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The Screening Room

Wanuri Kahiu: 'In Kenya, I'm a hustler'

By Teo Kermeliotis, for CNN
Award-winning director Wanuri Kahiu's new short-film "Pumzi" is Kenya's first science fiction film.
Award-winning director Wanuri Kahiu's new short-film "Pumzi" is Kenya's first science fiction film.
  • Wanuri Kahiu says that filmmaking is not "an appreciated art" in Kenya
  • 'Pumzi,' the award-winning director's latest creation is Kenya's first sci-fi movie
  • Kahiu is hopeful about African cinema's future because the continent "has stories people want to hear"

London, England (CNN) -- She might have won Africa's best director award in 2009, but back in her homeland Kenya Wanuri Kahiu is still struggling to win recognition -- even within her close family.

"I have aunts who come up and say 'Oh, you're still doing that thing?' like I should move out of it, or it's a phase I'm passing through," Kahiu, whose 2009's feature film debut "From A Whisper" triumphed at last year's African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA), told CNN.

Born in Nairobi, the young filmmaker moved to the UK to study management science before relocating to Los Angeles to enroll on a filmmaking course. After working on movies like "The Italian Job" and "Catch A Fire," Kahiu decided to return to Kenya to chase her filmmaking dream, even though she knew it was not going to be an easy ride.

"It's ridiculously difficult to be a filmmaker in Kenya, it's just not an appreciated art," she said.

"I am a filmmaker when I'm outside the country -- in Kenya, I'm a hustler, someone who's just trying to make ends meet. Every month it's like, 'Oh it's a miracle, I made rent!"

But Kahiu has remained defiant in the face of financial impediments.

At the age of 29, she's already hailed as one of Africa's most aspirant directors, being part of a new, vibrant crop of talents representing contemporary African culture.

People are turning to Africa not as the dark continent, but because it has something that they want.
--Wanuri Kahiu
  • Kenya
  • Film Festivals
  • Hollywood

Her films have been screened in high profile festivals, such as Sundance and the Berlinale, while earlier this March she was among an array of prominent international female directors to be invited to London's Birds Eye View film festival.

Coinciding with Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar glory, which saw "The Hurt Locker" auteur become the first woman to win the Best Director award, Birds Eye View gathered together some of the world's most talented female filmmakers to showcase their work and share their experiences with audiences.

"It's great to be part of a women's festival because it's not often that women filmmakers are celebrated," Kahiu said.

But she quickly went on to add her voice to the growing chorus of female directors calling for their work not to be judged with gender criteria.

"The success of Kathryn Bigelow shows how, even in 2010, it's still like 'Oh my gosh! A woman made a film that's winning awards!' It's ridiculous. Hopefully that will change in time and we're just going to be celebrating cinema for the sake of good cinema," she added.

Kahiu got her first break with "From A Whisper" -- a powerful drama about two families affected by the bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi in 1998.

The film, which went on to win a host of coveted movie awards, including Best Picture and Best Director at last year's AMAA, soon caught the eye of Hollywood producers.

Cashing in on the movie's success, Kahiu was awarded funding from Focus Features' Africa First short film program, as well as the Goethe Institut and the Changamoto arts fund, to complete her next project, "Pumzi" -- Kenya's first science fiction film.

The 20-minute long short film is set in futuristic Africa where there is no water and everyone lives locked away in contained communities.

Shot in South Africa, "Pumzi," "which means "breathe" in Swahili, is a movie "about sacrifice and belief," according to Kahiu.

It narrates the story of Asha, a young botanist who risks everything as she escapes to the outside world in order to nurture a plant 35 years after World War III.

James Schamus, head of Focus Features International, which granted Kahiu complete control of "Pumzi," described her as the "perfect example" of a young African filmmaker who combines "infectious enthusiasm and raw energy" with the "sophistication and the ability to speak in a cinematic language that is so plugged into the rest of the world."

"That's why she's got our support and the support of a lot of other people in the world who are watching her and say, 'Hey, go and make it to see what happens,'" Schamus told CNN.

Like most of her peers, Kahiu knows she has to get creative to overcome the impediments that stand in the way of most emerging Kenyan filmmakers. For both "Pumzi" and "From A Whisper" she had to barter services with other local filmmakers in order to get the films done as economically as possible.

"As African filmmakers we should not compete with each other when we make films, but collaborate and help each other out as much as possible -- that's the only way we can get our movies made," Kahiu said.

But despite all the financial struggles, Kahiu is very optimistic about the future of African cinema.

"This is our coming age. People are turning to Africa not as the dark continent, but because it has something that they want," she said.

"It has stories, it has people, it has the birthplace of Obama's father. These things are beginning to make a difference, so people want to hear more about Africa, an authentic Africa," Kahiu added.