22 January 2010

Sudan: Film on Darfur Angers Sudan

Nairobi — Even as dark rain clouds pepper the skies over the barren hills overlooking Kikopey in Kenya's Rift Valley province, inhabitants of these vast plains are unaware of an even larger shadow looming over their heads, occasioned by a possible international standoff over their participation in a controversial film.

The government of Sudan has petitioned its Kenyan counterpart to intervene and stop Danish film makers from releasing a movie. The movie blames Kenya's northern neighbour for widespread genocide in the Darfur region. The film, Havnen (Danish for revenge), is centred around the war in Darfur and the vicissitudes of life for a group of refugees living in a town on the banks of river Funen in Denmark, and is scheduled to be released in August, this year.

According to media reports, the director of Sudan's Department of Conflict Resolution and Management, Omer Dahab, has allegedly submitted complaints to the Kenyan embassy in Khartoum, saying that the film has racist contents. He contends that it will negatively affect ethnic harmony in Darfur.

The same reports quote S. Somaya, the Sudanese government spokesperson at its embassy in Nairobi, as saying that it is misleading for the film producers to shoot the movie in Kenya using 2007 post-election violence victims, and then claiming that the location in question is Darfur.

Ms Somaya claims also that the IDPs were lured with low pay, and taken advantage of because they could hardly afford to reject the offer. But IDPs who participated in the film beg to differ. Take 15-year-old Esther Nyambura who has called home the IDP camp in Kikopey, near Gilgil, for nearly two years now.

She and her parents were displaced from their Narok home at the height of the 2008 post-election violence and fled to the Naivasha showground, from where they were moved to the Ebenezer camp in Kikopey.

Absentee parents

Her mother Ann Waithera, and father David Maina are virtually absentee parents. They been gone for weeks now, and she doesn't know where they are. They occasionally drop by to give her money for food and then disappear again for days on end without telling her where they are.

The diminutive but energetic teenager, who at her tender age acts as both father and mother to her five siblings -- feeding, clothing and taking care of their every need almost single-handedly -- bubbles with enthusiasm and absolute joie de vivre, or the joy of living. True, life has been hard for the Standard Seven pupil at Mukinduri school, but when the film crew dropped by in October, bringing with them an unprecedented financial windfall, Esther was right in the thick of things.

For her trouble, she got five full days of sumptuous dishes and more money than she had ever had in a single day -- enough to buy herself a new pair of shoes, a school bag and a new pen, besides presents for her brothers and sisters. It all started in early October when a bus-load of strangers drove up to the camp, clutching at an introductory letter from the Naivasha district commissioner's office and asked to see the IDPs.

The film crew first arrived at the camp on October 1 after scouting the country for an ideal location for their movie. After explaining their mission, they drew up and signed a written agreement with the IDPs, saying that the IDPs understood the purpose of the film shoot and that they had agreed to take part in it for a daily wage.

The crew then pitched camp on the hillside, peppering its slope with a sea of dark green tents. They stayed there for almost a month building the movie set, only leaving on Sunday November 1 after the shooting. For power, the residents say they used a heavy-duty generator which lit up the whole camp.

They brought with them also hundreds of tall, dark strangers whom the IDPs claim were of Nubian origin. "They spoke fluent Kiswahili and Sheng, so I think they are Kenyans," says Lucy Wambui, a 30-year-old mother of three who was also chosen for a role as supporting cast.

"They told us that they had been picked from Kibera (slums) in Nairobi," she adds. "I think they picked our camp because it looks like a desert. It is dry and windy, and has a lot of dust," says John Mwangi, the Ebenezer IDP camp committee, who acts as their spokesman. The film was shot between October 20 and 24.

Internal refugees

Ebenezer has two camps -- Ebenezer A and B, composed of internal refugees moved from the Naivasha showground at the height of the post-election clashes in January 2008. Located in the sprawling and dusty plains near Kikopey, on the Nakuru-Nairobi highway, the camps provide an ideal setting for a desert environment, which the film makers wanted to capture. More than 240 people live in Ebenezer.

"They told us that they wanted to remake the war in Darfur. They even dressed women in veils and men in flowing white robes and asked us to speak in Arabic. "They taught us the words to say," says Lucy Wambui. She laughingly adds that, although they didn't understand a word of the language, they had a great time pretending to be Arabs.

The expansive set was composed of a make-believe hospital that the film makers built from scratch on the hillside. "We never got to go inside (the hospital), but a few of us were lucky enough. They say that the lead actor was a white "doctor", but I don't know," says Esther Nyambura.

Josephat Githaiga, one of the "lucky few", confirms that, indeed, it was so. Esther says that the supporting cast was picked according to how an individual resembled the inhabitants of Darfur. "One had to be a little taller than average, light skinned and with a narrow face," recalls Esther, who adds that more than 100 men, women and children were picked for the parts.

All they had to do, according to Lucy Wambui, was lounge around the "village" and scream when "the men with guns came". And for just that, they were well paid. Beatrice Wambui says they each received Sh700 a day for adults and Sh350 for children over the age of five.

Children under five were paid Sh150, which was given to their mothers. "I got Sh850 a day because of my young one," says Beatrice, motioning to the sleeping eight-month-old child strapped onto her back. And it didn't end there. For breakfast, members of the supporting cast were each offered one fried egg, two slices of buttered bread and tea with milk.

A sumptuous lunch came in the form of sukuma wiki (kales) and meat stew with ugali and a banana or orange, replete with a thoughtful bottle of water. In the evening, they were offered tea with mandazi after work, before being paid their daily wages and heading for home.

The dust at Ebenezer is now sludge and puddles of muddy water and the strangers have been gone for over two months but the good memories linger on among the residents. The film crew left behind enough memorabilia -- a large water tank that the residents say will solve their perennial water problems, and remnants of the building materials used to put up the "hospital".

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