Wanuri Kahiu speaks at this past week's TED gathering in Vancouver, Canada.
Ryan Lash //TED
When Wanuri Kahiu took to the TED Fellows stage this week in Vancouver, the 36-year-old had on green shoes and a beaded necklace worn like a crown — a hint to her offbeat worldview.
"My mother's a pediatrician, and when I was young, she'd tell the craziest stories," Kahiu began. "One of the stories she told was that if you eat a lot of salt, all the blood rushes up to your legs through your body ... to the top of your head, killing you instantly! She called it high blood pressure.
"This was my first experience with science fiction."
She's gone on to make sci-fi movies. And that's what brought her to TED. "The hook that caught our attention was science fiction filmmaking in Africa," says Tom Rielly, director of the Fellows program. "We hadn't heard about that before."
And Rielly liked her point of view. Kahiu's voice is unique on a continent where many of the stories told in film tend to reflect familiar themes of war, poverty and AIDS and that are often funded by aid, grants and foundations, becoming part of an organization's agenda.
Her response is to make films that emphasize fun. She's made films about "Nairobi pop bands that want to go to space or seven-foot robots that fall in love." Her films have been seen in more than a hundred film festivals around the world and they live online as well.
She has her serious side, too, as chair of the SAFE Foundation based in Kenya, which produces films and plays that try and change risky behavior and that connect to issues like HIV, radicalization and female genital mutilation.
But at TED, she focused on the idea that these types of stories limit the view of what Africa is and who Africans are: "We have to tell more stories that are vibrant." And she has given her style of filmmaking a name: Afro bubble gum art.
What is Afro bubble gum art?
It's fun, fierce and frivolous African art. First, it's for Africans so that we can see ourselves in a different way because I'm genuinely concerned about how we see ourselves and that we don't think we're worthy of happiness and we postpone joy as if it's a destination. But I feel like we can be happy now.
Have you ever sat in a theater and watched an audience watching one of your films? What was that like?
Awful. It's always awful. I'm always anxious. You never know if it's being read right, if they're going to laugh in the right places, if I offend them or if they understand what I'm trying to say.
You got your MFA in film from UCLA, a school that has a reputation for producing independent filmmakers, as opposed to working within a studio system. What's the film industry like in Kenya and how did the emphasis on being indie shape your work?
The film industry is growing. It's still very young but vibrant. I think it needs more access to funding and distribution, but there's definitely a growth of filmmakers in Kenya that is exciting to watch.
I don't know yet of an African filmmaker who is not an independent filmmaker because we're still fighting to create in a way that people will accept and for it to be commercially viable. There are very few people who have broken out in African cinema – Neill Blomkamp, [director of] District 9 is one.
You've put together a list of questions — your own sort of Bechdel Test, to assess African cinema and literature. What's your test?
The test asks three questions. The first question: Are two or more Africans in this piece healthy? The second question is: Are those Africans, the same healthy Africans, are they financially stable and not in need of saving? And the third question: Are they having fun?
We need to show images of Africans who are not dying, not in need of saving and living a joyous, thriving African life.
For those unfamiliar with African cinema, do you have some recommendations of movies we should see?
Stories of our Lives by Jim Chuchu — important because it's about the LGBT community in Kenya and it's based on real stories. And it's banned in Kenya.
Kati Kati by Mbithi Masya. It's a different look on Africa that's not expected. It's about the afterlife!
And what about one of yours?