How Oscar-Nominated Short 'Watu Wote' Was Inspired by True Events

2018 Oscar Nominated Short Films Live Action  -Watu Wote (All of Us) - H 2018
Courtesy of 2018 Oscar® Nominated Short Films

Katja Benrath shot the political short film as her thesis film in Germany.

In December 2015, a group of jihadist militants from the terrorist organization al-Shabab stopped a civilian bus on its way to Mandera in northeastern Kenya. The attackers forced the passengers to get up from their seats and pointed guns at their heads. Once outside, the terrorists demanded the Muslim passengers reveal the Christians among them for an on-the-spot public execution. The Muslims refused to do so.

Katja Benrath, at the time a graduate student in her last year at Hamburg Media School in Germany, came across a 200-word article about the bus attack and made it into her thesis film. “I had instant goosebumps,” she said.

Two years later, Watu Wote (All of Us), a German-Kenyan production, is nominated for the Oscar for live-action shorts. The 22-minute film, following Jua, a Christian living in Kenya who boards a chartered bus that is stopped by terrorist group al-Shabab, has already won the Student Academy Award for a narrative film from an international film school and has played at festivals around the world.

For Benrath, 38, it wasn't an easy shoot in Kenya: "Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong," she says. "Before we started filming, our $150,000 camera was stolen. But the entire Kenyan film crew had this incredible passion when doing their work."

Benrath came to filmmaking late. After high school, she started a career as a costume tailor in Wuppertal, a city in the heartland of Germany’s west. Soon thereafter, she switched gears and started studying vocals, acting and musical theater. She moved to Vienna, where she occasionally got gigs at one of the city’s many theaters or played one-woman-shows, trying to forcibly brush aside her self-consciousness.

“It was a difficult time in my life,” Benrath told THR, “I just didn’t dare to step out into the world.” Men “overstepping their boundaries,” as she called it, were among the reasons for her introversion.

She shot her first short film, Babydoll, in 2009. It centers on a woman (played by Benrath) struggling with her history of sexual abuse as the central theme. In 2013, she shot No One Pukes in Heaven, in which a mother and daughter are forced to face the reality of the dwindling time window they have left together. Watu Wote, too, is the story of a group of people overcoming their default setting of self-preservation for the sake of humanity.

Benrath said, “I want to tell the big story in small detail, the small story with big detail.”

Before each shoot, she spends what she describes as a near-excessive amount of time on figuring out whose story she’s telling and how. Before she shot Watu Wote, her production team interviewed witnesses from the actual 2015 attack. They spoke to the family of Salah Farah, a Muslim teacher who died from his injuries after the incident. They had actors on set who’d lived through similar experiences.

"You get into deep conversations really quickly,'" she said. "We learned a lot about these people's fears, how their fears manifest when they see Muslims."

In the world’s current political climate, Watu Wote carries a timely message, although it was filmed before Donald Trump was elected, and before the Alternative for Germany became the first far-right party to enter Germany’s Parliament since World War II.

“This story is so relevant right now,” Tobias Rosen, the film’s producer and Benrath’s former classmate at Hamburg, said. “Not only because of the Alternative for Germany, but also because it’s wonderful response to the question on what Islam has to do with terrorism.”