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Screen culture emerges from Kenya’s urban slum despair
Published May 29, 2006

Walking down the sometimes dusty, often garbage-littered and always mugger-friendly roads of informal settlements like Kibera in Nairobi, Langas in Eldoret or Kaptembwa in Nakuru, one is likely to note a screen culture quietly emerging from despair. This culture comes not from the makers of film who hardly ever go to the slums unless to make news features or documentaries, but results from the power of the audience to make their own meanings from movies imported from abroad. Fred Mbogo reports.

For a people starved of seeing themselves on screen due to a handicapped film-making sector, the mostly Nollywood (Nigerian), Hollywood (American) and Bollywood (Indian) movies shown are received and quickly interpreted to make sense of present local contexts. The movies also serve as welcome distractions from the harsh conditions prevailing in slums.

These movies are shown in “video houses” either from VHS or VCDs. The non-air-conditioned video houses seat 30-60 people. Granted, the room can be small but the benches used as seats are—like matatu seats—‘elastic’ in that the viewers are urged to sit ‘squarely’ because the entrepreneurs of the mini-halls are in business. The cover charge in most halls is five shillings (US$0.06), a price that has remained constant for over a decade now. With such a low price, a sizeable number of residents can access the video houses and enjoy the movies. (The lowest priced ticket in a commercial cinema is US$2.5).

What is most interesting in these houses is the spirit of comradeship in the audience. The idea of watching the movie in togetherness is enticing to the slum residents who when threatened by financial troubles, employment crises or marital disaffection can interact with heroic screen characters who overcome seemingly insurmountable odds with ease. Such romantic portrayals of characters always spur interest in the audience which ignites a discussion amongst the viewers even before the storylines of the films are resolved. In a sense the movies and the presence of an audience in almost similar circumstances in the video houses act as a couch for an individual member of the audience who otherwise would ‘die his own death’ or carry his own cross’ when he is forced to bear the implications of his difficult slum life.

There is also an unspoken agreement among the audience and owners of video houses on what should be shown. The most popular films are the always-engaging Nigerian videos whose strength lies in black images and the issues they explore—love, voodoo, financial success from failure, inter-tribal/class marriage, corruption, divine justice.

Though Hollywood movies are also popular, not all of them can be shown in slum video halls. While true life stories and those centred on family issues are often ignored, action movies—those that have battle scenes, car chases, aerospace fights, sword combats, martial arts—are preferable. Comedies, especially those in the mould of Eddy Murphy or Martin Lawrence’s animated acting style are also popular, particularly when the storylines are clear. Science fiction, which sometimes employs alien characters in action-packed scenes, have a poor reception.

Bollywood movies are not always popular but they manage to attract a considerable number of faithful patrons. Their major selling point is usually their employment of elaborate music and dance as they explore their storylines. Their costumes and settings are always tastefully combined.

In the dark hours of the weekends, preferably on Friday and Saturday and the sometimes quiet Sunday nights, many video houses take their audience through heightened bedroom scenes. Scenes of nudity, coupled with desire and completed with arousing sexual intercourse, take centre stage. Given that slum dwellers often times consider themselves in ‘temporary’ homesteads, many men whose wives are at home (read, ancestral rural areas!) sometimes find themselves swept into the fantasy of sexual explorations. Laughter, applause and whistles of admiration are elicited from the audience in soft measures unlike the loud appreciation bestowed on action movies where emotional attachment is not as shamefully deep.

Though video houses are required by law to be closed by 11.00 pm, patrons enjoy movies past that hour especially when the servings are sexually-appealing.

The ‘good’ life in Nollywood movies is portrayed as one in which characters find themselves in leafy suburbs with state of the art furniture and sleek motor-vehicles in their garages.

Nollywood movies that proffer Christian messages are popular but despite the ‘sinful’ setting that is suggested by the darkness in the video halls they are shown in. Their cardinal interest is usually the portrayal of good and evil through a simplistic approach: God’s blessings come to those who are patient, long suffering, hardworking and ‘moral.’ Such blessings come in ‘ten-fold’ and are always portrayed in terms of a good car, an expansive mansion, tasteful furniture and beautiful dressing but rarely through a happy face, a satisfied soul or simple but peaceful homestead. A man or woman being punished by God mostly has his or her expansive business empire being liquidated to offset debts, loses personal assets such as beautiful car, good-looking attire, and so on. Suffering is equated to being ousted from a leafy suburb to the depths of slum life. Ironically, the movies suggest that slum living is punishment for some evil committed; otherwise it is God’s way of ‘testing’ his subjects.

Hollywood movies, with their technically efficient instrumentation on the other hand, bring to life a world whose characters are always in strife. They do not suggest in explicit terms the need to acquire any material, instead they subtly portray the joys of being surrounded by a good supply of flashy objects, tasty environments, glamorous machinery and peopled by men of power and wealth who control the actions of the rest of the world. Preferred action movies are popular not only because they can be said to pit a black hero against ‘horrible’ opposition but also because they entertain the audience with an introduction or exploration of sophisticated guns, computer technology and other electronic gadgetry. If we are to side with the behaviourists and social learning theorists then we might argue that the Hollywood movies preferred in the video houses have created a culture that celebrates violence. After-all, the world’s inhabited by characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jet Lee, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Wesley Snipes among others are put into order only through violence.

Slum dwellers first and foremost enjoy watching films for pleasure. Films provide them with space for the release of pent-up emotions. Indeed, the very nature of video houses that allows for the audiences’ to discuss movies as they are in ‘play’ mode is essential as a practice that fosters a bond among viewers. The movies also provide an opportunity for momentary escape from the surrounding harsh realities of slum life.

But what kind of an audience really patronises these video houses?

Video houses have a predominantly male audience. The female audience can hardly fit into part of the schedule that leads into the late night. Women however are catered for during the day. The environment then is ‘acceptable’ in the sense that there may be less cigarette smoke in the halls, and fewer people might be chewing miraa (khat)—which might be associated with violence. It is at these daytime shows that Nigerian movies are most popular as they are preferred by women. Christians, who might not be keen on watching movies in the evenings or at night when they might be involved in their own religious meetings, also prefer them. Children might be let in during the day to watch the movies and sometimes they will be let in at night as long as the movies being shown then are not categorised as ‘adult’. Even then, children who are not essentially ‘adult’ such as teenagers somehow get their way into the weekend movies as the intent of the entrepreneurs is to make profits rather than philosophise on moral questions.

But the kind of videos screened favour a male audience as they are attuned towards depicting male heroes displaying their masculinity which always result in victory. When female characters are displayed in these movies they are there to be ‘caught’ by the hero. They are the price for the tough duty that the macho hero has just completed. The numerous night movies over weekends on the other hand depict the female character as a tool for erotic pleasure or a valuable piece of property.

Fred Mbogo is a lecturer at Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.
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