A Discussion with Lucy Hannan, Journalist, Writer, and Film Director for InformAction and Voxcom Ltd. in Nairobi, Kenya
July 12, 2010
Ms. Hannan, could you tell me about InformAction and your films about social justice in Kenya?
I’ve worked in multimedia, radio, and journalism, and I’m very aware of the power of films to inform and spark discussion, and—if we are fortunate and clever—to bring change. Our strategy at InformAction is to produce these documentary films (some are short and others are standard length) to get to the core of issues that tend to be obscured by special interests and a corrupt and complacent media. I work with prominent Kenyan human rights activist Maina Kiai—he has been polled as "most trusted"—founder of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, and we record people’s stories, raise questions, and challenge people to think for themselves. Getting people to think beyond what they are being told by politicians, or the church, or the media, is central to our latest film, Clearing the Air, because people are making decisions based on just about everything else but a personal reading of the Constitution document, even though its been widely circulated.
The work really begins once we finish making a film. We go in two or three vehicles, with a huge portable screen, and show the product to community audiences all over the country, including remote villages, neighborhoods, and high-density urban areas. After the film, we have a speaker—usually Maina Kiai—who leads and encourages discussion. The biggest challenge is to think of ways for people to take action: if someone is compelled to do something we ought to have an effective mechanism to channel that energy. More thought on this is needed. It is important to take advantage of the opportunity, because we are effectively bypassing the gatekeepers and getting to people directly. [U.S. President] Barack Obama understood this well, and he led one of the most successful political grassroots campaigns in history by using the internet. We have learnt from that, but we have to apply the same principle to Africa, where the internet is not the most obvious tool. Most people here do not have internet access, especially in the provinces. So we take our big screen and use the personal touch by stimulating debate and conversation around important issues. Mobile phones are also widespread here, which is a great tool for activism. We also sell our documentaries to local television stations, which reaches millions, but in limited areas. Our films have also gone to European film festivals and specialized audiences. We feel it is very important that they are genuinely marketable products, as this gives us independence, increases the impact, and keeps them at a high standard.
How do you arrive in towns for your screenings, and with whom do you partner?
We arrive in a town—we choose locations based on our contacts and where we feel there is the most need for discussion and open debate—and we connect with local networks. These can be human rights organizations, congregations, religious groups, and other non-governmental organizations. We hire people from the community to provide security during the screening, which are always at night, and use megaphones to drive around and invite the entire town. Word spreads quickly, but security at night always reduces the number of people able to come, particularly women. But the big screen is a great novelty and attraction, and we use local music and a short cartoon film to attract people. The venue always starts off with lots of curious children. Films are easy and fun, so people are generally keen to show up, sit for a while, and watch. We are careful to make sure we show to diverse audiences. After the film, as I said, Maina kicks a discussion off. What gets discussed depends on the crowd and community and the issues of the day. In the conflict-affected areas he’ll ask questions like: “Would you be willing to share a personal story of what happened to you during the crisis?” Or, “What did you think of those testimonies we just heard?” Empathy for victims from different communities is important; so is understanding how important justice is and fighting impunity and corruption. Through these screenings we’ve got a good sense of the regions of the country and the issues people are desperate to talk about. Some places are more open to discussion, some more closed. But you learn something new each time, and your expectations are always challenged. For example, our experience so far has been that audiences in Rift Valley open up more in discussions than Central Province, because of the limited opportunities to speak out in Rift Valley and the eagerness for information that is not politically manipulated.
Could you tell me about the situation in Kenya as you see it today, with the constitutional referendum coming up, and you having finished your latest film about the current debate?
The reason we made this short film on the current constitutional referendum is because of how bitter and divisive the debate is today. We all know that hate speech and a vicious discourse preceded the post-electoral violence in 2007 and 2008. Today the debate is taking on religious undertones, and the church is feeding the flames. I am convinced that the church is against the constitutional referendum because of land rights and entitlement, not really because of the abortion clause or the qadi courts. The fact is that the church had no objections to the same clauses that were in the previous Bomas draft in 2005. So why are those provisions suddenly so evil? The truth is the church in Kenya owns huge tracks of land and businesses, many of which they obtained when Kenyatta was in power. The fear they have of the proposed constitution is land reform—land will be regulated, and a land committee will revisit land ownership in this country.
While it is true that the church as an institution is powerful, I think they can punch way above their weight because of the lack of leadership in this country. The church likes to talk of itself as a reforming force, but it’s actually a myth if you look at the history of the church in Kenya. Yes, there have been exceptions, some individuals that have stood out, but they have really paid a price. Generally the church is rich and conservative, except for some smaller congregations and a few individuals. As an institution the church has always benefited from the status quo. The clergy are wealthy, and often corrupt, yet carry so much clout with the extremely poor. They don’t really want to rock their own boat.
One of the major differences between the 2005 referendum and this one is that the government was divided then, whereas now it is unified in favor of the proposed constitution. Ironically, this support almost killed the Yes camp, because people are deeply suspicious of the government and the intention of politicians. People started asking, why is the government in favor of this? Can it really be reform? How are they planning to cheat us now? It’s difficult when there is a constitution on the table that is needed and would clearly take away power—difficult to trust the intentions of the government when it says it supports it. The feeling for a while was that perhaps the proposed constitution is just another political project, but it seems as though that is changing.
Could you tell me about your latest film and how you hope to influence the debate?
Clearing the Air is a short film that tries to explain the most important issues in a complex document for ordinary citizens. It also shows the bigger picture, why it is so important to understand that this is an opportunity not to be wasted, and the historical importance—the long struggle to get more basic rights and a fairer power structure. The film starts off with Maina in a balloon with an aerial view of beautiful Kenya, and he asks his audience, “Can we afford to lose this? We almost did…..” We then address issues that have become the main, popular debates around the proposed constitution—abortion, qadi courts, and land. In making the film, we made sure there was good balance so that as many people as possible feel it is for them—that means ethnic balance, gender balance, and being aware of class and age and outlook. We also need to make it genuinely entertaining and as visually attractive as possible. So we used athletes, singers, and other Kenyan personalities to share their hopes and fears, but in our films we always concentrate on interviewing groups of ordinary people whose voices rarely get heard—farmers, youth, squatters, poor women, beach workers, pastoralists, the displaced, etc. Connecting with youth, looking at the future, and looking at Kenya beyond politicized ethnic preoccupations were some of our priorities in this film. This film was actually a new format for us and a departure from our mainstream documentaries. It was made explicitly as a civic education tool, was donor-funded, and was aimed at a very specific event—the referendum. So it was also placed differently. It was not for sale, but was designed to be screened to community audiences as well as shown mainstream; television stations get it for free, or civil society organizations can pay media houses to run it. We also reproduced thousands of DVD copies in KiSwahili and distributed it on the ground.