copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

“From, by, for”—
Nairobi’s Slum Film Festival, film festival studies,
and the practices of development

by Lindiwe Dovey, Joshua McNamara, and Federico Olivieri

One day, a small white van arrives at the Kamukunji showgrounds and Mabatini grounds of Kibera and Mathare slums in Nairobi. In Kibera, the presence of Hot Sun Foundation members erecting screens at Kamukunji is nothing out of the ordinary. Hot Sun Foundation, run by U.S. filmmaker Nathan Collett and Kenyan producer Mercy Murugi, organises the majority of film-related activities in what is considered Kenya’s largest slum, frequently screening the films it makes there—including those made by students at its Kibera Film School. In Mathare, the FilmAid[1] [open endnotes in new window] truck that delivers the inflatable screen is well known too. As it curves down the steep dirt road that leads toward Mabatini, it attracts flocks of children screaming in its wake:  “Cinema! Cinema!”

Pulling a tangle of equipment from the van, a group of young men begin erecting a large inflatable screen. The screen, in each case, is lifted over open sewers and under washing lines, unfolded and washed down, tethered with thick ropes and laboriously inflated over twenty minutes. Children gather to play with the generator or to sit on the inflator pump, warm dusty air ventilating their t-shirts. Bystanders surge forward to help when the inflation invariably fails and the screen suddenly collapses, sending squealing children scattering. A crowd quickly gathers, pressing hard on the local youths hired to serve as security. Music starts, a distraction from how long the screen takes to assemble, drawing people from their shopping or drinking, catching them as they arrive home after commuting back from places of work. As the sun sets, the projector is switched on, its beam catching the dust with an eerie glow. In Mabatini grounds, a natural stone cliff provides a seat for viewers, cast orange in the glow of high overhead security lights. Mathare’s Kwa Austin grounds—where screenings are held once Mabatini becomes inevitably waterlogged by heavy August rains—is located next to a busy road lined with local bars. Few women or children linger in the area after dark. In contrast, in Kibera’s open, accessible Kamukunji grounds, close to local schools and markets, the audience is much more mixed, the atmosphere lighter and more playful. A space which, by day, is used for football matches and the sale of market goods is, by evening, transformed into an outdoor cinema.

To the gathered crowd, the bouncing MC calls out:

MC:           “Hey, people! I say “Slum film’, you say “festival’! Slum film-”
Crowd:      “Festival!”
MC:           “Slum film-”
Crowd:      “Festival!”
MC:           “I say Nairo, you say Biz! - Nairo-”
Crowd:      “Biz!”
MC:           “Nairo-”
Crowd:      “Biz!”


Mathare and Kibera are two “informal settlements” sitting at the far ends of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. Mathare is to the east, Kibera to the south-west. Wedged between Ngong Road, Ngong forest and Wilson Airport, Kibera is a highly compact settlement of corrugated steel and mud houses, narrow market streets, churches and mosques. Mathare is a slightly less defined location, a jumble of neighboring “ghettos” clustered around Mathare Valley. On all sides Nairobi thrives, a wealthy metropolis with a burgeoning middle class. It is a centre for innovation in information technology and the East African film and television industries (cf. The Nairobi Declaration, 2010). As Martin Robbins puts it, places like Kibera and Mathare have been

“disowned by Nairobi, a city that surrounds [them] the way a brown paper bag conceals a dirty magazine” (2012).

According to Charton-Bigot, Nairobi is a highly fragmented city, which “because of its origins and its nature … started as a place of passage and never really, for the majority of its inhabitants, a place for a definitive life” (2006: 7). She refers to the flux of Nairobi, to its precarity, and sees its defining characteristic as the “heterogeneous assemblage of neighborhoods and communities” and people of diverse backgrounds (2006: 9). Locating our study within this particular diverse, precarious context, our interest is the creation of a film festival here in 2011 and its first two editions, in August 2011 and August 2012.

While this article may appear to provide a tidy view of the value of ethnographic approaches to the study of film festivals, the methodology of our research has been profoundly, and deliberately, inclusive. This article represents the culmination of a partnership between three researchers and practitioners working with related yet distinct sets of interests. Lindiwe Dovey initially suggested the joint project since her current research and curatorial work focuses on relations between film festivals and African film, and she was intrigued to hear about Federico Olivieri’s founding of and writing about the Slum Film Festival in Nairobi in 2011. Joshua McNamara decided to conduct ethnographic research on the 2012 edition of the festival (as part of his Ph.D. research into the humanitarian practices of audiovisual media production in Nairobi) and so Lindiwe suggested that he and Federico meet one another. We then collectively decided that we should join forces to produce an article, the primary point of which—from the outset—was not simply to “study” the “Slum Film Festival,” but to explore different methodological approaches to the study of a film festival. We wanted to open ourselves to the inherent messiness of objecthood, to an understanding of objects of study as relationally constituted and contextually bound.

For Federico, as one of the founders of the festival, the Slum Film Festival was a response through the power of moving images to what he saw as the lack of access to culture and opportunities for self-reflection in a place deeply affected by poverty. For Lindiwe, an exploration of the Slum Film Festival was part of her broader study of film festivals on the African continent, and an attempt to understand the power of the term “slum,” so unusual in the way most film festivals frame themselves. Her research on film festivals involves ethnographic methods, but she was not able to attend the Slum Film Festival. One could argue, then, that Federico was too close to the festival (being one of its founders), and that Lindiwe was too far from the festival (being unable to be present at it). Joshua thus took on the role of conducting ethnographic research on the festival from a position less invested than Federico, for while Joshua got involved in the 2012 organizing committee, he is not one of the festival’s initiators. The idea was that we would assume these different “proximities” to the festival and then challenge one another through dialogue and questions, often necessarily conducted via email or Skype.

In practice, then, it has been a dislocated type of research collaboration that in itself reflects many of the trials of contemporary research in the humanities and social sciences. It is a form of research not seeking answers so much as struggling for effective frameworks in which to propose useful questions, based on conflict as much as on consensus and on recognizing our own blind spots rather than assuming our expertise as scholars. While the power dynamics at and around the Slum Film Festival became the main focus of our interest, it would also be naïve not to recognize the power dynamics at work within the research itself. As will become apparent, Lindiwe’s interest in using the research to evaluate the construction of the new field of film festival studies, and Joshua’s interest in exploring the relationship between the Slum Film Festival and the discipline of development studies, ended up dominating the construction of our conclusions.

“Film festivals”as objects of study  

The study of “film festivals” has recently come into being as a field of academic study, under the broader areas of media, film, cultural and globalization studies. It can be seen as part of a larger shift towards a “rematerialization” of film studies (Lobato 2012), and towards a rapprochement between film and media studies (Dovey 2010), in which scholars are recognizing the need to locate film analysis within wider historical, geopolitical, sociological, and industrial vistas. In many ways, film studies is moving from the close analysis of individual films to charting the ways in which films circulate through various channels, thereby accruing different kinds of value—critical, commercial, and other. We completely support this shift in approach away from the treatment of media as coherent “texts” that only “expert” scholars are able to interpret. However, there is an equal danger in assuming that the channels through which films circulate—such as film festivals, and other “media events”—are in themselves coherent entities that can be easily understood and unpacked by individual scholars. While we welcome the new field of film festival studies as a major advance in film studies, we feel that this field will benefit from an openness of approach that remains attuned to alternative definitions of “film festivals.” Our aim in this article, in relation to film festival studies, is twofold. First, we want to challenge the standard definition of a film festival that is starting to settle within the scholarship in this young field, and we want to raise questions about methodology in relation to film festival studies. At the same time, we also hope to make observations and raise issues relevant to city and urban studies, African studies, and the study of development practices.

Marijke de Valck and Cindy Wong see film festivals as originating in Europe in the inter-World-War era, exemplified by large international film festivals such as Cannes and Berlin. Such festivals are both arbiters of cinematic taste and places in which cinema business is conducted. Wong opens her book Film Festivals: Culture, People, and Power on the Global Screen (2011) with the following paragraph:

“Film festivals attract widespread global attention as glittering showcases for films and people. Yet, they also constitute vital nodes for global film industries, businesses, institutions and information. Festivals provide places in which multiple agents negotiate local, national, and supranational relations of culture, power, and identity. Ultimately, they are crucial centers for the development of film knowledge and film practices: festivals and the people who create and re-create them thus shape what films we as audiences and scholars will see, what films we respect or neglect, and often, how we read such cinematic works. Hence, the study of film festivals allows us to understand complex global relationships of film cultures through the historical development and contested hierarchy of films, filmmakers, film languages, themes, and places.” (2011: 1)

It is almost impossible to reconcile fully our object of study—the Slum Film Festival—with this definition. The Slum Film Festival does not attract widespread global attention; it is not a glittering showcase for films and people; it is not a vital node for global film industries, businesses, institutions, and information. It is, however, a place where a different kind of business is conducted, and where a distinct kind of showcasing occurs. The negotiation of culture, power, identity, and a certain kind of development—as we will show—makes this a very different kind of film festival from Cannes or Berlin. We will reveal how the festival is part of power relations operating at the crossroads of Nairobi’s media and development industries, and yet is something which has a life outside of—and without—such relations. We will promote the methodological value of ethnographic research, theorized here as “ethnographic moments,” as a useful way of thinking beyond grand narratives in the context of film festival research. Within this context, we will attempt to present a new way of conceptualizing cultural and political “resistance.”

The Slum Film Festival—what’s in a name?

The pilot edition of the Slum Film Festival (SFF) was launched in August 2011, through partnership amongst a range of organizations. The festival ran for several days and saw large inflatable screens erected in central open spaces throughout Kibera and Mathare, drawing estimated local crowds of between 200 and 500 people. Following the success of the pilot edition, the SFF continued in August 2012, with a slightly larger budget drawn from online crowd-funding, support from European governmental development agencies and cultural organizations, and equipment loans from key partners such as FilmAid International. The festival screenings in Mathare were managed by local media collective Slum-TV, while the screenings in Kibera were managed by the non-governmental organization Hot Sun Foundation. Unlike more typical Slum-TV, Hot Sun Foundation, and FilmAid International screenings in slum environments, this time the vans returned to their respective showgrounds every evening for six days. For that reason, this was not simply a one-off exhibition, promotion, or event, but a “festival” of filmmaking, as people were constantly reminded by MCs introducing the screenings.
According to Federico, the initial motivation for creating the festival was to offer free screenings of African films in the most disadvantaged areas of Nairobi. He was working as the Cultural Attaché at the Spanish Embassy in Kenya at the time and, as part of his job, he wanted to contribute to Nairobi’s cultural life by creating opportunities for people with the least disposable income to enjoy cultural events, in particular, the medium of film. For someone living in Kibera or Mathare, commuting to central Nairobi to watch a free film at the Alliance Française, for example, is prohibitively expensive. Only a tiny proportion of people from these areas of Nairobi attend the events in central Nairobi’s formal cultural institutions, such as the Kenya International Film Festival (KIFF), which was founded in 2005 and whose headquarters is the Alliance Française. In the creation of the SFF there was no explicit intention to counteract the failings of the KIFF, which does not hold screenings in places such as Kibera and Mathare, but there was certainly a specific intention to counteract the failings of Nairobi’s major cultural institutions to be accessible to the dispossessed parts of the city.

However this initial idea behind the festival, which sought the screening of African films in Kibera and Mathare, was altered. Discussions with both Mercy Murugi and Josphat Keya (at Hot Sun Foundation) and Sam Hopkins and Kenneth Wendo (at Slum-TV) convinced Federico that instead of screening African films, the festival should showcase the films being made in Kibera and Mathare by Hot Sun and Slum-TV. This is how the festival’s motto—“From the slum, by the slum, and for the slum dwellers”—was born, with the emphasis being on selecting films set in Kibera and Mathare (“from”), made by people from these places (“by”), and screening these films within Kibera and Mathare (“for”).

The English title “Slum Film Festival” was chosen, according to Federico, because it would appeal to both of the festival’s desired audiences—the local audience in Kibera and Mathare, and the international audience—including the donor community, and the international film festival community. According to Federico’s account of the founding of the festival, the term “slum” was not intended to have negative connotations by either Hot Sun or Slum-TV. According to Joshua’s research, the term is not used much within Mathare and Kibera, with people generally preferring the Sheng adaptation of the similar Italian word “ghetto”—a word which Federico says was considered early on in discussions on the festival’s name. In spite of this distinction, both terms demarcate and categorize neighborhoods such as Kibera and Mathare from perspectives outside of them. To refer to Kibera and Mathare as “slums” or “ghettoes” implies places that are also non-places and yet which are neatly marked off—in language—to separate them from those neighboring parts of the city that feel threatened by their existence. Both words begin not from a situated perspective within Kibera and Mathare but from outside, thereby bringing “the slum” as a different kind of place into existence.

"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]

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).

Third moment: final words and an official announcement of success

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:

“the SFF [is] a festival dubbed since last year, ‘From the slums, by the slums, and for the slum dwellers.’ but which today is actually becoming ‘From the slums, by the slums, but indeed to the entire Kenyan community.’”

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
Much as the history of colonial and missionary film screenings provides a framework for comparison with the proselytization agendas of development-driven work, the festival funders, heads of associated organizations, and representatives from partner embassies at the closing ceremony of the 2012 SFF, as well as the way this ceremony played itself out, all point toward the real “business” of this festival: the business of development and aid funding. The closing ceremony was a moment for the showcasing of the “success” of the work done by this second community—not the slum itself, but the aid community—for the purpose of securing its own existence. In contrast to the festivals that Wong addresses, the business here was not the profitable business of the international film industry but rather the continuation of aid to slum dwellers.

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.[3] 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.             
Conclusions and continuations

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,

“Dayan observed the simultaneous activity of different sets of participants at the festival—journalists, sales agents, distributors, filmmakers, and the audience—who were each acting out their own unique performances rather than a collective script which could be identified and unraveled as a continuity” (2007: 32).  

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.


1. FilmAid International is a small media NGO working primarily in the north Kenyan refugee camps of Dadaab and Kakuma, although they also have a presence in Nairobi. Their films are largely educational documentaries and, following their tagline, “Projecting Hope. Changing lives,” they focus on producing audiovisual testimonial accounts from poor communities. See Rawlence 2013 for an account of the film festival they hold in Dadaab. [return to text]

2. This transnational slum community is not confined to the so-called “developing” world. In their edited book African Cities: Competing Claims on Urban Spaces (2009), Locatelli and Nugent situate the relationships between different parts of cities within a global framework, using the “slums” on the outskirts of Naples and Paris as examples, and discussing the “emergence of new global patterns of poverty, new competition over resources and control of space, as well as new struggles for survival” (2009: 3).

3. The powerful role of NGOs in the Nairobi media sector, especially in informal settlements identified as hotspots for development work, has historical precedence. The roots of the modern Kenyan NGO are well established, located firmly in the years following Kenyan independence (Amutabi 2006). Coupled with the establishment of the UN’s African headquarters in Nairobi in 1996, the development industry became a significant part of Nairobi’s economy. The ideas of an “NGO culture” and practices of “humanitarian filmmaking” have been raised by various filmmakers working in Kenya to describe the pervasive effect of Nairobi’s long history as a centre for development agencies and NGOs. Kenyan filmmakers such as Judy Kibinge and Nick Hughes (personal correspondences) have spoken about the complete infiltration of this NGO culture into filmmaking in Kenya too.


For the funding that made this research possible, we would like to thank SOAS, University of London and The Leverhulme Trust. For supporting our research, we are grateful to Hot Sun Foundation, Slum-TV, all the members of the Slum Film Festival organizational team, Josh Wong and Carlota Molinero. We would also like to express our gratitude to the Centre for Media and Film Studies and the Department of African Languages and Cultures at SOAS, University of London.

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