’s see new faces on the screens. Talent is just as important as money in film. Let’s invest in both.
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