Expanding on his producing role on 2012’s Nairobi Half Life, director Tom Tykwer assists Kenyan filmmaker Mbithi Masya on his debut feature, an offbeat drama set somewhere in the afterlife. Winner of the FIPRESCI international film critics’ award this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, Kati Kati is well-suited to festival play and could eventually garner further attention on VOD.
The film begins literally in the middle of nowhere, as Kaleche (Nyokabi Gethaiga) wanders lost and disoriented through the Kenyan grasslands, trying to remember how she got there, but her mind is a blank. Dressed only in a hospital gown, she drifts aimlessly until she comes upon Kati Kati, a wilderness resort. She doesn’t recognize the place or any of the people living there, but they welcome her and explain that she’s actually dead, just like the 20 or so other inhabitants. Unlike them, however, she’s suffering from amnesia and can’t remember anything about her 30 or so years of life or how she died, but it seems that Kati Kati is some type of limbo where these souls linger until they’re able to pass on to the next stage of her journey.
Kaleche has a hard time accepting her circumstances, but when everyone tells her the same thing, after several days she comes to accept her fate, but feels no closer to recalling anything about her circumstances. Thoma (Elsaphan Njora), who’s been at the resort for nearly three years, counsels her to try and remember her past so that she can transition to the next stage of her journey. Young Mikey (Paul Ogola), a suicide victim, also takes an interest in Kaleche, but he’s so despondent over disappointing his strictly religious mother that he kills himself again, disappearing from Kati Kati.
The residual trauma of her death and entrapment at the lodge begin to stir Kaleche’s memories, but everything is a maelstrom of images that make no sense. Then a shocking revelation by Thoma clarifies everything for Kaleche in an instant, provoking an emotional confrontation over Thoma’s identity that may finally provide Kaleche with the sense of peace that she needs to depart from Kati Kati.
Masya, a former advertising art director and conceptual video artist, selects an appropriate scale for his indie drama, concentrating his cast at a single location that has sufficient variety to avoid too much visual repetition. The drawback to this approach is that little of the often spectacular surrounding countryside is featured in the film, even though Kenya is a major international tourist destination. The script bears the hallmarks of co-writer Mugambi Nthiga’s theater background in its often stagey presentation, but the introduction of fantasy and flashback sequences relieves the potential monotony.
As Kaleche, Gethaiga wears the character’s bewilderment well as she struggles with her amnesia, but the lack of detail about her background isn’t adequately resolved in later scenes, until her unexpected confrontation with Thoma brings her past life rushing back. Njora plays Thoma as a good-natured manipulator more interested in his own welfare than the legitimate needs of his fellow residents at Kati Kati, a superior attitude that eventually turns against him.
Venue: AFI Fest
Production companies: One Fine Day Films, Ginger Ink Films
Cast: Nyokabi Gethaiga, Elsaphan Njora, Paul Ogola
Director: Mbithi Masya
Screenwriters: Mugambi Nthiga, Mbithi Masya
Producers: Sarika Hemi Lakhani, Siobhain “Ginger” Wilson, Tom Tykwer, Katja Lebedjewa, Guy Wilson, Marie Steinmann-Tykwer
Director of photography: Andrew Mungai
Production designer: Emmanuel Mrabu
Costume designer: Ayako Bertolli
Editor: Louizah Wanjiku
Music: Sean Peevers, Ibrahim Sidede
Not rated, 75 minutes