VIBEKE MUASYA: LOST AND FOUND IN AFRICA
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Appeared in Daily Nation’s Zuqka, Nairobi
May 25, 2012
Ever since her film “Birds of Passage” was short-listed for an Academy Award in 2002, the Danish director and scriptwriter Vibeke Muasya has attended to the Cannes Film Festival in France every year.
Every year except for this one, that is, because the day Cannes opened this year (May 16th), the filmmaker of Lost of Africa (Kidnappet in Danish) was here in Kenya organizing her second feature film, which will follow a similar track to Kidnappet in that it will include a mostly Kenyan cast and crew.
“In the case of Lost in Africa, I was compelled to respect the wishes of the film’s sponsors [namely the Danish and Swedish National Film Institutes, DANIDA and Danish TV] to hire at least one of their nationals to work on it. So we hired a Swedish production designer who used to work with Ingmar Bergman and a Danish director of photographer who worked for years with Tyler Perry,” said Vibeke whose independent film cost a ‘mere’$4 million to make and who has been winning awards for her films ever since she made her first, The Tulip Night, in 1999.
“In all, there were eight Europeans working on the set of Lost in Africa, but the other 177 cast and crew were Kenyan,” said the Danish artist whose Kamba last name derives from her having stayed married to Charles Kyalo Muasya, a professional Danish-based journalist, for more than 20 good years.
“We met in Copenhagen when he saw me dancing in a Canadian ballet,” said Vibeke, who was a professional ballet dancer, choreographer and graduate of the Swedish Royal Ballet School before she got into film.
“Charles had come to Denmark at age six with his father. His mother Esther remained at home in Kitui and he was raised by a Danish woman who forbad his speaking either Kikamba or Kiswahili. So in a sense, I am closer to his Kenyan family than he is,” said the award-winning film-maker whose film career has been profoundly influenced by her Kenyan connection.
For instance, her first short film, [The Tulip Night,] came about after she witnessed the way old people were treated in Kenyan culture in contrast to their mistreatment and neglect in Danish society. “In Kenya, the elderly are treated with dignity and respect. The opposite is true in Denmark where the aged are often shuffled off to old people’s homes after which they’re essentially forgotten.”
Her film career began almost inadvertently. She drafted the script in response to her own grandfather’s tragic experience of being cast off by his family once he got Alzheimer’s and became senile.
“I never expected such a positive response to the [30 minute] film, but it went on to win multiple awards, and everything changed in my life after that,” said Vibeke whose marriage didn’t survive long thereafter.
“Charles and I had lived together in Denmark and Sweden where he managed my modern ballet company. But after I got into film, things didn’t work out. Our relationship ended amicably and I am very close to his Kitui family,” said the mother of two, Benji, 24, and Gabriella, 20, both of whom plan to move to Kenya for keeps.
Vibeke was in Kenya not only to prepare for her next film project, the first in Denmark to feature an African man in the leading role. She officially came to Kenya to be present for the screening of her first feature film, Lost in Africa at the 21st European Film Festival hosted by the Alliance Francaise.
The film, which was shot both in Denmark and Kenya, had its first showing on Saturday, May 12 in Kibera, which is where the Kenya portion of the film was primarily set.
Vibeke arrived in Nairobi just hours before Lost in Africa was shown in the open air for around 1,000 Kibera residents, both adults and children who were clearly delighted to see their neighborhood and their peers on film. (Subsequent Saturdays in May, the film will be shown in Korogocho and Mathare.)
Vibeke was still in Nairobi on Friday, May 18, when her film had its (second) Nairobi premiere at Alliance Francaise. The first took place without much fanfare in December 2011 at the Nakumatt Prestige Plaza.
“After I won the Golden Elephant in Hydrabad [India] for Best Director [and Lost in Africa also got a Silver Award for Best Film] in 2011, I was asked if Kenyans had yet seen my film. After admitting it hadn’t, I realized we couldn’t wait for the Kenyan production company, [Pontact] to organize the Kenyan premier, so we went ahead and did it ourselves,” she said.
Wanting to write a script that portrayed the plight of African children orphaned by AIDS, Vibeke was again moved by the jarring contrast between children raised in the comfort of middle class Europe and the harsh reality of African children orphaned by AIDS.
The film is about a Danish family that adopts an AIDS orphan from Kenya when he was just a few months old. Brought up Danish, the parents decide to take him back to his homeland where he gets lost, and the plot unfolds from there.
“I wanted to portray every mother’s deepest fear, that of losing their child in a distant land,” said Vibeke who filmed Lost in Africa in Kibera between January and March 2010. Since then, the film has been shown at no less than 38 film festivals around the world and won a minimum of 12 international awards.
Her next film, Nobody Needs Flowers, is likely to be as powerful as Kidnappet, if not even more so. Focused on the Kenyan cut flower industry, Vibeke again aims to bridge two worlds, a working class world in Ireland and a major export industry in Kenya.
“I’m already deep into researching my next film,” said Vibeke who claims that once she completes one project, she’s quick to move onto the next.
Not wanting to give too much of the plot away, she nonetheless notes that she has already cast the leading lady. It’s Siobhan Fallon Hogan, who’s acted in films like Forest Gump and Men in Black among others.
“She plays a blue collar worker in a grocery story that sells cut flowers and wins a safari to Lake Naivasha where between 75% to 85% of Europe’s cut flowers come from,” she said.
Insisting that her films are all about the way we are all connected in an increasingly globalized world, Vibeke’s life is a reflection of that inter-connectedness. The reality of her being a modern Western woman traversing two worlds is the theme of the autobiographical screen play she wrote in 2005.
By 2006, the film rights to ‘A Bit of Sunshine’ were bought by HBO and Vibeke was airlifted to Los Angeles where she was meant to consult on the making of her film. But once they tried to Americanize her character, the project went downhill from there.
“That is when I felt terribly homesick for Kenya,” said Vibeke who actually wrote Lost in Africa while being “lost” in Hollywood.
“The Americans were not interested in the script, but the Danes were asking me to come home so we could do the film,” she said.
Today, she says she is profoundly grateful to the Danish National Film Institute whose grassroots film unit gave her free equipment and technical support after accepting her first film script in the late 1990s.
It was that initial acceptance that gave her the incentive to make The Tulip Night on a shoestring and transformed her whole life. In fact, Vibeke’s life reads a bit like a fantastic fairy tale, where every film she has made and released since her first has won international awards, from The Tulip Night and Birds of Passage to Benji’s Adventure and Lost in Africa
Amazingly, her success has not gone to her head. Instead, she’s incredibly down to earth and delighted to work side by side Kenyans whose stories she’s happy to tell, even as she sees them at the center of a globalizing world.