Gangster movie Kenya’s first Oscar contender

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"Nairobi Half Life" considered for best foreign language film Oscar

Director spent time with real-life gangsters before starting movie

"Are we really looking at why there is crime?" asks director David Gitonga

CNN  — 

A hard-hitting Kenyan movie about gang culture has become the country’s first-ever film to be considered for an Oscar.

“Nairobi Half Life” has just been shown at Film Africa 2012, which is currently taking place in London – having already made history as the most successful theatrical release for a local film in Kenya, according to its producers.

It’s the debut film from Kenyan director David “Tosh” Gitonga, who says he wants to change views about crime in the country.

“We keep saying crime is wrong, but are we really looking at why there is crime?” he says. “I don’t believe Kenyans get into crime for fun and giggles.”

Prior to shooting, Gitonga wanted to understand the story behind Nairobi’s crime culture and to fully comprehend the situation he spent time with real-life gangsters.

This experience led him to hear stories of gang members flooding properties and defecating on porches after robberies. He was told: “It hurts us that you have these things we don’t have.”

Watch a scene from the movie

Gitonga admits he was left speechless when asked whether it’s fair that some are born into wealth, while others struggle to feed their children just one meal a day.

“I couldn’t answer that question and it still haunts me today,” he says.

His film chronicles the trials and tribulations of the character Mwas – a young aspiring actor from rural Kenya who dreams of becoming the next “Bruce Willis.”

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Mwas moves to Nairobi in pursuit of that dream – but experiences first-hand why some people refer to the city as “Nairobbery,” after being robbed of all his belongings on his first day there.

Fighting to survive in the city, Mwas strikes up an unlikely friendship with a gang leader who introduces him to a world of theft and violence. This includes taking part in robberies and carjackings – common crimes in Nairobi.

According to the U.S. State Department, the city averages about 10 vehicle hijackings each day.

Jitin Mediratta, a Nairobi-born lawyer, describes the movie as a story that hits home.

“I have been a victim of robbery with violence when I was living with my father a few years ago,” he says. “The truth about the thugs being young and nervous when carrying out the crimes is indeed true.”

While Mediratta says the film “humanizes” the gangsters, he rejects feeling any empathy for them – an opinion shared by his wife Isha, who adds: “A crime is still a crime.”

He does, however, want to know how the Kenyan government plans to improve the situation and tackle social injustices.

It is a sentiment shared by Gitonga. He hopes the film will help government officials understand what is happening on the ground, even if just a minority of them take any action.

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There hasn’t been a formal response to the film from the Kenyan government, but Gitonga says some government officials have discreetly expressed “a need to look at our country and make things better.”

The movie has already received international recognition. Joseph Wairimu, who plays Mwas, won best actor at the Durban International Film Festival, in July. And the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is considering whether to nominate Nairobi Half Life for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category – the first time a Kenyan movie has been considered.

Gitonga is also humbled by the positive response the film has received from Kenyans, since Kenyan movies don’t usually attract large local audiences.

He feels the movie has opened doors for other Kenyan filmmakers and African film in general. “I want the rest of the world to go to the cinema and appreciate a world they don’t know,” he says.