Wanuri Kahiu is a Kenyan film director, producer, and author. She has received several awards and nominations for the films which she directed, including the awards for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture at the Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2009 for her dramatic feature film From a Whisper. She is also the co-founder of AFROBUBBLEGUM, a media collective dedicated to supporting African art.
Kahiu was born in Nairobi, Kenya. She currently lives between Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya. In an interview with Vogue Italia, the filmmaker describes herself as a black sheep to her conservative parents; her mother is a doctor and her father a businessman. Yet, her aunt is a famous actress in Kenya and her uncle is a sculptor. At the age of 16, Kahiu says she decided to become a filmmaker. After graduating from the University of Warwick in 2001 with a BSc degree in Management Science, she obtained a Masters of Fine Arts degree in production/directing at University of California, Los Angeles's School of Theatre, Film and Television. Kahiu worked on the Italian Job and Phillip Noyce's Catch a Fire.
From A Whisper
Her first feature film, From a Whisper, received a total of twelve nominations and earned five awards at the 5th Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2009. The film fictionalizes the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. It tells the story of a young girl, Tamani, who loses her mother in the attack and is told by her father that her mother is missing when she is actually deceased. Tamani searches for her mother, painting hearts across the city, she also befriends a policeman named Abu. Abu helps Tamani as the viewers discover the shame he feels for not stopping his friend who helped attack the embassy. Film scholar, Clara Giruzzi highlights Kahiu’s display of an African feminist sensibility, displayed by the egalitarian relationships in the film, and the pacifict messages in the wake of national trauma, which challenge essentialist and universalist western perspectives of Africa.
Dennis Harvey, for the Daily Variety, writes that despite the film's occasional "titled" writing and performances, the drama "effectively puts the causes and aftermath of large terrorist actions in personal terms."
According to literature scholar, Mitch Nyawalo, Pumzi, challenges the pessimistic representation of African realities and futures by using the aesthetics of Afrofutirism to demonstrate African-led creativity. It depicts the story of a young botanist Asha, thirty five years after World War III (aka the water war). Asha discovers life outside of her post-apocalyptic underground community. In her protectionist community, members must take dream suppressants to quiet hopes of a better future. Mitch Nyawalo argues that Pumzi’s destruction parallels the economic devastation in the aftermath of the World Bank's structural adjustment programs. The film also displays an “ecofemninst critical posture” where women are most affected by environment devastation but also are at the forefront of bettering their societies.
Omar Kholief, an art scholar, writes about Pumzi's interpellation of Western understandings of Africa; "Kahiu's film poses a poignant allegory in that it espouses an indirect commentary on imperial essentialism of the superficial Other. This is achieved by correlating the disenchantment that gave rise to science fiction with the perceived notions of Africa as a barren and impoverished social and geographic entity.".
African Studies Scholar MaryHellen Higgins describes the film's "untraceable sound" suggesting "motion...without any visually perceivable movement" which "breaks the quiet stillness of a devastated, dead landscape". The sound, MaryHellen Higgins, writes is "strange" like an "approaching storm".
For Our Land
Kahiu's documentary For Our Land documents professor Wangari Maathai's story. A Note Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai's filmed biography takes part of a series "The Great Africans" for a South African television channel (M-Net). The documentary gives voice to the professor's environmental and political activism. Although film critic, Kathryn Mara, criticizes some of the "unexplained chronological gaps", she notes that the film does present the professor's legacy "in a lively and engaged manner". The documentary underscores the "relationship between European colonialism and environmental change" as well as the "intersectionalities" of battling over land with housing developments.
Kahiu’s upcoming project, Rafiki (Friend), received funding by the Netherlands Film Fund. The production company is Big World Cinema, a South African company supporting young African filmmakers. The production team will be sourced from Kenya, France, and the Netherlands. Rafiki chronicles the story of two Kenyan girls who fall in love with each other and struggle to navigate this love with their families in a homophobic society. In an interview with Olivier Barlet, Kahiu says that she chose to adapt Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko’s novel due to its “texture and nuances” in the taboo love story. Homosexuality in Africa has long been debated, but Kahiu tells Olivier Barlet that homophobia is not of the spirit of Ubuntu since it marginalizes people in the community. Above all, Kahiu finished her interview with Oliver Barlet by saying that she hopes the upcoming film will portray a “normal love story” that acknowledges the heroic challenges of choosing a “difficult love”. The film was selected to premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival but was banned in Kahiu's home country of Kenya due to its controversial themes.
The Wooden Camel
The Wooden Camel is Kahiu's first children's book. It tells the story of a boy, named Etabo, who dreams of racing camels. His older siblings tease him and his family sells their camels to survive. With the help of his goat friend and his spirits, who tell hims his "dreams are enough", he continues to daydream. His sister then carve him a wooden camel, bringing Etabo closer to his family.
Kahiu’s co-written short story, RUSTIES, indulges a futuristic world. The story tells the story of the relationship between a young girl and a traffic-directing robots. In an interview with Quartz, Kahiu says that creating images for African children is important to correct “being written out of our histoies” and to hope for a future Africa.
Kahiu engages with Afrofuturism, both in her artistic creation and as inspiration. Drawing on the depth, power, and histories of African mythologies, spiritualities, and naturalisms, Kahiu has made the argument that African peoples and cultures have been engaging in afrofuturistic thought for centuries, if not longer. Primarily, she locates Africa as relatively close to the spirit world, allowing for a blending of spirituality and reality both in story and in lived reality. She positions Africa as an inherently futuristic space, one that disrupts and does away with Western binaries surrounding technology, nature, and linear time. Africa's futurity is one far older, deeper, and richer than anything that the West has come up with. Contemporarily, Kahiu has identified an African Afrofuturism as one that undergoes a postcolonial reclamation of its own timelines, narratives, and spaces. This becomes apparent in Pumzi, in which reclamation and reuse are shown to be authentically, inherently African practices. Pumzi's celebration of an Afro-centric future criticizes Afro-pessimism. In Pumzi, Kahiu challenges the pessimistic representation of African realities and futures by using the aesthetics of Afrofutirism to demonstrate African-led creativity. Furthermore, in an interview with Variety, Kahiu says she enjoys the genre of sci-fi for its “flexibility” and “the ability to use metaphors to say a lot more challenging things about the politics or social climate in Africa.”
Critique of non-governmental organizations
Kahiu has critiqued the ways in which Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) control the popular imagination of Africa. She has expressed that how you get money to be able to be a filmmaker in Kenya is through making films about whatever NGOs are funding – films that are about AIDs or female genital mutilation. These images, Kahiu says, reconstitute Africa as the Other.
Kahiu situates her work as a filmmaker making films about Africa to combat these images. She says her films are for the next generation: "Because we have children that we are bearing, and because there are people already here now who exist (my daughter exists now), that we are that we are telling stories to: we need to be very clear about the messages we’re putting out."
In an interview with Vogue Italia, Kahiu says, "We have to be careful and sensitive, like in my film Pumzi we have to be the mother of mother nature and if we are not mother of mother nature than mother nature will stop mothering us."
- 2017: The Wooden Camel
- 2016: RUSTIES (with Nnedi Okorafor)
Awards and nominations
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||Best Picture||Won|
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||Best Director||Won|
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||Best Screenplay||Won|
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||AMAA Achievement in Writing||Won|
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||Best Original Soundtrack||Won|
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||Best Actor in Leading Role||Nominated|
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||Best Actress in Leading Role||Nominated|
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||Best Child Actor||Nominated|
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||AMAA Achievement in Sound||Nominated|
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||AMAA Achievement in Art Direction||Nominated|
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||AMAA Achievement in Cinematography||Nominated|
|2009||African Movie Academy Awards||From A Whisper||AMAA Achievement in Makeup||Nominated|
|2010||Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival||From A Whisper||Best Feature||Won|
|2010||Cannes Independent Film Festival||Pumzi||Best Short Film||Won|
|2010||Venice Film Festival||Pumzi||Award of the City of Venice||Won|
|2010||Dubai International Film Festival||Pumzi||Muhr AsiaAfrica Award||Nominated|
- "Wanuri Kahiu: "In Kenya, I'm a hustler"". CNN.COM/International. 30 March 2010. Retrieved 15 July 2010.
- "Home". Wanuri Kahiu. Retrieved 2018-03-10.
- "About". AFROBUBBLEGUM. Retrieved 2018-03-10.
- Frigerio, Barbara (June 2010). "Wanuri Kahiu". Vogue Italia.
- "The Africa Movie Academy Award (AMAA) Nominations for 2009". USA: Jamati.com. Retrieved 15 July 2010.
- Giruzzi, Clara (2015). "A Feminist Approach to Contemporary Female Kenyan Cinema: Women and Nation in From a Whisper (Kahiu, 2008) and Something Necessary (Kibinge, 2013)". Journal of African Cinemas. 7: 79–96.
- Harvey, Dennis (October 2010). "From a Whisper". Daily Variety. 318: 6 – via Academic OneFile.
- Higgins, MaryEllen (December 2015). "The Winds of African Cinema". African Studies Review. 58: 77–92 – via Project MUSE.
- Nyawalo, Mitch (2016). "Afro-futurism and the Aesthetics of Hope in Bekolo's Les Saignantes and Kahiu's Pumzi". Journal of African Literature Association. 10: 209–221 – via Routledge.
- Kholeif, Omar (June 2012). "Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction". Art Monthly. 357: 34.
- Mara, Kathryn (2016). "Film Reviews: For Our Land". African Studies Review. 59: 328–330.
- Barlet, Olivier (Spring 2014). ""Homosexuality Is Not Un–African; What Is Un–African Is Homophobia": An Interview with Wanuri Kahiu on Jambula Tree". Black Camera. 5: 186–190 – via Project MUSE.
- "Mutua bans Kenyan film about lesbians". Daily Nation. Retrieved 2018-05-03.
- Stevenson, Deborah (December 2017). "The Wooden Camel by Wanuri Kahiu (Review)". Bulletin of the Cener for Children's Books. 71: 164 – via Project MUSE.
- Chutel, Lynsey. "Science fiction has ancient roots in Africa. Why shouldn't it also have a future there?". Quartz. Retrieved 2018-03-10.
- Vourlias, Christopher (January 2012). "Genre is Window On Society". Variety. 8: 3 – via International Index to Film Periodicals Database.
- Durkin, Matthew (April 2016). "Pumzi dir. by Wanuri Kahiu (review)". African Studies Review. 59: 230–232 – via Project MUSE.