On the final turn of my favourite route home is a rather shabby looking video hall sandwiched between a posho mill and a mtumba shop. Besides the ubiquitous green M-PESA branding painted on its walls, there is nothing spectacular about it. A man with an unsmiling face seated at the entrance serves a triple role as box office, chaperone and bouncer. The place – open every day between 10AM and 10PM – always seems to be busy. Even during the day-long KPLC scheduled blackouts, a generator chugs along at the back of the building, ensuring uninterrupted entertainment for local film-goers.
Hundreds (probably thousands) of such informal establishments have become an integral component of the recreation infrastructure in the less leafy neighbourhoods of every urban centre in Kenya. The main crowd puller to the video halls are Swahili, Sheng or vernacular “dubs” of Western and Asian films and television series produced by local translators or DJs, the best known being DJ Afro. These are not dubs in the strict sense of verbally acting out the exact words of the actors. Instead, these DJs provide an entertaining commentary and a loose, liberal translation of dialogue as the film or series progresses.
Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of these dubs. The DJs dub over the original audio track using digital mixers and voice recorders, sometimes resulting in a jarring and distracting listening. The dubs I’ve watched tend to strip away so much of the essence of the film and limit the viewer’s appreciation of the film to a DJ’s interpretation. However, the fact that these films are so popular suggests that there is a massive audience out there that prefers this much more localized experience. Subtitles are also not for everyone. Besides, there is no denying that a DJ Afro version of a film as bad as Terminator Genisys is so much more entertaining than the original.
The DJs obtain their original source material from numerous informal DVD shops which churn out all the latest and most popular films and television series as soon as they are available on the internet. The main clientele of these DVD shops are non-DJs like you and me looking for content to consume at home. Thus, the transactional relationships between everyday consumers, DVD shops, video hall owners and dubbing DJs come together to form a tight-knit informal ecosystem that leaves little/no room for the actual creators of the content.
This combination of a robust informal infrastructure for media distribution and translation (DJ Afro + video halls + DVD shops) and the explosive growth of internet access not only illustrates the incomplete globalization of media but also poses a unique challenge for Kenya’s film, music and creative content industries.
The leading global content producers in the Western world (Hollywood, etc.) still rely on restrictive, nationally bounded, time-delayed channels to distribute their content. This approach takes for granted how their content is inextricably connected to global media culture as a whole. There was a moment in time when we would patiently wait for KTN to air weekly episodes of The Wire. Not any more. It’s 2016. Nobody is going to wait for DSTV to obtain a license to air Game of Thrones months after the original air date with the unavoidable spoilers, hashtags and memes generated in real time on social media. We want to participate along with the rest of the world, and at the same time as the rest of the world.
An overwhelming majority of Kenyans are unable to afford the unlimited internet required use Netflix or Buni TV, to buy an original Blu-Ray disc or watch a film at the cinema. This is where informal, unauthorized players come in to provide content at realistic prices and in languages local audiences are more comfortable with. While informal distribution systems provide an affordable way to consume and participate in global cultures, their presence greatly reduces the possibility of foreign direct investment in local creative industries.
For the local film and creative content producers, particularly Nairobi-based ones that cater to an upmarket, non-vernacular audience, this state of affairs has created a major challenge for an already struggling industry. Not only is it difficult to obtain investment or financing for creative ventures for production, there is barely enough to put into marketing, seen as a major component of the success of Hollywood blockbusters. Local films rarely get an extra buzz after the initial release event. As a result, few consumers get to know of the existence of a new Kenyan film before their DVD guy obtains it and even fewer know where to obtain original copies or where to watch them legally.
Countering the free-for-all distribution model of the informal DVD shops is a herculean task. Online distribution is still not a viable alternative to ensuring a return on investment. Completely shutting down all informal DVD shops, irrespective of whether they distribute local content is another thing altogether. Even though these shops tend to abide by an unspoken bylaw of not stocking up on local content, their cheap prices on popular Hollywood titles draws away any meaningful spending on local content through DVD sales or cinemas. A complex predicament presents itself – how to let these shops prosper and still generate revenue from local content.
A blanket shutting down of DVD shops for the sake of local content producers is a solution that is unlikely to enjoy popular support. Just as there is no political will to streamline the public transport sector, policy makers would be unwilling to deal with the potentially massive fallout from closing down these DVD shops in as much as a legal basis exists in the Copyright Act and international legal instruments that Kenya has ratified (the Berne Convention and the TRIPs Agreement).
These difficult times require pragmatic strategies and solutions. This includes grasping the current realities of the Kenyan market and drawing lessons from the modest successes of dubbers like DJ Afro, informal video halls and the River Road film distribution network. Ideas could come along the lines of the following themes:
Rethinking Content: Packaging content that will resonate with the largest market possible, ie. those living in rural and low income areas. This would mean more productions in Swahili and/or vernacular languages; or making alternative versions with Swahili and vernacular dubs. The digital migration has seen a proliferation of vernacular TV stations, providing another revenue stream for packaged/repackaged content. Getting to a sweet spot where these stations pay a decent enough amount to obtain the sort of content that attracts viewers and advertisers could be a tall order though. And no, the coming into force of the Programming Code with its quotas on local content won’t help either. What about the KFCB busybodies? Let’s not even go there.
Rethinking Production & Financing: Not many have been as lucky (and as capable) as Zamaradi Productions, which got to produce 71 films for M-Net as well as the Kona TV series. A collaborative approach could see smaller production outfits achieve the technical and financial capabilities to tackle large scale and higher quality projects. Perhaps massive co-productions among like minded producers is the only way to bridge the gap and push out some decent content. Whatever happened to the KFC Film Fund and the Take 254 Film Fund?
Rethinking Distribution: This would involve making use of the infrastructure already in place, including public spaces like parks and social halls and most especially the informal video halls spread out throughout the country. Since there is scanty information on video halls, a prudent first step would be some thorough data collection and mining – mapping locations of halls, identifying gaps from comparisons with population density data, figuring out average revenues, optimal operational hours etc. etc. A recent Ugandan study suggests that this exercise would be a tedious one indeed but fruitful in the long run. Soon, once a film-going culture is properly revived, we may be ready to expand the infrastructure in a similar way as China but from the bottom up based on economies of scale. Instead of more and more cinemas would be more and more formal video halls with better facilities than the informal ones, up to date age-rated and family friendly features at reasonable prices, as well as use of hardware specifically designed to prevent piracy. What Simiyu Barasa and Betty Kathungu-Furet are doing is an encouraging and brave first step. More power to them.
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The challenges expressed above manifest in more or less similar forms in other creative industries, including theatre, visual arts, and books. From the looks of things, a full scale cultural reawakening is the only event that will turn the tide in these industries’ favour. The least that can be done now is to find ways to support those who actually occupy the trenches – all the writers, poets, fine and performing artists, musicians, photographers, cinematographers, producers, directors, teachers, mentors, collectives, incubators, and spaces making the best of their unfavourable circumstances.