Kenya: '40 Sticks' Leaves Lovers of Local Movies Thrilled

Ten hardcore criminals -- nine of them on death row -- are on transit from Maza Minimum Prison to Kivu Maximum Prison when they get stranded in a wildlife reserve and have to fight for survival and freedom, resulting in an attempted escape and botched rescue that descend into a fatal revenge mission.

That sums up the Kenyan-produced 90-minute movie, 40 Sticks, that premiered on Netflix on November 20. It has been nominated for Kalasha Awards, which recognise and reward outstanding acts and will be held in mid-December.

Among the criminals is a gang of four -- Pablo (Robert Agengo), Biggie (Mwaura Bilal), Mustafa (Andreo Kamau) and Majuju (Xavier Ywaya) -- convicted for murder, robbery with violence and abductions. These four --and Leah (Shiviske Shivisi, an accomplice that was thought dead -- are the heart of the movie.

Enroute from Maza to Kivu, and under the watchful eye of Amigo (Arabron Nyyeneque), the lead warden, the prison van runs into a blocked road, thanks to a stalled water bowser, and has to use a longer route that passes through a wildlife reserve.

A word about Amigo: He is the typical prison warder: A violent bully with limited, searing vocabulary. No one is good enough around him -- not even his fellow prison officers (especially Dakari, Leah disguised as a warden) whom he dismisses as cowards unfit for a mission as dangerous as the one they are embarking on. To Amigo, all the prisoners are nyang'au (hyenas or bastards).

Unknown to the rest, Pablo has other plans. Will he, like the prisoners who dug their way out of police cells in Kenya, succeed to escape to freedom? Or will he end up dead like the two of the 209 prisoners who escaped from a jail in Moroto in Uganda in September?

So, they set off for Kivu; the 10 prisoners and three warders.

The decision to focus on the wildlife reserve -- or the tyre burst and crash that leave them stranded with no phone signal -- makes it easier to stay with the movie.

They have to stay the night. Amigo orders everyone to walk back to the main road but they have to turn back when a wild animal attacks them, killing one prisoner. Then the prisoners decide to go for broke, lunging at one of the wardens, and grabbing a gun only to discover it is unloaded! Thank God for Dakari's fumbling ways. Shortly thereafter, the stalled van's lights go off. For lights, they start a fire using a matchbox and pieces of papers. And that's when hell is unleashed. Every time the fire goes out, someone dies!

Who dunnnit? Amigo suspects the prisoners, who insist he's the killer; after all, is he not the only one with a gun? He chortles, "Why would I kill people who are already on death row?"

The prisoners -- even as their numbers dwindle -- don't give up hope and are rewarded when they land on Amigo's loaded gun and put a bullet through his head. The prisoners then turn upon themselves, appearing to suspect each other of the killings but in reality, fighting for survival. This suspicion was there at the beginning. "Kuna kipanya kwa rende," Biggie said to Leah (there is a snitch in our midst).

In his eccentric Bible-quoting ways, Reverend (Cajetan Boy) livens up the movie, complete with a 1980s gospel tune (Mimi ni mzabibu, mimi ni mzabibu, nanyi ni matawi yangu [I am the vine, and you are the branches]).

40 Sticks has all the elements of a thriller: Characters double-cross each other, leaking out information in exchange for money and a chance at freedom, life and survival.

The movie, which rose to the second most watched on its first week on Netflix in Kenya, is particularly arresting in its deployment of slang/sheng with the unimaginative mix of English and Kiswahili.

Even with a few bloops (for example, muscular hardcore prisoners with bushy hair, beards, a Bible), Voline Ogutu mix of English, Kiswahili and slang, lends itself to a seamless flow. There isn't anything to show Edu Gee (editor), Victor Gatonye (director) and Mkali Liwali, the executive producer, didn't do a good job.

In the end, we have sat by the edge of our seat for what must rank among the most satisfying productions and a testament to the continued rise of the local movie industry.

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