2020 was a pivotal year for Kenyan documentaries, and forDocuboxGenericName, the East African Film Fund founded in 2013 by Kenyan filmmaker and administrator Judy Kibinge.
Christopher King y Maia Lekowwrite, one of the recipients of the first round of funding for the development and production of Docubox, was Kenya's pick for the Academy Award for Best International Film. Although the film, a poignant investigation into elder abuse in a rural Kenyan community, was not shortlisted, it received critical acclaim and was screened at several top film festivals. Softie, another film that Docubox supported in its later stages, premiered at Sundance in 2020, where it received a special mention from the jury for its editing. Directed by Sam Soko, Softie, a captivating profile of Kenyan photojournalist and activist Boniface Mwangi as he was running for office, was an unexpected success, becoming the highest-grossing film in Kenyan theaters that year.
Kibinge was an advertising executive who broke the glass ceiling when she decided to leave in 1999 to follow her instincts as a filmmaker. There was not much film activity in Kenya at the time. Kibinge's film debut,dangerous caseHe is sometimes credited with kickstarting the current wave of contemporary cinema in Kenya.
Kibinge spent the next decade directing a variety of feature films, NGO commissions, and documentaries. After addressing the challenges facing documentary filmmakers, Kibinge began to envision an organization, for filmmakers and run by filmmakers, that would provide the support that was missing. NGO commissioned work formed the backbone of the Kenyan documentary film industry at the time, and there was a lack of resources and opportunities for filmmakers wishing to do more creative and character-driven work.
And so Docubox was born. With substantial seed funding from the Ford Foundation and a group of partners, Kibinge, who had no experience managing film funds, was able to build a team from scratch. This team went to work creating structures that would enable them to achieve their goal of training and supporting documentary filmmakers in Kenya and the wider East Africa region.
While many of Docubox's later sponsors and partners, HIVOS, the British Council, and others, supported specific programs, the real turning point was winning a BUILD grant from the Ford Foundation, a five-year initiative that supports grassroots organizations. to achieve its objectives to achieve main objectives. Kibinge tells about the effect of this donationDocumentary film, “I cannot emphatically express how this has stabilized and allowed us to build a strong team. They [the Ford Foundation] literally gave us the money and backed out. They have nothing to do with what we want to finance, so our filmmakers have complete autonomy. They don't ask for incoming suggestions. It is the most incredible donation.”
It took a while to learn the basics, and Kibinge and his team realized that creating and nurturing a documentary community was just as important as raising funds for production or distribution. With this in mind, Docubox created The Box, a physical hub for filmmakers to come together, hold regular screenings, hold meetings, share ideas and skills, and collaborate on projects. An initiative of The Box where participants enjoy and watch short films while wearing shorts, the landmark quarterly Shorts, Shorts & Shots program has been instrumental in discovering a new generation of local filmmakers and building a new grassroots audience.
Kibinge stresses the importance of making Docubox a safe space for all forms of creative expression: “I love that the filmmakers and crew talk about Docubox as a family. It is a place where people feel safe and supported. Considering the amount of time we spend at work, it's great to feel at home somewhere."
Much remains to be done, Kibinge emphasizes, especially in film distribution. While Docubox acknowledges the films it supports, it gives full ownership to the filmmakers. Because of this, the distribution remains uneven, and while titles likeWeichlingowritesucceed very well, many others are striving for a breakthrough. Interestingly, years of NGO investment in the local documentary space has led Kenyan broadcasters to demand compensation from filmmakers for programming their films, so this avenue is not always open to resource-constrained filmmakers.
Distribution is still a function of proximity to powerful film agents and distributors and film festivals, and only a handful of these films have the resources to compete at this level. Kibinge takes some responsibility for these shortcomings as he reflects, "I think Docubox should have some convening power to distribute our films...and we're considering that." But every movie has a different plan and life cycle, so it's not that simple."
Perhaps because of this challenge, many movies focus on hit strategies as a more empirical measure of success. For example, the Docubox-compatible featurethanks for the rain, about a farmer who attends the UN climate conference in Paris with his climate lobby, caused a sensation on the festival route. The film was picked up and broadcast in various areas, but Kibinge says its final impact was informed by the town where it was filmed. She notes: “As a result of this film, we built a dam that some 300 families depend on. For a movie likewrite, what would be most effective would be to reduce homicides of the elderly as a result of community actions along the coast. Even if the movie doesn't end up on TV, it really makes a difference. You can't put a price on that."
If Kenya is now the documentary powerhouse of the East African region, Docubox can claim some credit. But there are still challenges. Start-up difficulties meant that the first generation of Docubox-funded feature film projects took longer than expected, and just five years later, in 2018, Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann's autobiography was released.New Moonit would be presented at the Luxor African Film Festival in Egypt. A poetic reflection of the filmmaker's personal transformation as he surveys a stone village on the Kenyan coast, the film should usher in a prolific new chapter in Kenyan cinema. People started to be exposed to a different kind of documentaries.
Toni Kamau, an independent producer who runs her own company We Are Not the Machine, is one of the converts. Kamau has worked in television and has created commissioned content for foreign media companies and platforms. During production he came into contact with Docubox.I'm samuela film finally banned in Kenya about an openly gay man and his relationship with his parents. “Docubox introduced me to the world of independent documentary production in 2013 when they supported meI am sunny' says Kamau of his experience. "Judy and her team have been very interested in introducing us to mentors, taking us to festivals, and creating a safe space and community in which to grow as independent filmmakers."
while trying to getWeichlingSam Soko also helped out on the ground.I am sunnyas the project participated in Good Pitch Nairobi, a partnership between Docubox and the UK non-profit Doc Society. He was impressed with the work done. Soko recalls, "It was still great to see them [Docubox] start to create a community for documentary filmmakers, which I think has helped grow our documentary not only locally but globally."
Kibinge understands that he has had the luxury of being able to run Docubox for the past five years without having to worry about funding core operations. But that privilege is threatened by the swift closure of the Ford Foundation later this year. If there's one thing that keeps Kibinge up at night, it's making sure Docubox's work is sustainable. She is working hard to raise a donation of around $10 million to continue the work of Docubox. "If anything can stabilize us for the next ten years, it's a donation," she says. "It's pretty scary because this is a different way of fundraising. It's hard because the funding culture is shrinking, as anyone who does our work can tell."
As a member of the ecosystem that directly benefited from Docubox was Kamau, who was also a co-producer.Weichling- works so that Kibinge and Docubox go far. She urges: “We need wealthy Africans to support the Docubox endowment fund so they can continue to support ambitious and creative storytellers interested in creating narrative change in how we are seen as Africans. I firmly believe in the team and in their work”.
Kibinge has spent nearly the last decade as a fundraiser and grant administrator in the industry, and while her work has been rewarding, she says she's still a filmmaker at heart and would love to make movies again if she can. A future project that is still close to her heart today revolves around the theme of archives. If she had any spare time and money, she Kibinge would happily invest in building or restoring a collection of archival images on Kenyan and African history.
Kibinge tells a story that still haunts her, about correspondence with an American filmmaker who recalled how, after Kenya gained independence, she was only allowed to leave with as much footage as possible because officials were destroying her extensive collection of archives. . Says Kibinge: “Across the continent there is now this race to save existing archives. Growing up, a lot of adults had these Super 8 cameras. I have a feeling there's more hidden images across the continent than we realize. With so many lost images from our national archives that have not survived, it may be time to look for unusual sources of images."
Despite the long list of challenges and limitations, Kibinge is excited and proud of the work that Docubox has done over the years. The capacity building, the funding interventions, the community of people, the constant stream of films and the representation of Kenya and Africa on the screen. All of it. "Something like Docubox had to exist to tie everything together," he reflects on the Docubox legacy. "It seems like telling the stories of Africa has never been more important."
Wilfred Okiche has participated in critics' programs and reported at festivals in Locarno, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Sundance. Working as a film critic and occasional programmer, he has experience reporting and writing on documentaries, Nollywood and African cinema. His writing appeared indiversity,IndieWire,filming,micinema sense, among other publications.
Wilfred Okiche is a 2022Documentary filmMember of the editorial board of the magazine. The scholarship program is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. For more information on how National Endowment for the Arts grants affect individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.