Nairobi Half Life: AFI Fest Review

Nairobi Half Life - film still
A vital African retelling of the familiar tale of a lad’s Dickensian struggle through a rough society.

This dynamic crime drama, director David Tosh Gitonga's first film and Kenya's official entry for the foreign-language film Oscar, comes across as fundamentally honest and vividly realistic.

The old story of a naive country bumpkin’s rude awakening upon arrival in the big city is shot through with fresh social and stylistic energy in Nairobi Half Life, a dynamic crime drama set in parts of Kenya’s capital that visitors generally would choose to avoid. This first film by young former assistant director David Tosh Gitonga features a slick professional sheen not commonly associated with African films and might be partially explained by the involvement of supervising director Tom Tykwer and his One Fine Day Film Workshop, which sponsors one African film per year. With its sympathetic lead and ultra-accessible dramatic line of a young man trying to overcome great odds to achieve a better life, this Kenyan official submission to the foreign-language film Academy Awards competition stands a fair shot at establishing a commercial foothold in some Western markets.

Reminiscent in milieu, if not quite in harshness, of some of the successful Brazilian slum-set dramas of recent years, Nairobi Half Life could be accused of recycling dramatic as well as societal cliches about shantytown life, gangs, police corruption, violent lifestyles and so on. But not only does the film come across as fundamentally honest and vividly realistic, the protagonist is a kid whose criminal ways, which are forced upon him, hopefully represent just a phase on his way to achieving what he really wants, which is to become an actor. The way these two strands intersect is not only humorously incongruous but downright funny at times, as the young man literally runs from one world to another in pursuit of his far-fetched dream.

At the outset, the slight Mwas (an ingratiating Joseph Wairimu) hawks DVDs around his rural village -- he’s fond of reciting a soaring Spartan speech from 300 -- and uses the slightest excuse to jump a bus for Nairobi, where he fancies he can join a theater company. “Nairobi has the worst people,” his ineffectual father warns, “the whole society is as rotten as Babylon.”

And so Mwas discovers within minutes of his arrival when he’s assaulted and robbed before accidentally landing in jail, where he’s forced to clean the most disgusting mass toilet you’ve ever seen. He also meets the self-possessed Oti (Olwenya Maina), who, upon their release, takes him to Gaza, a warren of barely there structures crammed with bottom-feeding hustlers of all persuasions. Oti’s small crew specializes in ripping bumpers and tires off of cars, with sidelines in drugs, booze and girls, and Mwas ingratiates himself by proving a quick study as the gang gets into carjacking.

At the same time, however, Mwas secretly slips away some days to the Phoenix Theater in a better part of town, where he auditions and finally wins a small role in play that, not so coincidentally, deals directly with the class divide in Kenya. This potentially heavy extra baggage is smartly undercut by the levity of the rehearsal scenes, just as the preposterousness of the ever-growing gap between Mwas’ criminal activities and his ideal life is acknowledged with a rueful humor.

Gitonga impressively pulls off the film’s most intense suspense scene, in which Mwas and his inner circle are captured and await execution by a rival faction; at the same time, he nicely underplays the sweet relationship the sexually innocent Mwas develops with Oti’s prostitute girlfriend (the lively Nancy Wanjiku Karanja). Still, there are so many shots of Mwas dashing from one place to another that one can’t help but think of Tykwer’s Run Lola Run and speculate on the kind of advice the German veteran might have given to his debuting protege.

The film provides a sharp portrait of many different strata of Nairobi neighborhoods and lifestyles, which helps freshen the fundamentally Dickensian nature of the story. Technical quality is tops, with Gitonga and cinematographer Christian Almesberger opting for elegant and composed images rather than a rough, hand-held style; the editing is similarly coherent. Xaver von Treyer’s score provides a strong pulse, and the cast is strongly appealing no matter how sketchy their characters might be.

Venue: AFI Film Festival (Los Angeles)
Production: One Fine Day Films (Kenya-Germany)
Cast: Joseph Wairimu, Olwenya Maina, Nancy Wanjiku Karanja, Paul Ogola, Antony Ndung’u, Johnson Gitau Chege, Mugambi Nthiga
Director: David Tosh Gitonga
Supervising director: Tom Tykwer
Screenwriters: Serah Mwihaki,Charles “Potash” Matathia, Samuel Munene, Billy Kahora
Producers: Sarika Hemi Lakhani, Tom Tykwer, Siobhain Ginger Wilson
Executive producers: Marie Steinmann, Guy Wilson
Directors of photography: Christian Almesberger
Production designer: Naia Barrenechea
Costume designer: Abdul Mohammed
Editor: Mkaiwawi Mwakaba
Music: Xaver von Treyer
No MPAA rating, 99 minutes