A day on the set of Kenyan Film “Ni sisi”

24 Feb

A (very) compressed version of this article first appeared in the Saturday Nation on 23rd February 2013 under the title “Local Movie Premiers at Starflix”


It’s not often that one finds themselves at the Kenya national theater parking lot  on a Saturday afternoon hanging out with  actors and waiting for Jospeh Wairimu; the star of the hit movie Nairobi Half life. But if you ever do, chances are the actors will riddle you with tales of how to make fake feces on movies as a lone musician practices his guitar not far away.

This specific group of actors is the cast for the movie “Ni Sisi” and is waiting to be driven to their shooting location. Their production van has been picking them here at six in the morning for the last three weeks and transporting them to Kikuyu where they’ve been shooting.  “Ni sisi” is the second feature film produced by SAFE an NGO in Kenya that uses street theater, art and community programs to educate, inspire and deliver social change. One of S.A.F.E’s patrons is none other than Daniel Craig the current James Bond.

For the actors, today is different because they will be shooting only evening and night scenes. Although it sounds less tiresome, it’s actually more tasking than normal days.  After half an hour of waiting, the driver grows impatient and it is time to leave.  They agree to pick Joseph along the way.

The van slowly drives out of the national theatre, past the Norfolk and into Kijabe Street. We stop right before the globe round about and after a few phone calls; Joseph, surprisingly simply dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, appears and gets into the van. Pleasantries are exchanged and we are off. The actors continue to chat about everything from voter registration to rolling on snow in Spain. On the van radio, the song “Mke Si Nguo” blasts. The actors grant, they do not like the music, but no one complains. Minutes later, half the van is fast asleep, perhaps in preparation for the long afternoon ahead.

A little under an hour later we are at Lusigetty shopping center in Karai location about fifteen minutes from Kikuyu town. Already waiting is a group of people; the producer, 1st assistant director and two police officers in plain clothes. The police officers have been brought along today to provide security because the shoot will extend well into the night. Soon after, two off road cars and a van arrive carrying more crew.  In total, there are about two dozen people taking part in today’s shoot. The locals quickly gather around. They strike up conversations with the team.

“We have been around here for quite a while” David Kinyanjui, the sound engineer tells me in between a kikuyu conversation with an old man. “A lot of people here have become our friends in the last three weeks. They help us out and we in return give them small jobs where we can”


David Kinyanjui the film’s sound man

For the last three weeks, the team has set up base at a former bar called “Dipset”.  The bar’s inside is dotted with paintings of different dancehall artists with lyrics of their respective songs written beside them. The actors, perhaps too busy to be looking at paintings, rush around unpacking their costumes and changing in preparation for the scenes. As they prepare, I am introduced to the movie’s producer Krysteen Savane and we step outside to talk. Krysteen is a soft spoken actress and is currently the project manager for S.A.F.E ghetto. She has acted on several local productions including Soul Boy, Ndoto Za Elibidi and Siri.


Krysteen during the night shoot

“After the 2007 post election violence, we saw that there was need to do something for peace. We came up with a play “Ni Sisi”. In the play a community lives in harmony and oblivious of each other’s tribes until an aspiring politician comes and incites them to violence. The story is about Jabali a young man in the community who has a dream about what is going to happen and tries to stop it with the help of some friends.” she says.

The S.A.F.E team toured all across the country with the play and as Krysteen tells me, the reception was more than they’d expected “The play triggered discussions among the people and communities we showed it to. People suddenly seemed to listen and have a change of attitude. We held discussions with the audiences at the end of the play and in one instance a group of youth came on stage and confessed that they had killed their friend during the violence and didn’t know what to do.”

In Dipset, The actors have finished changing now and Krysteen is called inside. Not far away, two men are unpacking gas cylinders and metal rods from a van. These two are Zuberi Mohammed and Rashid Tipiz. They are freelance special effects experts. “We specialize in all types of special effects in film; fires, explosions, blood and body impacts. We can even make fake rain.”  Zuberi the older of the two tells me. He is not over selling himself either, at least not if his track record is something to go by. Zuberi has done special effects for among other movies, Rise and fall of Idi Amin, Out of Africa and First grader.  

“Today we’ll be doing two effects and both are of fire.” He points at a salon across the street from us “We are going to show that salon burning without really setting it on fire then later we’ll set up fires on the road for a scene that involves violence at a road block.”  Most local productions, Zuberi tells me, shy away from using special effects due to the high cost. “We charge at least 250 dollars for each person on our team and that is not inclusive of the equipment we use. We’ve tried to bring the prices of some of the equipment down by improvising but it’s still expensive.” 

Some minutes later after I get a few demonstrations of Zuberi’s fire devices, I stop for a chat with the film’s director. Nick Redding is British born and a man with immensely rich experience in the film industry. He’s acted in globally celebrated films such as Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener, The Bill, First Grader and the series Strike Back just to name but a few. Nick, who has been in Kenya ten years, is the founder of S.A.F.E. “I first came to Kenya to assist a friend set up a pediatric HIV unit in Mombasa. It is then that I noticed the serious lack of public health education in Kenya and wondered what our profession was doing about it.”


Nick Redding in the hat and sunglasses

Nick organized an educative play with some doctors in Mombasa at the time and took it out to the people “when the reception was good, I decided to not do just plays but to do big plays. We started performing in slums and rural areas for free. We realized that by using art, you can make people think differently while at the same time entertaining them.”  Today, S.A.F.E has three chapters S.A.F.E ghetto based in Nairobi, S.A.F.E Pwani based at the coast and S.A.F.E Maa in Loita hills. S.A.F.E now employs over 50 people. “Other than me, everyone else that works at S.A.F.E is from the target communities. I am just a facilitator. We have been working in the slums for the last five years and the spirit and resourcefulness of the people there is remarkable and humbling”

After the elections in 2007, most of the actors in safe were affected in one way or another by the violence that followed. Due to this, S.A.F.E decided not to just make Ni sisi a play but a movie as well. “We had filmed the performances of the play as it toured round the country but we still felt the videos were not strong enough. A friend of mine suggested fusing theatre with film and I know a good idea when I hear one.” Nick says. Ni sisi combines film scenes and those of the live stage performances in the slums and rural areas. “When you watch this sort of thing you not only watch the film but you also watch the audience react to it. We want to release the movie sometime in February so it can have an impact before the elections.” Nick concludes.

It’s now about half past three in the afternoon and   finally time to shoot the first scene. This, however, involves driving to another location about ten minutes away from Karai. As only one actor –Joseph Wairimu who plays Jabali in the movie- is needed, only a handful of people will be going to the next location. About ten people hurdle into two cars.

I take Joan Poggio’s car. Joan is a thirty five year old Colombian born film maker. He is the Director of photography for the film. Put plainly, the director of photography is the head camera man. When I ask him how he got into the project, he jokes that he had to bribe his way through it. Joan came to Kenya seven and a half years ago while working for animal planet and decided to stay “I met my wife here and Africa is a very exciting place to be. Unless am kicked out, I’ll be here for a very long time.” He jokes.


Joan Poggio the film’s Director of Photography

 “This is my first time doing camera for a feature film. I have mostly been doing documentaries, editing and color grading. For this film I am using the red one scarlet camera. It’s very portable, modular, has great resolution and dynamic range.”  According to Joan the biggest challenge for those who love film today is discerning between good and bad films. “These are very exciting times for film. Now you can do so much with just a camera and laptop than was imaginable ten years ago. Unfortunately everyone wants their five minutes of fame. Having the equipment to do it does not matter. What matters is the story and this is a good story.”

 We drive to a winding road deep inside Kikuyu overlooking beautiful man made forests and plantations. Under the trees, a small stream flows by lazily and gleams from the afternoon sun. “In Kenya for instance we have the know-how to make films but as far as story telling goes, we are still in diapers. We still don’t know how to keep the audience engaged and get them buying the movies that we produce. But recently movies like Nairobi half life have proved that it can be done.”  Joan says.

We have arrived at the second location and the cars are parked by the side of the road.


The scene is a simple monologue where the character of Jabali walks down the road while talking to the camera. Achieving it, as we are soon to find out, is not as easy. This is rural kikuyu and motorbikes are the most convenient form of transport, as such one passes by every minute or so. As if this is not enough, traffic for cars seems to be busiest here in the late afternoons. After more than five takes, they still have nothing substantial and one of the assistant directors has to stand on one of the road and stop traffic. This still proves to be a challenge as some drivers and riders are uncooperative ruining several takes. After over fifteen takes, the director is finally happy and we set on our journey back.

 Everyone is excited about the action packed night scenes. “Am always excited about scenes but tonight’s scenes will be the climax of the movie not just because of their intensity but also because it’s a reminder of what could happen but should never happen” Joan says.

The drive back is a rather interesting one. The two off road vehicles race past the slow rural roads leaving long trails of dust and bewildered locals in a bid to make it back on the main location by dusk. In one of the villages, a goat won’t move out of the way and everyone has fetes of laughter about it. It’s however a grim reminder that we have not had lunch. Back on the highway, a matatu with failed break lights almost causes us to crush but Joan breaks and swerves to avoid hitting them. For a second everyone is scared stiff but no one is hurt.

Back at the main location, the actors have been preparing and the special effects experts are ready to set Zippy’s salon on fake fire. As the rest have already eaten, we dash into Dipset bar to have a quick late lunch of minced meat and chapati packed in white plastic containers. Excitement is now building up as the director, his assistants and the actors go through the action again.

As soon as dark sets in, it’s time to get on with the first special effects scene. In this scene, an angry mob burns down a salon belonging to Zippy, one of the characters, because she is of a different tribe. The special effects specialists Zuberi and Rashid make a wooden replica of the Salon’s front and place it in front of the salon. They then use a device called a fishtail which is a long strip of metal with a rectangular nozzle on one end and connected to a gas tank on the other to create the fire. The fishtail is cleverly hidden between the replica of the salon and the salon itself. When the gas tank is turned on, a large flame erupts and the fire is unbelievably realistic.

 No sooner had the first rehearsal started than a large crowd of locals gathered invited by the angry chants of the actors and the roaring flames. The assistant directors, whose job it is to control crowds, have an impossible task and have to call in the hired police officers who had not been needed till now to help. Due to the use of fire, they cannot take any chances with the unruly crowd mostly composed of children. No matter how hard they try, the crowds seem to b able to sneak past the barrier and get dangerously close to the fire. At one point, they even have to use canes to drive them back.

“The role of an assistant director is to guide the production. Each production is unique in its challenges and an assistant director has to be in hand to solve these challenges” James Sangoro, one of the assistant directors tells me. The role of an assistant director is to make schedules, manage time and ensure all the elements of the production run well. “We try to get our work done without disrupting the lives of the community in which we are working but sometimes it has to be done. Regardless of the situation we have to achieve what the director wants.”

In this case, the director wanted Zippy’s salon to burn. And burn it did. The fire rattled, the actors chanted angrily, the children and drunken youth desperately tried to get to the fire and the special effects specialists stood by with fire extinguishers. Every time the director called cut, Zuberi and Rashid would rush in and extinguish the fire. The assistant directors would push the crowd back and reset the props as the director gave the actors the next directions.


Soon after, the director would yell “Action!” and Zippy’s salon would be burning again with the angry mob of actors asking for blood. This was all done in a beautiful systematic way that can only be achieved from years of experience. When it was done, the watching crowd erupted in cheers and claps. After the wooden replica was removed, the original salon remained intact save for a few smudges of smoke that were easily cleaned out.


Zippyz salon burns

It is about eight now and darkness has fully set in and after the excitement of the fire has died down, so has the cold. The whole team moves to the road for the most complex scene of the night. For this scene, the police officers who by now have changed to full uniform and are carrying guns have to shut down one end of the road. The assistant directors, art designers and special effects specialists set to work building a believable road block. They use stones, an overturn hand cart, a motorbike, wheelbarrow, crates and more stones.


As they prepare, I finally get a chance to speak to Joseph Kimani Wairimu the star of the film best renown for his lead role in the recently released movie Nairobi Half Life. His performance won him the best actor’s award for both the Durban International film festival in Durban and Kalasha awards held recently in Nairobi.  “Please call me Babu. That’s what everyone calls me” He tells me as he starts to explain his role in the movie. “I play Jabali the lead character. Jabali has a dream about the politically motivated chaos that is going to befall his community and sets about trying to stop it from happening with the help of some friends.”

Babu, an activist who aspires to be a film director holds the project close to heart as he experienced the post election violence first hand while living in Huruma. “I am just glad that I can use my talent to influence people positively and try to ensure that we don’t have a repeat of what happened in the last elections.”  Babu has taken his peace initiative further than just on stages and films. “I have been working with Boniface Mwangi of Pawa 254 in different areas of Nairobi such as Kamukunji and Starehe. We’ve been going round in video joints and social halls screening documentaries of the post election violence to evoke emotions among the youth and deter them from violence in the coming elections. We have already done a hundred screenings.”


Joseph Wairimu and Joan Poggio on set

Babu’s new found fame has however gotten him to a bit of unexpected trouble. “I had never been robbed before in my life but it happened right after the premiere of Nairobi Half Life. I was way laid one evening on my way home by some youth who were convinced I had a lot of money. They don’t understand that we had made Nairobi half life back in 2010.They were very disappointed.”

Back on the set, the road block is now set up and again, the team does not disappoint. Rocks positioned all round the road are set on fire using a thick pink substance called fire gel which is a mixture of several chemicals and kerosene. Behind the actors, the special effects specialist set up a device called a flame bar which is just that, a bar of roaring flames fed from several gas cylinders.  Curious motorists either speed past or slow down to stare at the chaos not sure what is happening.  For this scene, the assistant directors cannot take any chances with the crowds as some of the flames are live with tires and other things burning. They have to stop over and over again when an onlooker tries to cross the barrier.

The first sequence is of a dead body by the road side and this is shot quickly moving on to the more complex sequence of two opposing groups; one trying to save a girl, Roxanna, and the other trying to kill her. The latter succeed.


Roxana and the two groups

Loud, angry chants from the actors of “kata! Kata!” are so convincing that a few passers by run away in fear.  All does not go smoothly though as frustrations rise when the onlookers keep interfering and some actors lose concentration from repeating the same thing over and over again.

Towards the end of the scene, a drunk local from a nearby bar lurches at the camera man in a drunken stupor but no one is in the mood for play. He is quickly handed over to the police and the action resumes. The fire gel is dying out fast and the actors playing the angry mob are tired, cold and thirsty.

For the umpteenth time, Roxana, played by Jackie Vike, is dragged on the road and beheaded by mob of actors. All this happens as her friends including Jabali struggle to go help her but are held back by friends who know better. Jackie does the role justice. She gives an outstanding performance take after take despite the cold and the brutality of the scene. Eventually, the scene comes to a close with a light moment as the director yells “You can rest now Roxana, you’re officially dead.”

At a few minutes to eleven, the stones and debris is cleared from the road and the director calls it a wrap.


Many thanks to Steve Muriungi above who arranged for my presence on the set and to the whole crew and cast of “Ni Sisi” for taking time out of their tasking duties to speak to me.


One Response to “A day on the set of Kenyan Film “Ni sisi””

  1. David February 16, 2014 at 6:35 am #

    Nice. I loved the movie. This must have been exciting for you to be on set

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