Collins, the Festival Manager, checks out Mabatini before the launch of the Mathare screenings.

Unfolding the thick waterproof screens takes time and manpower.

The Film Aid International crew prepare thick tethering ropes for the inflatable screen.

Equipment is hauled over an open sewer in Mathare.

A screen eventually unfolding in the dust.

Mathare offers an interesting variety of open spaces. Here, an urban art mural hangs in the background.

Despite the time it takes to inflate them, looming screens quickly attract the attention of kids from the slums.

Waiting for sundown, the space quickly fills with children looking for entertainment.

Kibera’s smaller location has a very different set up. Music plays a bigger role here and the large sound system is normally the first thing set up.

A DJ prepares the soundboard for the evening’s screening.

Crowds grow restless before screenings, as we wait for night to set.


“From, by, for”—
Nairobi’s Slum Film Festival, film festival studies, and the practices of development

by Lindiwe Dovey, Joshua McNamara, and Federico Olivieri

One day, a small white van arrives at the Kamukunji showgrounds and Mabatini grounds of Kibera and Mathare slums in Nairobi. In Kibera, the presence of Hot Sun Foundation members erecting screens at Kamukunji is nothing out of the ordinary. Hot Sun Foundation, run by U.S. filmmaker Nathan Collett and Kenyan producer Mercy Murugi, organises the majority of film-related activities in what is considered Kenya’s largest slum, frequently screening the films it makes there—including those made by students at its Kibera Film School. In Mathare, the FilmAid[1] [open endnotes in new window] truck that delivers the inflatable screen is well known too. As it curves down the steep dirt road that leads toward Mabatini, it attracts flocks of children screaming in its wake:  “Cinema! Cinema!”

Pulling a tangle of equipment from the van, a group of young men begin erecting a large inflatable screen. The screen, in each case, is lifted over open sewers and under washing lines, unfolded and washed down, tethered with thick ropes and laboriously inflated over twenty minutes. Children gather to play with the generator or to sit on the inflator pump, warm dusty air ventilating their t-shirts. Bystanders surge forward to help when the inflation invariably fails and the screen suddenly collapses, sending squealing children scattering. A crowd quickly gathers, pressing hard on the local youths hired to serve as security. Music starts, a distraction from how long the screen takes to assemble, drawing people from their shopping or drinking, catching them as they arrive home after commuting back from places of work. As the sun sets, the projector is switched on, its beam catching the dust with an eerie glow. In Mabatini grounds, a natural stone cliff provides a seat for viewers, cast orange in the glow of high overhead security lights. Mathare’s Kwa Austin grounds—where screenings are held once Mabatini becomes inevitably waterlogged by heavy August rains—is located next to a busy road lined with local bars. Few women or children linger in the area after dark. In contrast, in Kibera’s open, accessible Kamukunji grounds, close to local schools and markets, the audience is much more mixed, the atmosphere lighter and more playful. A space which, by day, is used for football matches and the sale of market goods is, by evening, transformed into an outdoor cinema.

To the gathered crowd, the bouncing MC calls out:

MC:           “Hey, people! I say “Slum film’, you say “festival’! Slum film-”
Crowd:      “Festival!”
MC:           “Slum film-”
Crowd:      “Festival!”
MC:           “I say Nairo, you say Biz! - Nairo-”
Crowd:      “Biz!”
MC:           “Nairo-”
Crowd:      “Biz!”


Mathare and Kibera are two “informal settlements” sitting at the far ends of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. Mathare is to the east, Kibera to the south-west. Wedged between Ngong Road, Ngong forest and Wilson Airport, Kibera is a highly compact settlement of corrugated steel and mud houses, narrow market streets, churches and mosques. Mathare is a slightly less defined location, a jumble of neighboring “ghettos” clustered around Mathare Valley. On all sides Nairobi thrives, a wealthy metropolis with a burgeoning middle class. It is a centre for innovation in information technology and the East African film and television industries (cf. The Nairobi Declaration, 2010). As Martin Robbins puts it, places like Kibera and Mathare have been

“disowned by Nairobi, a city that surrounds [them] the way a brown paper bag conceals a dirty magazine” (2012).

According to Charton-Bigot, Nairobi is a highly fragmented city, which “because of its origins and its nature … started as a place of passage and never really, for the majority of its inhabitants, a place for a definitive life” (2006: 7). She refers to the flux of Nairobi, to its precarity, and sees its defining characteristic as the “heterogeneous assemblage of neighborhoods and communities” and people of diverse backgrounds (2006: 9). Locating our study within this particular diverse, precarious context, our interest is the creation of a film festival here in 2011 and its first two editions, in August 2011 and August 2012.

While this article may appear to provide a tidy view of the value of ethnographic approaches to the study of film festivals, the methodology of our research has been profoundly, and deliberately, inclusive. This article represents the culmination of a partnership between three researchers and practitioners working with related yet distinct sets of interests. Lindiwe Dovey initially suggested the joint project since her current research and curatorial work focuses on relations between film festivals and African film, and she was intrigued to hear about Federico Olivieri’s founding of and writing about the Slum Film Festival in Nairobi in 2011. Joshua McNamara decided to conduct ethnographic research on the 2012 edition of the festival (as part of his Ph.D. research into the humanitarian practices of audiovisual media production in Nairobi) and so Lindiwe suggested that he and Federico meet one another. We then collectively decided that we should join forces to produce an article, the primary point of which—from the outset—was not simply to “study” the “Slum Film Festival,” but to explore different methodological approaches to the study of a film festival. We wanted to open ourselves to the inherent messiness of objecthood, to an understanding of objects of study as relationally constituted and contextually bound.

For Federico, as one of the founders of the festival, the Slum Film Festival was a response through the power of moving images to what he saw as the lack of access to culture and opportunities for self-reflection in a place deeply affected by poverty. For Lindiwe, an exploration of the Slum Film Festival was part of her broader study of film festivals on the African continent, and an attempt to understand the power of the term “slum,” so unusual in the way most film festivals frame themselves. Her research on film festivals involves ethnographic methods, but she was not able to attend the Slum Film Festival. One could argue, then, that Federico was too close to the festival (being one of its founders), and that Lindiwe was too far from the festival (being unable to be present at it). Joshua thus took on the role of conducting ethnographic research on the festival from a position less invested than Federico, for while Joshua got involved in the 2012 organizing committee, he is not one of the festival’s initiators. The idea was that we would assume these different “proximities” to the festival and then challenge one another through dialogue and questions, often necessarily conducted via email or Skype.

In practice, then, it has been a dislocated type of research collaboration that in itself reflects many of the trials of contemporary research in the humanities and social sciences. It is a form of research not seeking answers so much as struggling for effective frameworks in which to propose useful questions, based on conflict as much as on consensus and on recognizing our own blind spots rather than assuming our expertise as scholars. While the power dynamics at and around the Slum Film Festival became the main focus of our interest, it would also be naïve not to recognize the power dynamics at work within the research itself. As will become apparent, Lindiwe’s interest in using the research to evaluate the construction of the new field of film festival studies, and Joshua’s interest in exploring the relationship between the Slum Film Festival and the discipline of development studies, ended up dominating the construction of our conclusions.

“Film festivals”as objects of study  

The study of “film festivals” has recently come into being as a field of academic study, under the broader areas of media, film, cultural and globalization studies. It can be seen as part of a larger shift towards a “rematerialization” of film studies (Lobato 2012), and towards a rapprochement between film and media studies (Dovey 2010), in which scholars are recognizing the need to locate film analysis within wider historical, geopolitical, sociological, and industrial vistas. In many ways, film studies is moving from the close analysis of individual films to charting the ways in which films circulate through various channels, thereby accruing different kinds of value—critical, commercial, and other. We completely support this shift in approach away from the treatment of media as coherent “texts” that only “expert” scholars are able to interpret. However, there is an equal danger in assuming that the channels through which films circulate—such as film festivals, and other “media events”—are in themselves coherent entities that can be easily understood and unpacked by individual scholars. While we welcome the new field of film festival studies as a major advance in film studies, we feel that this field will benefit from an openness of approach that remains attuned to alternative definitions of “film festivals.” Our aim in this article, in relation to film festival studies, is twofold. First, we want to challenge the standard definition of a film festival that is starting to settle within the scholarship in this young field, and we want to raise questions about methodology in relation to film festival studies. At the same time, we also hope to make observations and raise issues relevant to city and urban studies, African studies, and the study of development practices.

Marijke de Valck and Cindy Wong see film festivals as originating in Europe in the inter-World-War era, exemplified by large international film festivals such as Cannes and Berlin. Such festivals are both arbiters of cinematic taste and places in which cinema business is conducted. Wong opens her book Film Festivals: Culture, People, and Power on the Global Screen (2011) with the following paragraph:

“Film festivals attract widespread global attention as glittering showcases for films and people. Yet, they also constitute vital nodes for global film industries, businesses, institutions and information. Festivals provide places in which multiple agents negotiate local, national, and supranational relations of culture, power, and identity. Ultimately, they are crucial centers for the development of film knowledge and film practices: festivals and the people who create and re-create them thus shape what films we as audiences and scholars will see, what films we respect or neglect, and often, how we read such cinematic works. Hence, the study of film festivals allows us to understand complex global relationships of film cultures through the historical development and contested hierarchy of films, filmmakers, film languages, themes, and places.” (2011: 1)

It is almost impossible to reconcile fully our object of study—the Slum Film Festival—with this definition. The Slum Film Festival does not attract widespread global attention; it is not a glittering showcase for films and people; it is not a vital node for global film industries, businesses, institutions, and information. It is, however, a place where a different kind of business is conducted, and where a distinct kind of showcasing occurs. The negotiation of culture, power, identity, and a certain kind of development—as we will show—makes this a very different kind of film festival from Cannes or Berlin. We will reveal how the festival is part of power relations operating at the crossroads of Nairobi’s media and development industries, and yet is something which has a life outside of—and without—such relations. We will promote the methodological value of ethnographic research, theorized here as “ethnographic moments,” as a useful way of thinking beyond grand narratives in the context of film festival research. Within this context, we will attempt to present a new way of conceptualizing cultural and political “resistance.”

The Slum Film Festival—what’s in a name?

The pilot edition of the Slum Film Festival (SFF) was launched in August 2011, through partnership amongst a range of organizations. The festival ran for several days and saw large inflatable screens erected in central open spaces throughout Kibera and Mathare, drawing estimated local crowds of between 200 and 500 people. Following the success of the pilot edition, the SFF continued in August 2012, with a slightly larger budget drawn from online crowd-funding, support from European governmental development agencies and cultural organizations, and equipment loans from key partners such as FilmAid International. The festival screenings in Mathare were managed by local media collective Slum-TV, while the screenings in Kibera were managed by the non-governmental organization Hot Sun Foundation. Unlike more typical Slum-TV, Hot Sun Foundation, and FilmAid International screenings in slum environments, this time the vans returned to their respective showgrounds every evening for six days. For that reason, this was not simply a one-off exhibition, promotion, or event, but a “festival” of filmmaking, as people were constantly reminded by MCs introducing the screenings.
According to Federico, the initial motivation for creating the festival was to offer free screenings of African films in the most disadvantaged areas of Nairobi. He was working as the Cultural Attaché at the Spanish Embassy in Kenya at the time and, as part of his job, he wanted to contribute to Nairobi’s cultural life by creating opportunities for people with the least disposable income to enjoy cultural events, in particular, the medium of film. For someone living in Kibera or Mathare, commuting to central Nairobi to watch a free film at the Alliance Française, for example, is prohibitively expensive. Only a tiny proportion of people from these areas of Nairobi attend the events in central Nairobi’s formal cultural institutions, such as the Kenya International Film Festival (KIFF), which was founded in 2005 and whose headquarters is the Alliance Française. In the creation of the SFF there was no explicit intention to counteract the failings of the KIFF, which does not hold screenings in places such as Kibera and Mathare, but there was certainly a specific intention to counteract the failings of Nairobi’s major cultural institutions to be accessible to the dispossessed parts of the city.

However this initial idea behind the festival, which sought the screening of African films in Kibera and Mathare, was altered. Discussions with both Mercy Murugi and Josphat Keya (at Hot Sun Foundation) and Sam Hopkins and Kenneth Wendo (at Slum-TV) convinced Federico that instead of screening African films, the festival should showcase the films being made in Kibera and Mathare by Hot Sun and Slum-TV. This is how the festival’s motto—“From the slum, by the slum, and for the slum dwellers”—was born, with the emphasis being on selecting films set in Kibera and Mathare (“from”), made by people from these places (“by”), and screening these films within Kibera and Mathare (“for”).

The English title “Slum Film Festival” was chosen, according to Federico, because it would appeal to both of the festival’s desired audiences—the local audience in Kibera and Mathare, and the international audience—including the donor community, and the international film festival community. According to Federico’s account of the founding of the festival, the term “slum” was not intended to have negative connotations by either Hot Sun or Slum-TV. According to Joshua’s research, the term is not used much within Mathare and Kibera, with people generally preferring the Sheng adaptation of the similar Italian word “ghetto”—a word which Federico says was considered early on in discussions on the festival’s name. In spite of this distinction, both terms demarcate and categorize neighborhoods such as Kibera and Mathare from perspectives outside of them. To refer to Kibera and Mathare as “slums” or “ghettoes” implies places that are also non-places and yet which are neatly marked off—in language—to separate them from those neighboring parts of the city that feel threatened by their existence. Both words begin not from a situated perspective within Kibera and Mathare but from outside, thereby bringing “the slum” as a different kind of place into existence.

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