The local community jumps in to help when the generator fails and the screen suddenly collapses mid-screening.
Dusty children, having spent hours at the location, enjoy the evening shows.
An engrossed audience, their parents in the background.
After the screenings, the audience begins to disperse.
The closing ceremony in downtown Nairobi takes place at the Alliance Française.
DVDs and T-Shirts of featured films are sold during the closing ceremony.
An orderly audience watches Zebu and the Photo Fish, by Zipporah Nyaruri: a very different sort of screening.
Certificates are handed out during the ceremony after the screenings.
The closing ceremony ends with an open discussion panel with participating filmmakers.
A winning filmmaker shows off his award for the press gathered at the event.
While the people of Kibera and Mathare might have empowered themselves by voting with their eyes and feet, they became disempowered or, at least, overlooked when it came to the SFF’s closing ceremony at downtown Nairobi’s Alliance Française, one of Nairobi’s few established cultural institutions. The ceremony was attended by funding representatives from the Belgian and Spanish embassies, as well as by heads of various associated organisations, mostly non-governmental organizations with development aims. Regular attendees of the Alliance Française’s weekly film screenings were also there. Organizers from Hot Sun Foundation spoke about the films officially selected rather than actually screened and mentioned the enthusiasm with which audiences in Kibera and Mathare watched these films. Of the films awarded prizes at the ceremony, three had not actually been screened in Mathare (Miss Nobody, The In-Laws, and Zebu and the Photofish). No one mentioned abandoning the idea to focus on “East African slums” in this second edition of the festival nor the recycling of films from 2011 that was done throughout the festival.
The SFF’s moral success and social benefits culminated in the Spanish embassy’s new cultural office assistant saying:
Apart from the festival organizers themselves, however, nobody attending the closing ceremony had actually gone to the screenings in Mathare and Kibera, and of course nobody from the slums had been able to afford the journey into the center of town. While the Alliance Française’s closing ceremony was open to the public and free to attend, it was of course not open to the public nor free to attend. Located within the marble halls of a large building in a populated section of the city center, with security guards and metal detectors at the entrance, and an expensive bus ride from both Kibera and Mathare, it was very far from the open, spontaneous screenings within the slums themselves, thereby allowing the elaborations and embellishments in the official speeches to go unnoticed. In fact, what no one seemed to realize or emphasize is that by haphazardly taking on the role of programmers themselves, the people of Kibera and Mathare had made this more their film festival than ever before. But if the slum did everything for itself, there would be no reason for these donors to exist. The image of a film festival run by the development community for the slum was thus crucial to the SFF’s presentation in the closing ceremony.
The festival’s capacity for resistance
In fact, by international festival standards, the 2012 SFF was—in many respects—a failure, not a success. We hope that our narration of certain “ethnographic moments” above confirms this. The festival programming was at best disorganised and at worst self-promotional (perhaps necessitated, as we have said above, by the fact that Hot Sun and Slum-TV are among the few filmmaking organizations in Kibera and Mathare). The plan to focus on “East African slums” was set aside so as to continue to promote films from Kibera and Mathare. The screenings were unsupervised, meaning that when projectionists felt the restlessness of the crowd, they spontaneously changed the program to appease the people. There was no back-up plan for when it rained, and the dust kicked up by the screen’s inflation often caused confusion.
We want to argue, however, that it is precisely these failures that made the festival interesting and capable of resistance because, through them, the gap between the festival’s primary and secondary communities could be exploited. It was through this lack of supervision that the primary community (the festival’s filmmakers and audience—those people referred to as the “beneficiaries” of the festival by the secondary, development aid community) could find new ways of claiming control over the representations of their “slum lives.” Such moments demonstrate the spectators’ rejecting the moralizing information films that were officially selected, thereby empowering the people of Kibera and Mathare to become co-programmers. And how can such moments not be deemed a “success” if the pre-ordained narrative of the funders and supporting partners is to “empower” slum communities? The various moments in the festival’s actual life thus suggest that something more complex is taking place beyond a simple manifestation of the sovereign powers’ “development.” The tensions between organizing groups, varying understandings of “slum life” and “slum stories,” individual reactions by projectionists to audience boredom—all of these things are also part of the festival.
While our goal here is not to contribute to development discourse itself, certain discussions in development studies may be illustrative. Specifically, what is useful in working with the question of development and its relation to the implementation of the SFF are attempts (Brigg 2002; Ziai 2004; Kippler 2010) to rethink the critical impetus that has become lost in too-radical post-development rejection of development practices. This post-development critique problematizes eurocentrism, emphasizing instead local and situated knowledges and cultures (cf. Escobar 1995; Rahnema 1997). While such a critique has forced a shift away from top-down development models that privileged “Western” positions, it was in turn critiqued for not providing realistic, practical alternatives to development (Nederveen Pieterse 2000). Seeking a middle ground, a new body of work has begun to emerge which more carefully applies post-development critical tools to everyday development problems, no longer seeking to reject but rather to empower reflection on development practice (cf. Andreasson 2010; Kippler 2010).
Before we explore one useful tool that has emerged from this discussion, it is necessary to restate the “development problem” on which we are specifically focusing here. The places in which the SFF takes place—Kibera and Mathare—are flooded with NGOs that frame their own work not within cultural but within developmental terms. [open endnotes in new window] For people in Kibera and Mathare, the SFF screenings were in many ways part of the daily negotiation with NGOs claiming to be “helping” them. The balance of power is thus weighted against them. Hot Sun and Slum-TV are aware of this problem, and more importantly of where their funding comes from and how to keep it coming. Their existence—and, by extension, the festival’s existence—is dependent on this funding. They are aware that they are not able to represent the “slum” to their funders simply as a place of and for storytelling, narration, and entertainment, but as a place that requires development and education. It is unsurprising, then, that every film officially programmed for the 2012 SFF is humanist in this sense. And it is also unsurprising, given the saturation of Kibera and Mathare with NGOs, that people have started to internalize “development thinking.” Chatting with people after the screenings, Joshua was frequently told that the films were good because they “taught you something,” illustrating the dangers of HIV and promiscuity, or the importance of women’s rights and education. The idea that a film might be good simply because it is entertaining was not as pervasive. This attitude is profoundly frustrating for Kenneth Wendo, who ran Slum-TV at the time of the 2012 SFF. Wendo’s dream—like that of Federico—is for a time when the SFF will focus on film and storytelling first and foremost. This would perhaps finally allow for a new conceptualization of the “slum,” moving beyond its categorical definition. It would also escape a rational Western teleology of “development” that insists on conceiving “slum people” in terms of the negative qualities of the environments in which such people might live.
As we have narrated above, one version of the SFF—the one untold at the closing ceremony—did in fact focus on storytelling and entertainment first and foremost. New thinking in the study of development practices that applies a Foucauldian understanding of power relations to the field can help us to frame this unexpected outcome of the festival. In his 2002 essay, “Post-Development, Foucault, and the Colonial Metaphor,” Morgan Brigg proposes that an application of Foucault’s distinction between sovereign power and biopower might provide a useful way of re-approaching the study of development practices (Brigg 2002: 422-423). In his piece, Brigg suggests that we must not imagine development institutions as the extension of colonial domination and control. Rather, they are better thought of as the practices of an administrative force, which acts “upon an acting subject or subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action” (Foucault 1981, quoted in Brigg 2002: 423, our emphasis). In this way, Brigg develops a far more complex image of development, one that involves and includes those subjected to it in the process and practice of development itself. Through this frame, we can read the SFF’s funders as an “administrative force” that subjects, but also “subjectifies,” the people living in Kibera and Mathare. This “subjectification” does not force or coerce so much as allow for the exercise of biopower, which is to say, for the exercise of those subtle techniques for human subjugation no longer reliant on direct ideological domination. In the final analysis, if the power of development initiatives might be thought of not as a domination of individuals otherwise resistant to such development, but as a biopolitical force that “operates by bringing forth and promoting the forces and energies of human subjects” (Brigg 2002: 426), then the possibilities and potentialities for resistance change considerably.
While we acknowledge that the official review of the Slum Film Festival must, by necessity, weigh up its successes and its challenges, optimizing the organization’s structures and processes to better serve its mandate, the prescription of this essay is very different. By locating the potential for resistance in messy, everyday practices of screenings and exhibitions, what we think the festival should do is this year fail, and next year, fail better.
The dramatic differences that Joshua’s ethnographic research at the 2012 SFF uncovered—between the officially selected program and the films actually screened, between the organizer-programmers and the audience-programmers, between the actual moments of the running of the festival in Kibera and Mathare and the closing ceremony in downtown Nairobi—might seem exceptional. One might argue that such spontaneous changes in a film program and such self-conscious falsification in a closing ceremony would never occur at a festival such as Cannes or Berlin. Some might argue that these drastic discrepancies are related to the SFF’s being a young, un-established festival on the margins of the international film festival circuit; a festival run in a disorganised fashion due to limited resources; a festival that embodies many of the contradictions of the development aid community. We would argue, however, that such power plays and discrepancies—however minor—are intrinsic to the nature of festivals and therefore can be found at any film festival, however established.
Scholars working on film festivals have reckoned with the difficulty of researching them. Film festivals are by nature multiple and are experienced by different people involved with them in distinct ways, making them very difficult to pin down. As De Valck points out in terms of Dayan’s research on the Sundance Film Festival,
While scholars have been acknowledging these different “stakeholder” groups at festivals, they have tended to continue to speak about festivals as though they were somehow coherent events. From the learning gained in our research on the Slum Film Festival, we would like to replace the idea of festivals as “events” with an idea of festivals as “moments.” The Foucauldian conception of power relations we refer to above allows us to reread the problematic power relations among the funders, organizers and supposed beneficiaries of the SFF in a more empowering, agency-oriented manner. It also allows us to move away from an overly-determined, structuralist, uni-perspectival conception of a film festival (as an event), to a more playful, dynamic and multi-perspectival conception of a film festival (as moments). The Slum Film Festival can be seen, in this way, to be a complex, dynamic set of relationships activated in certain moments. In one account, the audiences were simply spectators, whereas in others, they were also programmers; in certain moments, the “slum” was empowered from within, in other moments it was confined to an outside gaze; in certain moments, the organisers were self-promoters, at other times they were agents of empowerment and engagement. All of these contradictory things are true, meaning that it is impossible, in the final analysis, to provide a coherent account of the Slum Film Festival’s history or operation—or, indeed, that of any festival. All that we are able to do is to tell the stories of these moments, as we have perceived and debated them.
We hope to have shown how ethnographic research can help to draw out these contradictions by assisting us in developing an understanding of “the festival” as contingent, sometimes incoherent, moments. Making broad sweeping statements about what film festivals are, or defining film festivals within a rigid Eurocentric model, fixes the meanings—and political potentialities—of festivals. We argue that by conceiving festivals as disparate moments, experienced and thought about differently by distinct participants, we are able as researchers to open out these potentials, and find new ways of thinking about the social and cultural power of festivals.