Angela Wanjiku Wamai works as a film editor in Nairobi, Kenya. She was recently awarded best film editor by the Women in Film Awards – Kenya. In 2018 she wrote “I Had to Bury Cũcũ,” a short film that premiered at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and has continued a successful festival run. Her directorial debut was a short film that premiered at the International Female Film Festival Malmö, “Dad, Are You Ok?” Wamai continues to edit and is trying to find her place between the editing bench and the director’s monitor. “Shimoni” (“The Pit”) is her feature directorial debut.
“Shimoni” (“The Pit”) is screening at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which is running from September 8-18.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
AWW: “Shimoni” is a quiet film about the devastating power of silence. The film, where Kikuyu is the most spoken language, is about a man who has had to live with a huge secret and who has, over the years, watched silence consume everything in his life.
“Shimoni” is also a film about monstrosity. It’s a film about how monsters are made and about the ability of the human heart to rot quickly, especially when it is wounded.
“Shimoni” gives no easy answers and nothing is ever what it seems — it’s a little like real life.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
AWW: I wrote the story because it just refused to leave my head. The characters stayed with me, no matter how much I tried to move on, and boy, did I try. So I guess it’s the characters that drew me to the story. I loved that the main character was fragile and always on the edge, but he was also so quiet and that made him dangerous and out of reach. I loved that the women were strong and kind, but that they could also be very ruthless. The women were complex and African like all the women I grew up around and I knew I had to share them with the world.
I also liked the fact that the film is a tragedy. I think we should give more space to African films to be beautifully tragic, because life can be tragic and African films should explore all of life.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
AWW: I want people to think about their own prejudices, and I want them to doubt opinions they hold dear. I want them to ask themselves, every time they are ready to declare someone a monster, “Why are you the way you are?”
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
AWW: The biggest challenge was fundraising, of course. It was really hard to raise the money to make the film and that meant we had to be really creative in how we filmed, to ensure we got everything done well but within budget. But we are really grateful for the limitations these budget constraints presented, because it meant we had to be very detailed and thorough and that, in the end, was beneficial for the film.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
AWW: We had a local (Kenyan) investor fund the film. It was a micro budget so we had to be very smart in how we planned out the production. We decided to invest in a long pre-production phase where we, among other things, rehearsed the entire script with the actors. During pre-production we also came up with a very detailed storyboard — it took months to do this — which helped us manage the 15 shoot days. We shot in 15 days, which meant extremely long shoot days. To make the shoot days manageable the production team carefully inserted rest days in the schedule to ensure that the crew had sufficient down time.
The post-production phase was also long, and I edited the film. Having a micro budget meant that we had to do a lot of double roles [in order to save]. The long post phase was good because the film morphed and changed a lot. and because I was editing it myself, I had time to walk away and come back to the film with new energy.
I don’t think one can ever have enough money to make the film in their head, but I think it’s important to keep inventing ways to keep creating, and when working with small budgets, we learn that the trick is in being really, really prepared.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
AWW: An immense love for storytelling that I had growing up, and a newfound urge to take charge of my own story and of the stories coming out of Africa.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
AWW: Best advice, and I quote: “Angela, as a filmmaker, you have to be stubborn!”
Worst advice, and again I quote: “Make your story simple because they won’t understand.”
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
AWW: My advice for other women filmmakers is: Tell the story you want to tell and don’t apologize for it. Also, and very importantly, be kind.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
AWW: “Sambizanga” by French filmmaker (of French West Indian descent) Sarah Maldoror. This film moved me so much, I was thinking about it for days. To this day I can still hear the cry of the lead actor in my head. I also loved how [Maldoror] dignified her characters, even though they were in situations that were not dignifying. I am on a mission to discover her body of work because unfortunately, it is not very accessible in Africa, which is just ridiculous, if you ask me.
W&H: What, if any, responsibilities do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?
AWW: We have the responsibility to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions. We have the responsibility to make people look and listen, no matter how much they don’t want to. It is our responsibility to give people the images to look at and enable them to listen to voices they haven’t heard before.
We also have the responsibility to keep thinking about things and keep reflecting our thought processes in our storytelling, so that the stories we tell are growing as we grow.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
AWW: Hollywood needs to expand its linguistic space to go beyond English. There are thousands of languages that exist in the world, and there are also various ways of speaking English. There is a need to honor the speakers of these languages by allowing characters in Hollywood films to speak these languages and in the correct accent.
Hollywood also needs to normalize the reading of subtitles. Making a Hollywood film entirely in Xhosa, Kikuyu, Luo, Kisii, Yoruba, Nahuati, Tiwi, or Tiv doesn’t need to be a revolutionary act.