How Slum Film Festival is Changing the Narrative of Slum Dwellers

There is a saying in Kenya, “if you want to hide something from a Kenyan, put it in a book”.

This saying may not be entirely relative to Kenyans alone as a lot of people in this generation are being swept away by the digital technology tide.

“It’s now a trend. The reading culture globally has been highly affected by digital technology. More and more children are spending more time on television and social media networks. (However), Film provides a strong platform to fill in the gap. The silver screen offers an alternative to make the right social impact,” says Solomon Mwendwa, the Director of Slum Film Festival (SFF).

Slum Film Festival (SFF) is the first ever film platform-featuring stories from the informal settlement, has been bringing to fore key issues affecting slum dwellers in Africa and other parts of the world.

Now in its fifth year, the annual Slum Film Festival (SFF) has over time become a platform that offers the opportunity to show a range of films within slum communities which have limited or no access to cinema. It has also continued to define itself as a platform for urban slum films featuring film and documentary screening that takes place in one of the world’s largest slum, Kibera, as well as Mathare and Kawangware slums.

Slum Film Festival is usually carried out in Kibera slum, a shanty town just three miles from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, which has become home to about 2.5 million slum dwellers. As the biggest slum in Africa and one of the biggest in the world, the settlement is filled with rusting roofs slung across mud, rocks and a rubbish dump. The narrow paths between are often open sewers and there is little electricity and no proper sanitation. Yet, yearly the place comes alive during the Slum Film Festival.

As a festival, SFF put together a programme that heavily addresses issues of family, day to day social issues that we hope will go beyond the entertainment aspect and inspire the audience to have a new outlook on life.

According to a 2013 UN-HABITAT report, 327 million people live in slums in commonwealth countries. Close to home, the International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM’s) 2015 World Migration Report states that Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest percentage of urban dwellers that live in a slum. The figure was put at 61.7 percent. The percentage is unrivalled by those of other regions of the world that have slums: South Asia (35 percent), South East Asia (31 percent), East Asia (28 percent), West Asia (25 percent), Latin America and Oceania (24 percent) and North Africa (13 percent).

Majority of these dwellers have poor access to education/health and are in need of social activities to reduce their daily harsh living conditions.

The idea of the Slum Film Festival (SFF) was conceived from the cultural section of the Embassy of Spain together with two slum based media organisations; Hotsun Foundation and Slum TV to utilise the artistic talent of youths in the slums on the need to get involved in projects that would have great impact in the society.

Contrary to popular opinion, Mwendwa, said the Slum Film Festival does not aim to legitimise the existence of informal human settlements nor portray slum in a good or bad light. “Our key agenda is to raise public attention to pertinent issues, while promoting and celebrating the creativity of the people who live in these communities. By raising public attention, we create room for conversation and we get the attention of policy makers as well as relevant stakeholders.” The films showcased at the festival are made by and about slum communities.

“More so, Africa has very strong and impactful stories, we need to tell and share these stories, the silver screen offers a perfect platform,” he surmised.

Solomon Mwendwa, himself, did not grow up in the slums. He actually grew up in an estate called Huruma that neighbors Mathare Slum in Kenya.

He, however, considers himself lucky for getting some basic education, having grown up in a family of five siblings put a lot of strain on my parents earnings and meeting all our demands was not that easy.

Narrating how his own journey to filming began, Mwendwa said, “it was in the month of August 2010 when I woke up on an early Monday morning and walked to the Kenya National Theatre to see what opportunities had been posted on the notice board for actors as well as any other film related events. I came across a poster about the Lola Kenya Screen Film Workshop, which was starting on that very day. I had longed for an opportunity where I could get some exposure on filmmaking and this workshop which was initially meant for 5 established filmmakers was the opportunity that I needed.”

He later approached the Director of the Lola Kenya Screen Film festival, Mr. Ogova Ondego and requested him to let him be part of the workshop as he was eager to learn, eager to explore. Mr Ondego permitted him to join the workshop that was being facilitated by Duco Telegen, a filmmaker from the Netherlands.”

“That week saw me do my first documentary and that was how I started my journey as a filmmaker.”

Years later, Mwendwa has trained young refugee filmmakers in Dadaab refugee camp and the impact of the skills gives him a reason to do even more to other marginalized communities.

Stating the reason for being part of the Slum Film Festival, Mwendwa said:  I want to give that very platform to the many young people from the slums and other marginalized communities a platform to kickstart their careers.”

For the first time since SFF inception five years ago, this year, the festival received more than 700 films from across the six continents. The films bear message that will kick start conversations among our youth who we reckon are the greatest consumers of this form of entertainment.

This year’s festival had 12 participants who were products of the festival’s filmmakers master class. The participants produced a short film under the mentorship of Ugandan filmmaker George Stanely Nsamba under the theme “Reels of Hope” which resonates with the challenges experienced by slum dwellers as well as artists in informal settlements who tirelessly try to make a living and gain a name out of their art. The theme was captured to showcase films that seek to restore hope and positively inspire slum dwellers.

But how has the festival liberated people from the slum? Mwendwa said while the conventional education system favors science-based subjects with arts arena being perceived as an avenue for academic failures, the festival has over the years provided a platform for young and emerging talent to be noticed as well as promoted the importance of film in advancing social change.

“Through our master classes, a good number of the participants are able to access job opportunities as well as venture into freelance careers.”

For those who are hoping to participate in the Slum Film Festival next year, Mwendwa said people and organisations can participate in different ways, by supporting SFF activities financially, submitting their film, and by volunteering to help SFF achieve its objectives. But then, you need to honestly answer this question within yourself, “what do you have and how do you want to use it to change the slum story?.”

Busayo Sotunde is a prolific writer with special focus on Business, Entrepreneurship, Reproductive Health and other development issues in Africa. Her articles have been published by different outlets including Investing Port and Ventures-Africa.com. She has a penchant for reading and sustainable development. Follow Busayo on Twitter @BusayomiSotunde