By Edith Honan
Jim Chuchu is the director of Tuko Macho and a founder of the Nest collective
I’ve heard you talk about Tuko Macho as being part of the superhero genre. Can we start by talking about that?
Superheroes are a very American idea, with the whole latex costumes and the back stories and the powers and all that. I always felt like Nairobi is much worse than Gotham. We have our own super villains. It’s just that they don’t wear costumes and stuff, but they exist. And they are above the law in a way that’s depressing. Because it’s almost like fiction, how much people can get away with here. And so those are the sketchy ideas I had a long time ago, like in 2010 or something. I always thought that that idea was a little too outlandish, a little too big to do. But then with the collective, there is a sense that we can do all these things that are a bit crazy. So we talked about it, I told them about it. We wrote this script for a long time, we worked on it together with Njoki and Noel, our youngest member. And it shifted of course. When you write a thing, it kind of shifts. And it became Tuko Macho.
You took a really unusual route, which was to broadcast the show on Facebook. What was the thinking there?
Well, we felt like the the city is one of the characters. It’s not just about Biko and all the criminals; it’s also the city and how we got here, how we stay here, and it’s all part of the story. And so we’ve been doing this thing where the people comment about the episode, and we kind of work it into the next episode. And we felt very much that the commentary from the city is a part of the thing, and we didn’t want to have this one-way relationship with the audience where we just put stuff up and they just take it and they don’t really say anything back to us. So, we let the audience vote. And we set up a poll and everything so people were actually voting. And that was a bit creepy.
So what are the feelings that people have when they see this? What are you tapping into?
There was a pastor story line that was very much like in real life. Where a guy who did a hit and run and he killed a family. And there was a whole story about how the evidence was suppressed, and then there was a whole other sentiment that he was a man of god and he shouldn’t be liable in the same way that the rest of us are. And then it just disappeared, and he is not in custody or anything.
Do you think there is something a little bit bloodthirsty about this series? You show a carjacking or a corrupt pastor stealing money, or whatever, and then see like thousands of people wanting them dead – and, not just that, but wanting to watch them die. What do you think about that?
There was a big concern when we did this thing that people would kind of do copycat type of things. I was like, would anyone feel like that the situation in Kenya is ripe for copycat? You know like when people make Batman movies, I suppose no one ever feels like someone’s going to start wearing that costume. But here, it feels like we are really close to, that that sentiment has been there for so long.
What is that sentiment?
I think it’s just this idea that there are people who are above the law and that justice appears to be a class thing and that punishment is very severe if you are poor, if you don’t really have a voice. But if you have money and if you are protected by status, then you are exempt from all these other rules. So you have grand theft happening and people behind it, they stay. They are driving around in the city and they are running for office. But then you have people who can steal a phone and get killed. And then there’s this idea that police are actually feared, that when you are in trouble, police are not the people you would call. I think that’s what’s crazy about this city, that this sentiment could have existed for so long. We felt that when we put up the pastor story, that people would feel like it’s a bit much, but no.
So there’s a craving for justice.
Maybe it’s like a catharsis more than craving. Having it play out in fiction is maybe satisfying an urge that hasn’t really been voiced. So I don’t know, like I guess it’s easy to get scared and say everyone is so bloodthirsty but I feel like there are deeper currents of something that’s a little darker and a little sadder that’s happening under there. Even if you look at post-election and how that played out. ICC comes in and it’s supposed to be like everything will be OK. But then no. All the cases are dropped and everyone feels like so, if even ICC is subject to the madness of Kenya, then, you know, what happens? What are we supposed to do?
You mentioned the a pastor and the hit and run. What are some of the other real-life things that have happened in Nairobi that you’ve incorporated into the series?
For instance, episode 4 or 5 there was a council askari who got executed. For that, we partnered with some other guys who have done a documentary about this thing. There is a lot of harassment of street vendors and all those guys by the council. And there is a lot of murder and all these dark things happening. And so for us it was so interesting to kind of just, to even, they allowed us to use the footage from the documentary and kind of mesh it with our episode and kind of create this, and that was particularly confusing for some people in the audience who were like, but this is real and so like that’s where Tuko Macho exists in this space that is between documentary and fiction.
Was the plan always to execute the person who’s found guilty, or did ou struggle with that?
Oh yeah. It freaks me out because even when we were editing, it gets a little, like I’m not comfortable with the idea of the death penalty and members of the collective aren’t necessarily for it. Even while writing the script, it was like, even the conversation about so, ok, if we are going to do this, what method do you use? In Kenya, hanging is the official method. So for us to use this lethal injection thing was kind of deciding to be a little less graphic because we didn’t want to be gratuitous. We didn’t want people to watch the thing to get their kicks. So there were all these things that we had to think about.
But something had to happen. It couldn’t just be a guilty verdict?
There was a whole conversation. Even now in Kenya, people are still being sentenced to death. But it doesn’t happen: the last time we executed anyone was I think 1984. But the courts are routinely sentencing people to death.
So, how much does it cost to put this thing together?
Production cost was about $30,000. And then I think the biggest fee was actually the cast.
Wow, that’s less than I expected.
The thing with film, especially African cinema – and it’s a thing I’ve felt ever since I started doing it – is we really have to find ways to make films for cheaper. Because a lot of people go to film school and come back with this idea that you can’t make a film for less than these crazy figures. And so, they spend so much time raising money for films and that’s why they take so long to make them. It takes, like, years and years to raise money. And so, I’ve always been interested in, how do you cut those costs? How do you make films for cheaper? The kind of films that Africans are doing, with the exception of Nollywood, are not necessarily driven by revenue. They are kind of propped up by film funding from outside Africa, all these weird kind of almost charitable situations where people put money into African cinema not because they are going to get money back, but because African cinema is important or it addresses social issues or whatever. So I’ve always felt like that kind of funding is going to shrink and shrink because it’s shrinking everywhere else, like art funding.
I’ve heard from other film makers that there’s this problem of NGOs funding films, and really trying to force their agendas. So, you find films where the lead character has malaria because the money came from some “end malaria” NGO, rather than from an institution that understands film and understands art.
That’s a big portion of where African film money has come from. But there’s other money. Like for instance the project I first did, my first short film called African Metropolis, was funded by the Hubert Bals Fund. They are the guys who make the Rotterdam film festival happen. And African Metropolis was this thing where six short films were made in six different African cities and so the Goethe Institut and Hubert Bals and GT Bank, all these people came in to fund it. And I don’t think, that was not very NGO in the sense that no one had to tackle any social issues. But still there was a sense that it was not being done for money. It’s not like the way some crazy firm in China can say they want to fund Batman vs Superman because they know that the returns are crazy. It’s very different.
Are you making any money from Tuko Macho?
No. Not really.
Let me just quickly just go over to the Nest itself. So how many films have you guys done? When was the Nest formed?
The Nest began in 2012. And when we started, we were like a hub. A creative space where we felt like we wanted to gather all the alternative voices in like whatever, poetry, writing, film, music. But over time we discovered that, as the members of the Nest, we had our own individual voice that kept shifting because we were experiencing things together and we were learning things together, and so our voice became very particular and so we started to invest in creating our own things. And so our first film was Stories of Our Lives.
Stories of Our Lives is still banned in Kenya, right?
Yes, it’s still banned.
I know it’s been screened all over the world. I saw it was being shown in New York just a few months ago. Has it been a commercial success?
Yes. It’s been amazing. Because even now it’s still playing in festivals. And I think, the only reason it was a commercial success for us was because of how little it cost to, if we had done it to a conventional budget, I don’t think we would have ever broken even.
How much did you spend on it?
We spent $15,000 on that.
Wow. In a way, you wish that film makers could get more money for their work, but the fact that you are able to do so much with so little, that’s amazing. Is there a specific LGBT component to the Nest?
Some of the members are queer.
But it’s not a part of the identity of the Nest?
I guess it is now because we did that film and we did the book that followed the film and so there’s a kind of embedded queer element to the Nest. And so Tuko Macho is interesting because, even there, if you really look for it, you will see some queer elements happening there. Because like it’s hard to cut that stuff out. But we are very aware of the choices we make around our feminist views and our queer views and all those things.
But I don’t want to pigeon hole you guys.
And that’s the thing that happened with Stories of Our Lives. But as creators we are hyper aware of alternative voices in everything that we do and so it’s quite possible to give a queer reading to Tuko Macho as well.
What do you think is the way forward for Kenyan cinema to grow, to blossom, and to become more profitable?
I think there are many gaps. If you want to be profitable in film cinema is not the way because we have 3 cinemas with like two or three screens each. So to break even there you’d have to have full house for like months to even come close to breaking even. So we know that cinema is not the way. Cinema in that way that people think of it is probably no the way to go. So even one of the reasons we chose Facebook was because of the data that Facebook gives you in terms of what time the audience are online, what device they are using, how much time they spend. You know all those things that are interesting for us to know because we feel like eventually it would be great to learn how to make money out of this stuff and the first step is knowing who is watching us.
So tell me what do you know? Who is your audience?
Tuko Macho is interesting because it shifted our demographic towards more male. Right now, we think our demographic is 64 percent male. Which is kind of a shift because for the longest time the Nest has always been quite balanced, and maybe that’s because we were doing, like, queer stories and then we’d do feminist things. But now we have a disproportionately male audience for Tuko Macho. This gives us a lot to think about, like would it be weird to have a homophobic audience if you are queer-friendly? Anyway, so the age group 18-25 is our biggest group, and that makes me wonder whether that’s because that’s the demographic on Facebook. And it’s mostly viewed on mobile.
So it’s young men who are watching it on their phones.
Yeah. And then the other thing that we were told is that, you know, everyone said it’s a bad idea to go on Facebook…
Because apparently there’s always a rule of thumb about people don’t watch long videos on Facebook, and that’s why people do like 3-minute sweet spot videos. But here we are with like 17 minute extravaganzas and it doesn’t seem to be a problem. And we feel like that conversation is important. If you look at YouTube, it doesn’t really encourage conversation. Facebook is designed much better for conversation. It’s really been amazing, by the way. Like the comments are getting longer and really philosophical as we go.
Can you make money showing something on Facebook?
Not a cent. Facebook doesn’t pay content creators. So for us this was about growing our audience, learning who our audience are and creating this thing.
So Tuko Macho wouldn’t be a model for other film makers in Nairobi because they don’t have the money to cover the costs?
Exactly. A lot of people have said you guys should put this on TV, but then TV is crazy. For instance, we saw someone having a conversation about TV buying an episode for 40,000 shillings. But I guess that’s because they buy Mexican telenovelas.
So, in this incredibly difficult financing environment for film and TV, how do you get to a point where films about Africa are not all, you know, a showcase like some white actor to come to Africa and have a lot of African extras?
Well I feel like there’s two types of African cinema, the kind where foreigners come to Africa and shoot their stories and it’s usually problematic. It’s usually Sean Penn with his disaster film. And that’s one kind of African cinema I guess and that’s the kind of thing that the Kenyan Film Commission are always trying to get people to come and shoot these problematic things. And they are always like it’s fine to compete with South Africa but people are coming to make odd things here. But that’s not a good idea. And then there is the other type of African cinema that because of where it’s getting its money from, it’s not NGO it’s just film money.
The Kenya Film Commission recently announced some subsides and tax credits for film, but there wasn’t a lot there for local filmmakers. It sounds like it’s all about getting Angelina Jolie and make a Richard Leakey movie.
Exactly, it’s terrible. Like the Kenyan film commission mandate appears to be attracting foreign film makers. It has nothing to do with local film makers.
I want to end this by returning to Tuko Macho, and the idea that, for Kenyans, there’s a sort of catharsis.
Yeah. It’s catharsis. It’s just kind of exploring what fiction can do for our reality. And especially like the episode that went out last week. We were talking about a guy called David Sadera who was a guy who was a whistle blower and there was this scandal called the Goldenberg scandal and he’s the guy who kind of set the thing in motion and then he died. It’s weird, I don’t know why no one has ever touched on these things because everyone knows these stories. So, I think for us it feels like we are excavating things that have been known for a long time but have never been said.
Edith Honan is a freelance journalist who came to Nairobi with Reuters. She is the Editor in Chief of Side Hustle. @edithhonan