How do you write about a flawed film?

Still from Waithira

“What are the ingredients that make up a life?” wonders filmmaker Eva Munyiri at the beginning of Waithira, a film that, in her words, is “a portrait of family, and a study of migration, assimilation and generational spirit.” Here she patches interviews with family members across various geographies and generations–from Dresden in Germany, to Mutuini in Kenya and North Wales–to reflect on the impact they believe their grandmother Waithira, who the film is named after, has had in shaping all of their lives.

I’m not a sophisticated film watcher, but some of the ingredients that made up my concerns while watching and reviewing this film are how to applaud the important subject, capturing images and creative bricolage that feature in this project made by a vibrant African female filmmaker, while also critiquing some of what I see as its limitations.

A film that is anchored in the portrait of a resilient grandmother, who has raised many generations through great sacrifice and determination is, undoubtedly, much warranted. The tributes to her by all of those who recall her here offer tender insights into this fearless matriarch. At the same time, for the most part, it seems that what is most valued in two of the three members of Waithira’s family interviewed, progeny of more or less the same generation and from whom we compose a portrait of Waithira the senior, is their intelligence, sure, but also their ability and desire to live in northern metropoles far from home in Kenya.

It is wonderful to see all of these beautiful women charting new paths in different places, and whose freedom and possibility are, so we are to believe, an inheritance from a righteous grandmother. At the same time, better linkages between these scenes was required as we have to clutch at many tenuous strings in order to make our own connections (perhaps this was the intention?).

It seems there are very many sub-themes in the film; displacement and exile, non-traditional women, the filmmakers excavations of herself, freedom as inheritance, pasts that are buried deep but that can never fully disappear, family disintegration and even Mau Mau. Unfortunately, they never fully come together in a way that brings all of these memories through one central nervous system. Though some scenes are offered similar staging – such as when all three Waithira’s are doing their nails or traveling by bus in three different spaces – for the most part they remain visually effective but disassociated recollections that leave the viewer grasping.

When the sole male protagonist, her uncle, is interviewed about his experiences during the 1952-1960 state of emergency, he talks about the immoderate beatings, denial of education, the confiscation of family livestock, imprisonment of fathers and other ways this time was registered by a child watching imperial violence unfold in his family. It is not so much the words, but the embodied way that he narrates this period – simultaneously a pain-laden contortion and parsimoniousness – that critically establishes the experiences of Mau Mau and their supporters. We need to hear these stories. Especially since (against the irony of a president like ours named Freedom and the fact that Mau Mau (also known as The Kenya Land and Freedom Army) and their descendants are likely the most over-researched group in Kenyan history but are still landless, the recent monument in their honor seems to signal an imposed foreclosure, (an imperial “dusting shoulders”), to prevent greater discussion into how they have been forced from our past and present.

My concern with these references to Mau Mau, however, is what I perceive as the overwhelming focus on Kikuyu loss during this period. I fear this contributes to the unproductive pile of Kikuyu nationalist kaka responsible for many of the circumstances we are in at the moment. When uncontested statements such as “other tribes were free and they were loyal to the British” are voiced by a protagonist without further elaboration, or the filmmakers narration, from an unnamed source, that “the Kikuyu could easily be described as the most exploited group of Africans in Kenya” proceed unchallenged, I fear it reifies Kikuyu exceptionalism and this, in my opinion, has a range of dangerous implications. Is an uncritical nostalgia to blame for these musings? Should we attribute it to artistic navel gazing? Whatever the motivation, it remains (at least for me, a Kikuyu, most uninterested in Kikuyu nationalism) deeply unsettling.

The first two lines of the film proclaim: “The knots are untied and I go off untethered.” Poetic. Definitely. But maybe if Waithira’s story was presented as a symbol of other grandmothers and women in Kenya and beyond – those who had to encounter the worst of colonial and postcolonial violences through their bodies and spirits – it would have allowed for more texture and breadth. Perhaps if there was more recognition of the middle-class privilege that permits for the worldliness of most of the female characters presented here, it would help us discern many more of the complex layers that assemble women’s experiences across multiple generations.

Ultimately, while we get to see some of the ingredients that make up Waithira’s life, and vivid cinematography of the places where her life and memory have been extended, as a viewer I would have preferred more knots to be tied and a little less untethering.

Wangui Kimari

Wangui Kimani is an urban ethnographer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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