Movie Seen! Soul Boy

Soul Boy is a film by Ghanian-Kenyan director Hawa Essuman, shot in the famous Nairobi slum Kibera. This film by German production company One Fine Day Films and Goethe-Institut revolves around Abila (Samson Odhiambo), a fourteen year old boy growing up and experiencing life’s lessons in this poor environment. Kibera is a place that has just experienced post-election violence and Abila has to navigate his way through this environment, while at the same time just trying to be a normal teenager.

Abila wakes up on what seems like just another day to find that his father is bed-ridden with illness; his soul has been stolen he tells his teenage son. Troubled and worried as there is no one to run their kiosk, Abila sets off to find out how he can help his father. Through the help of his friend Ciku (Leila Dayan Opou) he goes to see a witch who gives him seven tasks to complete if he wants to see his father recover. The film then progresses from here with Abila having various encounters in this modern day Nairobi adventure.

Soul Boy immediately a present day tale, with the teenage protagonist encountering the various issues in the slums; including tribalism, violence, crime and superstition.  Soul Boy lays the issue of tribalism on the table and shows how tribes are distrustful of each other especially after the 2007/08 post-election violence. We all know that young Kenyans are being tribalized by politicians and elders, but it is still troubling to watch it portrayed on screen. You feel very angry when you watch Abila (a Luo) trying to balance his friendship with his boys, while still hanging out with his girl-friend Ciku(a Kikuyu).  It is sad that Kenyans have to make such choices in their everyday lives because of tribal myths and mistrust. Ciku in one scene asks Abila “why didn’t you want to be seen walking with me?” and it is heartbreaking.

The aspect of spirituality (occult if you will) and myths is also potrayed in a refreshingly non-judgmental way. Abila hears of a witch called Nyawawa (Krysteen Savane) and bravely goes to see her to see if she can help him. If you thought traditional superstitions are dead in modern-day city life then Soul Boy does away with that notion as it defly makes the idea of consulting a witch just another aspect of slum life. The scene where Abila meets the witch and she is giving him the tasks is quite original if only for the camera work and lighting.

Perhaps the theme of this movie that most hits you upside the head is that of poverty. Soul Boy has one the most vivid and troubling showing of the rich-poor divide that I have seen in a Kenyan made film so far. Abila, while following someone one day finds himself in a white-owned household (presumably settlers’ descendants) in the leafy suburb of Karen. I felt genuinely angry at the contrast between the slums of Kibera and the opulence of protected Karen life, and audibly sighed once or twice. While at this house he finds himself completing one of the tasks and this is the best scene of the film.

Soul Boy is a movie that was completed in six weeks, and was written by local writer Billy Kahora who does a great job with a first-class and engaging script. There are some lovely performances by all the actors, but a favourite is Abila’s girlfriend Ciku, who potrays a fiercely independent and intelligent teenage girl, not afraid to speak her mind . In one scene, she laments on how all the boys in the neighbourhood are idiots during an argument with Abila. Hawa Essuman clearly did a great job with these two main characters. You really believe that they are best friends who would do anything for each other, and this shows Hawa’s good casting choices. The camera work in this film is also top-notch and the beauty of Nairobi, which many of us may miss in our daily hustle is tenderly captured here. Soul Boy manages to create a touching tale of slum life in Kenya and how people still find hope, adventure, love, friendship and family amid the squalor.

A positive aspect of Soul Boy is that 80% of those involved with the film are Kenyans, but one still cannot ignore the fact that it is funded by a German company. It is a sad indictment of this country’s arts industry that we still have to rely on foreign funding to create our own stories. Maybe those involved in the Kenyan film-industry need to be more forceful and united in getting local funding and support for their projects. Soul Boy is a good film (it won audience award at Rotterdam Film Festival) but there is no reason this could not have been a 100% Kenyan-made film. All in all, Soul Boy a step in the right direction and announces the arrival of Hawa Essuman, a talented filmmaker who could become a force to be reckoned with in the Kenyan film industry.

"One of the best Kenyan films I have seen in a long time, maybe ever. Go see it, support Kenyan talent."

KC  rating: 4 /5 Stars

(Soul Boy is now playing at Silverbird Prestige Plaza for a limited two week run. Also look out for the DVD.)


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