Africa In Motion: Reimagining African Cityscapes is a refreshingly eclectic programme of short films covering such politically potent issues as institutional racism and civic rights. What follows is a brief recap on two films to feature in that programme, Kitchwateli, and Robots of Brixton.
First up is Kitchwateli, an experimental sci-fi short from Kenya directed by multitalented animator and film maker Muchiri Njenga. Swahili for ‘TV head’, Kitchwateli is ostensibly set in a post apocalyptic future world, and opens with a stark, striking image of an African boy trudging, head slumped, through a deserted wasteland towards the bright lights of a distant metropolis. However, like all good speculative fiction it soon becomes clear that the world depicted bears an uncanny resemblance to our own, a ‘future present’ functioning as a dark mirror upon society’s failings.
Featuring numerous stylised, sepia-tinged shots of city slums, the real-life setting for Kitchwateli is in fact Nairobi. Reinforcing this notion of a ‘future present’, the young boy is transported back in time to the present day and undergoes a bizarre, Kafkaesque transformation in which his head is replaced by a comically large TV set. Clearly a visual metaphor for the absorbing, indoctrinating effects of television and twenty-four seven rolling news media, the TV brings to mind another short called The Boy With A Camera For A Face (2013). As with Kitchwateli, the title itself is direct and self-explanatory, with the camera this straightly satirical device commenting upon today’s younger generation of ‘screenagers’ who are willing slaves to social media.
However, more than merely commenting on the younger generation’s absorption with and even into modern technology, Kitchwateli throws into relief Western media’s morbid fascination with Africa’s entrenched levels of poverty. Among the subjects of the Television’s gaze are young, impoverished African families, seeming to reflect this growing media phenomenon of ‘poverty porn’. Accompanying such bleak, abject visuals is the voice of a news anchor reporting on stories of ‘terror suspects’, a plausible side swipe on how Black Africans are repeatedly portrayed in a negatively stereotyped light by the mainstream media.
Opening with the quote, ‘all things appear incredible to us, as they differ more or less from our own manners’, Kitchwateli encourages us to reflect upon the manifold divisions that exist between different social groupings. Images of ultramodern, gleaming skyscrapers are juxtaposed with rusty, ramshackle shanties, representing the classic dichotomy between ‘Self’ and ‘Other’. Initially drawn to the city for its promises of refuge, the boy is instead met with nothing but ridicule and resentment, and this same ill treatment of ‘the Other’ is glaringly apparent in Robots of Brixton.
Set in an imagined future where robots and men walk alongside one another, shoulder to mechanical shoulder, Robots of Brixton follows the fate of a male robot youth living in a noticeably more degenerated Brixton than the one we know today. Populated largely by a mechanical workforce that has assumed those less desirable jobs humans no longer wish to be inconvenienced with, Brixton has devolved into a place of poverty, widespread unemployment and social degradation.
For our young robot protagonist there is seemingly no escape from this prison of hastily built high-rises, except perhaps, through drugs. After lighting up a bong at some exclusive, robots only nightclub, he finds himself suddenly transported into a strangely Edenic forest, whereupon he is instantly bombarded on all sides by floating screens depicting violent imagery. The images are of riots taking place between police and civilians, and given the setting especially it is blatantly clear that these visuals deliberately echo those of the infamous 1981 Brixton riots.
The visual device used of television screens again recalls Kitchwateli, as does this commentary on the negative portrayal of black Africans in the media and society as a whole. Just as the robot youth in Robots of Brixton finds himself surrounded by images of violence, we too are of course saturated with brutalised images on a daily basis courtesy of twenty-four hour, rolling news coverage. Intercutting between genuine archival footage of the Brixton riots and CGI scenes consciously mimicking these events, Robots of Brixton presents a potent allegory for our times. In a current political climate whereby racial hatred has seemingly been validated by ‘Alt-right’ parties within Europe as well in America with ‘Trump-ism’, the message here is seemingly that history can and does repeat itself.
Indeed, Robots of Brixton fittingly closes with the quote, ‘history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce’. As Kitchwateli also reflects, black people are seen as unwelcome within civilised society and are subjected to routine rounds of racially motivated abuse. There is also this same running theme present within both shorts of division, both of class and of race, yet the overriding message I got from the programme as a whole was that what unites us is, ultimately, stronger than what divides.
Photo by Chris Scott.
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