Documentary ‘Softie’ and the bear pit of Kenyan politics

Kenyan director Sam Soko’s debut documentary feature, Softie, opens with the film’s protagonist, Boniface Mwangi, sourcing 1,000 litres of pigs’ blood. “I’ve found a van for you. When do you want it? When are you getting the blood?” Mwangi asks.

Later that evening, watched by his wife and three young children, Mwangi and his team work through the Nairobi night, decanting the fluid into plastic bottles to then smear it outside the Kenyan parliament in the first in a series of eye-catching protests against government corruption.

A 37-year-old photojournalist-turned-activist, Mwangi is probably Kenya’s most vocal agitator for political and social change. The east African nation is one of the continent’s most vibrant economies, celebrated by investors for its entrepreneurial spirit and relative political stability — it has held four elections since 2002 and power has changed hands twice. But scratch beneath the surface, and the foundations are rotten, Mwangi says.

Mwangi’s photograph of Kenyan riot police hitting out during disturbances in Nairobi in 2007 © BONIFACE MWANGI/AFP via Getty Images

Corruption is pervasive, political dealmaking often self-serving and violence all too common. In 2007, after the country’s main opposition leader challenged the president’s re-election citing fraud, protests escalated into clashes between rival tribal groups that left more than 1,000 people dead. Mwangi, a young photographer at the time — twice named CNN Africa photojournalist of the year — documented the killings in vivid detail. His first photo captured a man attacked at a roadblock, blood streaming from the machete wound across his forehead.

Too often his editors would decide that the images were too violent to publish, Mwangi says, and he soon walked out. Abandoning journalism, he took his pictures on a national tour to remind Kenyans of the violence he says was fomented by the country’s political leaders and then ignored when those same leaders decided it was time to cut a deal. “I can’t stand politicians,” he says. “I can’t stand the hypocrisy.”

Film-maker Sam Soko

Soko, 35, who first met Mwangi in 2013, had never made a feature film before and did not intend to make one when he made Softie. His initial proposal was to shoot a five-minute video of one of Mwangi’s protests, a sort of “how-to video for activism”, he tells me from Berlin, where the film opened last week’s Human Rights Film Festival

Four years later he was still filming and the editing process took two years. The result is an intimate portrait, cut from some 500 hours of footage, of a young man’s quest to change his country for the better, and the impact of that struggle on his family.

The film, which won a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year, cuts smoothly from private moments at Mwangi’s home to street battles and eventually the campaign trail. It caps a remarkable journey for Soko, too, who only moved to Nairobi in his twenties from a rural town in the Kenyan highlands. “I still see myself as a country boy,” he says.

Like many Kenyans, Mwangi, who was raised by a single mother, grew up poor and did his best to keep out of trouble. “It’s hard to be poor. You’re taught to be timid and avoid problems,” he says, explaining both the root of his childhood nickname, Softie, and the film’s title.

In person, he is warm and charismatic, and any trace of that timid youth is gone. “Let us not lie to ourselves that Kenya has changed,” he told me last year, lamenting the dominance of a static political elite since independence in 1963, persistent tribalism and the lack of real economic progress for many of the country’s 50m people.

The Kenyan economy has grown at more than 5 per cent a year for most of the past two decades. Innovations in technology, such as the world-leading mobile money service Mpesa, have driven a commercial dynamism unrivalled in the region. Yet, politically the country has lurched from crisis to crisis, corruption scandal to corruption scandal

As the film shows, Mwangi decided that to really change Kenya, it was better to start from inside the system. We see him embark on an ambitious campaign to win a seat in parliament. The bear pit of Kenyan politics is a dangerous place, and Mwangi soon receives death threats that force his family to flee to the US for almost a year. “I am willing to die for my country, if it means me dying for Kenya to be better for my kids,” Mwangi tells his wife Njeri before she leaves. “What if it doesn’t?” she replies.

Mwangi on the campaign trail with his wife, Njeri

Soko’s camera follows Njeri and the children to Jersey City, and her role grows throughout the film. In doing that, the young director does something unusual in a political biography by giving Mwangi’s wife equal importance as she works to hold the family together.

“Humanity puts heroes in such a high space and we totally forget that there is a whole legion of people in the background that help you see that hero and see that hero succeed,” Soko tells me. “In this case, Njeri is also an activist on so many levels.”

Back in Nairobi, Mwangi channels Barack Obama’s fundraising strategy from the 2008 US election campaign in crowdsourcing 1.6m Kenyan shillings (approximately $16,000) from small individual donations. It is a revolutionary tactic in a country where candidates normally pay the voters.

Mwangi under arrest at a demonstration . . . 
 . . . and on the ground

On the campaign trail, Mwangi does what he does best, walking the streets of the capital charming the electorate, but faces an uphill battle against the politically untested but financially flush pop star Jaguar, who is running as the ruling party’s candidate.

“We may sound like the lone voice in the wilderness, but we are here to stay and to reclaim our country,” Mwangi says, though one always feels the odds are against him. The now-disgraced British data analytics and lobbying firm Cambridge Analytica makes an appearance as the ruling party’s strategist, and eight days before the vote the head of Kenya’s digital voting system, Chris Msando, is brutally murdered

The film is political but not politicised. “I am not pointing fingers at anyone, I’m not accusing anyone, I am saying this is our reality,” Soko tells me. As a result, Softie feels optimistic. It is that rare thing: an African story about an African protagonist told by an African director — and the world is watching.

‘Softie’ is released in the US on October 12 and in Kenya on October 16. It is available in the UK on BBC iPlayer under the title ‘The Underdog and the Battle for Kenya’

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