Vinny Omuga of Slum-TV introduces the festival to a waiting crowd in Mathare.

MCs soon take over, singing and dancing to entertain the crowd during final preparations.

The MCs help draw in the crowd, performing popular local songs.

Children make up the majority of the early evening audience.

In Kibera, a rusted stage serves as a base for local performers and young music enthusiasts.

A young girl takes refuge beneath the stage at Kibera during a sudden storm.

Once night falls, the screenings get started.

A young audience gets ready for the evening screening.

The projector kicks in, catching the dust kicked up by the generator.

Soulboy, by Hawa Essuman, screening in Mathare.

At Mabatini, a natural ridge of stone serves as seating for a vast amphitheater, the perfect location for an outdoor screening.

A view from the amphitheater.


"Slum Film Festival" is an unusual name for a festival. The majority of festivals, often identified by their city of origin or national location, demand in their naming at once a celebration of film—or a particular strand of film—and of the places in which they occur (Cannes, Zanzibar, Toronto). The place-term “slum” shares the geographical focus of such titles, but its lack of specificity in terms of where that place actually is shifts its meanings from a specific location towards a category of locations. It suggests a community joined together by its relative existence in, or concern with, the “slum.” In this way, the title “Slum Film Festival” operates in a similar, transnational way to the titles of many human rights film festivals (cf. Iordanova 2012: 281-295). The “slum” suggests a community in the same way “human rights” does—that is, a community of people united by some greater goal—in this case, the common suffering of (or empathy with) poverty and abject living conditions. In fact, Federico says that the festival eventually wants to create a transnational “slum” community—across continents—and a “slum filmography,” to celebrate the agency of people living in slums globally (through their stories and examples of their filmmaking talent) and to critique stereotypes of slum living. Such a goal for a film festival strengthens this image of a broad transnational slum community.[2] [open endnotes in new window]

Looked at from this perspective, the use of the word “slum” can be seen as strategic, as a move towards the empowerment of people who live in the slums, whom this festival is said to be “from, by and for.” In his work as Cultural Attaché at the Spanish Embassy of Kenya, Federico’s inspiration for initiating the festival was the lack of connection between the makers and viewers of films about the slums. He noticed that many films were being made in Kibera and Mathare, mostly by students at Hot Sun’s Kibera Film School and at Slum-TV in Mathare, but these productions were not being seen in Kibera and Mathare themselves. This was partly because the film schools at Hot Sun and Slum-TV are less than a decade old and have been so busy focusing on production that they have not paid much attention to the distribution and exhibition of their work. Although the young generation in Kibera and Mathare tends to have access to the Internet through Internet cafes and wireless dongles, and many people have televisions in their homes, very little material on Kibera and Mathare exists on the web or is shown on the state television channels. So the initial idea for the festival was related to the politics of representation and access, to create a thematic festival on slum realities, to allow people from the slums to see themselves and their own work on the big screen, and to function as a platform announcing to the outside world that there are many young people from the slums trained as cinematographers and editors and directors, putting these filmmakers on the “international map.”

In developing what they call a “slum filmography”—a body of films that has been created in the slums, by slum dwellers, and about the slums—the festival organizers have also conceptualized the festival program as one that will shift over several years to embrace a larger geographical area: in its first year, the SFF screened films only from and about Kibera and Mathare. In 2012 its official theme was “East African Slums” (however, as we will explain below, this did not actually play out). Then the theme of the 2013 Slum Film Festival (which ran 2-9 September) broadened out to “African Slums on the Reel.” The programmers’ intention is not to confine the films made by slum dwellers to a “slum” category but rather to create a positive form of visibility—to reveal that even people from parts of the world with few resources are making and sharing films. Federico’s idealistic aim, opposed as he is to conventional developmental media projects, is to highlight cultural achievements in the slums as a way of challenging stereotypes about the impoverished nature of slum environments. In this sense, the SFF would seem to operate very similarly to the transnational network of not only human rights film festivals, but also festivals seeking to raise visibility for communities gathered around particular geographical correspondences—such as African film festivals—or around particular identity correspondences—such as gay and lesbian film festivals. However, as we will show in the next section focusing on Joshua’s ethnographic research at the festival’s 2012 edition, there is a second community that is not so much concerned with the realities of slum life but that operates above it, both enabling the festival and empowering itself—in some cases, parasitically— in the process. This second community’s relationship to the slum is altogether different from that of the primary community; the former needs to insist on the slum—and its conditions—for its own existence.

Moments at the 2012 Slum Film Festival

The field research undertaken between June and August 2012 constitutes a significant feature of our reflection on research methodology in the context of film festival studies. The contribution of this research can be summarized in its focus on the narration of  “ethnographic moments,” seen here as a distilled form of momentary clarity, represented as a static or frozen instance within a continuous and dynamic discourse.

This idea finds precedence in the work of political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985) in their definition of the relations between discourse and articulation, which we borrow here:

“We will call articulation any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice. The structured totality resulting from the articulatory practice, we will call discourse. The differential positions, insofar as they appear articulated within a discourse, we will call moments.” (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 105)

In appropriating this notion of “moments,” we similarly accept the definition of discourse as the “structured totality” of various articulations, in many ways a utopian illusion of coherence within a life conceptualized as highly contingent. The strategic significance of focusing on such ethnographic moments is that rather than retreating to reductive, stultifying representations of the political or cultural significances of entire “events” or “actions,” the “moment” is based on its quality of being both in stasis and part of a living discourse or dialogue. This irony necessitates that “moments” are contingent and contextual, representing, as they do, differential positions. But this means that they are able to approximate the contradictory and ambiguous nature of society itself. They are also the result of their specific narration and identification as moments. They are thus provisional and always require further interpretation.

First moment:
a conflict between organizing parties

Throughout the fieldwork, a series of conflicts between the primary festival organizers—Hot Sun and Slum-TV—began to emerge. During a meeting at Slum-TV, near Mlango Kubwa on the outskirts of Mathare, a decision is taken to remove a Hot Sun Film from the festival screening schedule. The decision is made because, according to almost everybody at Slum-TV, the film—Togetherness Supreme (2010)—has been over-screened in Mathare. Furthermore, as Kenneth Wendo (head of Slum-TV) explains, during the previous screening, the film—which follows the story of an artist and his “tribe-blind” friendships during the violent aftermath of the Kenyan General Election in 2007—was perceived as biased and the cause of agitation and arguments.

This change to the festival schedule was made privately by Slum-TV and was not reflected in any public material, with the exception of the screening schedule that was sent to FilmAid International (a strange decision, that fuelled gossip of a rift between the heads of Hot Sun and FilmAid).

Scheduling conflicts continued, both privately and publicly. Twenty-one films were scheduled to play during the festival, selected from a pool of over forty submissions. Yet instead of being judged equally by both Hot Sun and Slum-TV, the films were treated territorially. All submitted films were delivered to Hot Sun, who were responsible for passing them on to Slum-TV but had not done so, even a week before the festival was to begin. Hot Sun thus dominated the festival programming, pushing its own agenda over the festival’s agenda. For example, ultimately all the official entries in the Drama category were from Hot Sun’s Kibera Film School.

Federico feels that this was not done with the conscious intention by Hot Sun to control the festival program but because of a lack of communication and group vision on both sides. What will be clear to anyone looking at the film program, however, is that Hot Sun gave priority to its own students. This raises questions about what various organizers and partners thought the festival’s purpose would be. It would seem that for Hot Sun the festival is in the first instance a promotional platform. Furthermore, whereas most film festivals would not tolerate a programmer selecting his/her own films, the saturation of the filmmaking landscape in Kibera and Mathare by Hot Sun and Slum-TV respectively might render such distinctions impossible. The broadening out of the programming to “African slums” at the 2013 edition of the festival was designed to address this problem.

Second moment: the projectionist’s power and the priority of entertainment

When it came to actually projecting the films at the festival, educational or informational films were mostly removed from screenings—with a few exceptions—and replaced with films that organizers knew the audience enjoyed. Hawa Essuman’s Soul Boy (2009), a story about a young Kiberan boy on an odyssey to save his father’s soul, was screened in Kibera on two consecutive days, unaccompanied by any other screenings. In Mathare, Ndoto za Elibidi (2010), a film co-directed by local Matharean Kamau wa Ndungu, became the informal screening of choice, drawing large crowds. Yet neither film was an official submission of the SFF; both were simply recycled from the 2011 program. Once the crowd was gathered, it was keeping them there, and interested, that became the SFF’s primary objective. Developmental documentaries —exemplified by FilmAid-sponsored films such as Never Again (2010) and Ndunyo Women (2010)—raised sighs from the crowd and saw audiences thinning, as people wandered off to find entertainment elsewhere. In response, the organizers quickly prioritized entertaining music videos and dramas to try to sustain people’s interest.

If one is familiar with the history of film screenings in Africa, it is difficult not to read the scenes mentioned above in relation to mobile cinema in Africa during the colonial era, and particularly in relation to the work of scholars such as Charles Ambler (2001), Bodil Frederikson (1994), Bheki Peterson (2003), James Burns (2002), and Brian Larkin (2008), who have explored censorship and the “moralization” of Africans’ leisure time by colonial film units and missionaries. Mobile cinema projects run by Africans themselves during the colonial period were rare. One of the few such projects was the South African author and activist Solomon T. Plaatje’s traveling “bioscope,” inspired by the New Negro movement in the United States (Masilela 2003). One of the founders of the New African Movement, Plaatje travelled across South Africa with a mobile film unit in 1924, showing documentaries about the achievements of African Americans as well as entertainment films to mixed audiences (ibid. 19-20). Mostly, however, films in the colonies were subject to strict censorship where African audiences were concerned, and the only films available to Africans were those judged acceptable by whites (Diawara 1992).

In South Africa, the Reverend Ray Phillips from the American Mission Board started film screenings for mine workers in Johannesburg as early as 1919 as a way to improve the men’s quality of life and also to divert them from political action; once, for example, when there were rumours of a strike, Phillips quickly organised a screening of a Charlie Chaplin film (Peterson 2003: 39). Eventually Phillips was holding screenings in as many as sixty-nine mine compounds as well as eighty-three venues outside the mines in screenings that existed until 1940 (ibid.; Phillips 1930). His ultimate goal was to create morally discriminating viewers who would be able “to distinguish between good and bad characters” (Peterson 2003: 43). Then, as Vincent Bouchard points out,

“At the beginning of the 1930s the main colonial empires in Africa (British, Belgian, French) all established filmmaking and distribution services for the purpose of educating the local subject populations” (2010: 96).

In East Africa, for example, the British ran the Bantu Educational Cinema Experiment (BECE) from 1935 to 1937. The organizers felt it was very important that Africans were not shown “harmful films” (Notcutt and Latham 1937: 22) by which they meant films with violence, explicit sexuality, or scenes that showed white people in a negative light. The BECE thus produced and exhibited propaganda films that promoted the Western way of life and which thereby subtly encouraged Africans to participate in the British trade economy of products such as tea and coffee. Africans in colonial Zimbabwe and the Belgian Congo were subjected to similar experiences (Burns 2002, Bouchard 2010). In the latter case, quite unusually, there were priests who doubled up as filmmakers and who “also organized film projection circuits with the objectives of entertainment and religious proselytism” (Bouchard 2010: 97). Unsurprisingly, however, the most popular of all the films made by these priests was an entertaining series of Laurel-and-Hardy-style comic films called Matamata and Pilipili which is apparently “still recalled fondly by older Congolese” (ibid. 98).

Two, overlapping anxieties resurface in much colonial commentary on film: the “danger” of public screenings, particularly after dark and/or outdoors; and the “danger” of popular film, and what viewing such films collectively would inspire in the colonized. For example, in her study of the colonial government’s investment in culture in Kenya from the 1920s to the 1960s, Frederikson notes that in Mombasa, venues were used that could be more easily controlled, such as the Pumwani Memorial Hall and the Empire Cinema (1994: 24). This was the reaction of the Mombasa African Affairs Officer when a multi-racial “Committee on African Advance” put forward the idea in 1953 of having open-air screenings in the Mombasa Sports Stadium:

“Mombasa Africans do not need entertaining en masse after dark. Most of them like to be at home by then. Should they be encouraged to go out? Once out, will they not want to ‘go on’ somewhere after the show? Where will they go if not to bars?” (quoted in Frederiksen 1994: 25)

In relation to the particular films screened, the Committee remarked,

“The films which are likely to have the greatest success are those about the ‘Wild West’ or ‘Cops and Robbers.’ Should these films be thrust at the masses?” (ibid.).

As should be quite clear from our discussion, the Slum Film Festival takes place in outdoor venues that are not very easy to control. In this environment, rather than adopting a position of moralizing people’s leisure time by screening the development-oriented films supported by Hot Sun and Slum-TV’s funders and donors, the projectionists spontaneously changed the program in 2012 to fit the audience’s tastes, thereby empowering the audiences—in a way—as festival programmers themselves. Interestingly, the films that the audiences enjoyed were mostly films that had not been made by Hot Sun and Slum-TV. They were films with humor (such as Ndoto za Elibidi) and generally with high production values (such as Soul Boy).

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