Features

From Kenya with Love and Fear

What happens when a photojournalist takes on corruption?

Softie was selected to open Hot Docs 2020


“Hearts do not meet like roads,” goes a Kenyan saying. It could describe the roundabout backstory of Softie, a portrait of photojournalist and activist Boniface “Softie” Mwangi, who ran for Kenyan parliament on an anti-corruption platform in 2017, risking both his own safety and that of his wife and three young children.

Though it’s set in the bustling streets of Nairobi, Softie, named for the diminutive Mwangi’s childhood nickname, is a film with an international provenance. Director Sam Soko conceived of the film in an activist artist co-op in Nairobi and it gestated through Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival’s funding programs before being midwifed by Montreal’s EyeSteelFilms. At the film’s world premiere at Sundance, Soko and his Canadian collaborators Mila Aung-Thwin and Ryan Mullins won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for editing. With a timely theme of the battle against corrupt power, Softie landed broadcast slots on the two most prominent English-language documentary series in the world, PBS’s POV and the BBC’s Storyville. Softie was also selected as the first African film to open Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, which is postponed due to COVID-19. “It may be uncool to say this,” says Soko, talking on Facetime from his Nairobi home, “but Hot Docs opened all the doors, so getting Softie into Hot Docs was more important than Sundance.”

Director Sam Soko

Though Softie is his first documentary feature, Soko has worked in film since graduating university in 2009. His company, LBx Africa, helped produce the 2017 Academy Award-nominated short fiction film Watu Wote. He met Boniface Mwangi in 2012 through the political-cultural “artivist” collective POWA-254 (a Swahili corruption of the word “power,” plus the country’s area code), with the initial idea of making a five-minute video manual on social activism. But fresh material, including a decade’s worth of activist protest footage, kept piling up.

Mwangi, thirty-six, a two-time CNN African Photojournalist of the Year, became famous in Kenya in his early twenties documenting the violence following the 2007 elections that left more than 1,000 dead and led to an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court. Subsequently, he left newspaper work to become the country’s best-known political activist, a crusade that began with a travelling street exhibition of his photographs. Over the years, his protests became more confrontational and creative.

Softie opens with the preparation for his most sensational stunt: a 2013 protest against Members of Parliament’s salaries in which he and his team painted a herd of pigs with anti-corruption graffiti and dumped them, along with a thousand litres of blood, in front of the Kenyan parliament. By 2017, Mwangi decided to take a more conventional approach to challenging power, running for parliament himself on an anti-corruption platform.

Courtesy of Hot Docs


That spring, Soko was invited to Toronto as one of seven mentee filmmakers as part of the 2017 Hot Docs Blue Ice Fund, supported by Blue Ice Group, a Toronto-based film funding and production company founded by South African expats Neil Tabatznik and Steven Smith. For Soko, the festival was a crash course in film pitching. As he wrote in a blog for Hot Docs: “In one afternoon, my story changed three times for the better.”

The festival introduced him to his mentor, Mila Aung-Thwin, who had co-founded the social-justice focused EyeSteelFilm company with Daniel Cross in 1998. A multi-threat director, writer, cinematographer, editor, and vice-president of the company, Aung-Thwin has co-produced the company’s two most celebrated films, Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze (2007), and Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home (2009). When Aung-Thwin looked at scenes of Soko’s work-in-progress, it was not love at first sight: “I wasn’t really sure I even liked its main character,” he recalls. “Boniface came across as a bit self-involved and one-dimensional. On first pass, the film seemed like a kind of hagiography.”

Soko had reservations about Aung-Thwin as well.

Last Train Home

Photo by Sam Soko

“Mila was all harsh about my film. I was like, ‘This guy, what does he know?’ Then, we had this session where he was teaching about pacing. He was introduced as the guy who produced Last Train Home, which is one of my top documentaries of all time. And I was like, ‘Dude. You should have opened with that when we met.’”

They agreed that the film needed more focus on Boniface’s wife, Njeri. An activist like Boniface, she nevertheless presents a skeptical counter-balancing voice, who appears in tense on-camera arguments about Boniface’s risky ambitions and emotional distance. “I’ve given my children my life, but you’ve given your country your life,” she tells him.

By the time of that pitch meeting, Soko had shot the domestic scenes, including a sequence where Njeri and the three children moved to New Jersey for their personal safety. “But,” Aung-Thwin recalls, “the story of Kenya, of the political struggle, was so complex that he hadn’t found a way to pitch the love story, the family drama, as central to the film.”

Following the 2017 Kenyan summer election, Soko kept sending Mila new footage and edits, soliciting advice. The next year, when Softie was picked as one of twenty films in the Hot Docs pitch forum, Aung-Thwin decided to work on the video pitch, which rolled into a full collaboration. Soko recalls the message from Aung-Thwin: ‘Okay dude, I’ve had enough of your emails so, if it’s okay with you, I’m okay for us to edit this film together.’”

Courtesy of Hot Docs


As well as editing separately, the two men worked side by side several times, for three or four months, including a period when Soko lived downstairs in Aung-Thwin’s house. Aung-Thwin’s daughter, Skylar, a recent art school graduate, provided the opening titles and animation. Ryan Mullins, whom Aung-Thwin calls EyeSteelFilm’s “star editor,” assembled the footage in what became the blueprint for the film. Soko and Aung-Thwin spent another nine months, working backwards from the election results, and streamlining the personal story. Aung-Thwin said he knew the film had connected on a character level when someone at a pitch table at Hot Docs Forum said, “He’s like a younger, sexy Bernie Sanders from Kenya. Now I get it.”

Soko adds: “I’ve only had a few screenings in Kenya including some for hard-core activists, who were initially skeptical: ‘Why are you making a film all about Boni?’ But when they saw it, it was, ‘My God. This is our experience. I want my wife to see this film and I want Kenyans to see this film to see what activists go through.’

Courtesy of Hot Docs


“One person said, ‘Watching this reminds people that we’re revolving in this pile of shit constantly and we don’t want to get rid of the stench, we just want to be in it.’ Which, to me, was really powerful, to show people the cycle we’re caught in. But it’s also super important to me that wherever you come from, you can relate our experience to your own political space and I think we came very close to achieving that.”

Boniface and his wife Njeri watched the film together: “At times they were just sitting side-by-side, at other times they were holding hands, and sometimes they’d move away from each other. They each recognized things they hadn’t really seen before.” Aung-Thwin visited Soko in Nairobi last August for Soko’s wedding to singer Miriam Ayoo, an event performed on the rooftop of the POWA building, with Boniface leading the dance. Aung-Thwin met the three Mwangi children, whom he had seen growing up on film, and found himself feeling “star struck. They were a bit skeptical but by the end of the wedding, we were good friends.”

Aung-Thwin, Soko, and Mwangi reunited at Sundance, where Soko accepted the editing award. As for the postponed Hot Docs opening night premiere, Soko maintains the confidence that has kept him working on his film for over seven years, through all its detours.

“I’m sure Hot Docs is gonna happen. And I’m sure we are gonna have a really cool celebration.”

Softie screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.