DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For the first time, Kenya has a film in Oscar contention. And the movie "Nairobi Half Life" has really become a local phenomenon. It chronicles a young man's misbegotten migration from a rural village to the crime-ridden capital. As NPR's John Burnett reports, this surprise hit film is helping Kenyans better understand Nairobi's crime culture.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: One of the things you quickly learn about life in Nairobi is that like most of the world's sprawling poor cities, crime is a problem here. There are carjackings, constant cell phone grab-and-runs, countless pickpockets, purse snatchers and thieves who expertly work traffic jams. An Anglican priest tells of being stuck in Nairobi gridlock when a young man popped out one of his headlights and dashed away. A mile down the highway there was the smiling thief waiting to sell the headlight back to him. So who are these brazen bandits who gave Nairobi its nickname Nairobbery? That's one of the question director Tosh Gitonga set up to explore in his violent, compelling debut film, "Nairobi Half Life."
TOSH GITONGA: I always like to look at this deeper than they are. I'm not satisfied that, OK, they're robbers. But why? I wouldn't be risking my life every day like that. There has to be a reason why.
BURNETT: Gitonga is 31 with a gecko tattoo on his arm, a shaved head and a pensive face. He spent a decade working his way up Kenya's small but dedicated film industry. He sits in a downtown Nairobi cafe above the sidewalk where one of the gritty crime scenes was shot. For Nairobians, the film resonates. For rural Kenyans, Gitonga hopes it is an education.
GITONGA: Because everyone in upcountry, I want to go to Nairobi, I want to go to Nairobi. Now, maybe they can even prepare better, get a better understanding of the Nairobi that they really want to go to.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BURNETT: The movie traces the progress of a naive young man named Mwas, who leaves his back-country village and comes to the big city to find his fortune. In short order, Mwas is robbed and thrown in jail. Then he falls in with a gang of small-time thieves while simultaneously pursuing his real goal to be an actor. Mwas crosses back and forth between these two worlds from the stage to the slum, always living the half life.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NAIROBI HALF LIFE")
BURNETT: "Nairobi Half Life" premiered at the Durbin South Africa Film Festival this year, where Joseph Wairimu as Mwas won best actor. The movie also garnered audience awards at the American Film Institute Festival in Los Angeles in early November and the Film Africa Festival in London. Most satisfying, says director Tosh Gitonga, his movie is drawing good crowds in Nairobi, where audiences normally pass up Kenyan films for Hollywood blockbusters. In fact, he says grinning, local ticket sales for "Nairobi Half Life" have surpassed those for "Dark Knight." So what you're saying is, this is the first Kenyan-made movie that is making money for Kenyan theaters?
GITONGA: Yes. This is the first kind of movie that has really turned the tables. It's surpassed expectations, surpassed what you ever dreamed of.
BURNETT: Among the unforgettable scenes, the jail at Central Police Station, where Mwas is made to clean the vile bathroom, watching a gang expertly strip spare parts off a car in a matter of seconds, and a secret prison where the police hold gangsters and kill them as bodies are needed for crime scenes. All of it is based on Nairobi's actual crime culture, which Gitonga says he researched talking to real thugs.
GITONGA: They gave me a lot of insight, you know.
BURNETT: If the director sought to force audiences to think about the causes of criminality in their turbulent city, he succeeded. Angela Gachui is a Nairobi business consultant who's seen the movie twice. She says the pastor at her church even recommended it from the pulpit. She says the film is an education about the dark underside of Nairobi that few understand.
ANGELA GACHUI: Why is it that not enough is being done to create jobs for these people to do this? They don't want to live in a room, five of them. I would like to know if everyone in government has watched this movie to realize the importance of creating jobs.
BURNETT: "Nairobi Half Life" was the result of an unusual collaboration. Gitonga and most of the film's creative team were drawn from a workshop put on by One Fine Day Films. African film enthusiasts from across the continent are mentored by professional filmmakers. This and another celebrated Nairobi movie, "Soul Boy," came out of this mini film school under the guidance of German director Tom Tykwer, with support from the German government. As Gitonga says, they taught us how to tell our own stories. "Nairobi Half Life" is one of 71 foreign language films competing for five nomination slots, one of which will receive the Oscar. The short list will be announced in January. John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.