The old story of a naïve 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 would generally 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 which 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 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, to some of the successful Brazilian slum-set dramas of recent years, Nairobi Half Life could be accused of recycling dramatic as well as societal clichés 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 slightly built 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 Bablylon.”
Read more: The Hollywood Reporter