Wanjiru Kinyanjui

Originally published in Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film Video and Television. Africa World Press, Trenton, NJ,  2000.

Several conversations took place by electronic mail during the month of February 1999 between Washington, DC and Kenya.

Wanjiru, you are among a visible group of women from Kenya who are emerging in the field of film, video, and television production.  Could you begin by talking about your experiences with the image while growing up in Kenya?

I've always been fascinated by storytelling and the theater in which I used to take part in school.  When I was young, my imagination seemed to function visually.  For instance, I could make believe the creatures I was reading about were around me somewhere and what they looked like.  An example is that when I read Erich Kästner's "Emil and the Detectives" in 2nd class, I transplanted the whole story into my everyday location, Nairobi.  The characters were mainly little boys wearing tattered khaki shorts and shirts, all ganging up together in the streets.  It is only when I studied Erich Kästner at university level that I realized that it was a German story, a German storyteller, and a German location!

My experiences of cinema and images are the Saturday nights in boarding high school where we were shown films like old James Bond, Mary Poppins, and other rather innocent films.  Outside of school, we would sneak off from home to go into Indian films, which we understood without language: We were teenagers and curious about love and romance.  At English language class outings, we would go to the British Council in Nairobi to see mainly BBC Shakespeare productions (in class, we read Hamlet and Macbeth mixed up at random with some African writers).  I studied English, and later drama for a Master's degree and German Literature in Berlin.  Significantly, and some say perversely, considering I am "third world," my thesis was entitled "Shakespeare's King Lear: Loss of Identity and Discovery of Self."  It had a lot to do with seeing: visual, inner-vision, seeming, being, and so on.

So this began your evolution in the cinema?

Well, my love for story-telling rather than writing academic papers got the better of me, and before I finished my MA degree, I had decided to make the plunge into a world which is full of characters and their stories.  I therefore applied and was accepted at the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie (DFFB), where I felt I had found "it"!  At the film school, my basic problem was to get the Europeans to co-operate with "an ignorant black woman."  We had to work very practically and help each other in each of our productions.  But no one in my class would invite me to work on their projects, because they probably did not think I was capable! Well, beginners generally are not, and I therefore decided that I had to resort to another plan in order to gain practical experience there.  I decided to do as much as I could on my own productions.  So I ended up writing my own stories, doing my own camerawork, directing, and editing, rather than ask people who would not let me do theirs for them.  Well, it worked quite well until I got to do the last projects, for which I got friends of mine.

The film school was definitely a great opportunity for me because we had no theoretical exams.  Our papers were actual films and we could, therefore, experiment on each film we made after every seminar or workshop.  Some cinemas in Berlin provided us with free tickets and it was possible for us to watch as many different films as we had time for.  I could choose my own subjects, my own format, and the people I would work with.  In a way, it was a freeing experience.

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