A director is the single most important person to an actor as far as character development is concerned. Contrary to the current popular habit of screen directors who only focus on the storyline and type of shot (then what are directors of photography highly paid for?!) and stage directors who only focus on blocking of scenes, a good director is supposed to help the actor get into character from the moment he/she is chosen for the role.
As an actor you should be free to give your opinion to the director but also be humble enough when he/she rejects your idea. Just to clarify, it is better if you share your discoveries with the director than if you make incessant suggestions that make you look like you are directing the show (of course you know that kind of eccentric actor who directs the director as well as fellow actors). . It was amazing to listen to Lupita Nyon’go’s interview on making 12 Years A Slave (the film that won her the Oscar – just in case you are coming back from Jupiter) where she revealed that she discovered that her character Patsey would have loved dolls so she made one and played with it for character development. The director however loved it and decided to have it on the film. In honor of this important position in film and theatre, I will in a series of articles compare various directors within East Africa. But before I continue please note that directing is not a promotion from acting. It is too often that I hear young actors dreaming of being directors simply because they want more money and cheo (higher post). Ok, so let’s begin with two of the most successful Kenyan directors; Victor Gatonye and Alexandros Konstantaras (who by the way is Kenyan by choice and marriage!)
i. Victor Gatonye
The first time I met Gatonye, he was this lean tall teenager in high school whose presence alone on stage drowned the room with female screams. Of course I would watch his play frowning but somewhere along the way I would be so immersed in his theatrics that I
found myself laughing and cheering along as well. Not only did he bag many National Drama Festival awards but he also got big deal commercials that ensured his face was all over the streets on the billboards. All this he had achieved when still attending Highway Secondary School. After high school, this child prodigy went on to star in a couple of high budget TV programs that soon made him a familiar face nationwide. It therefore came as a shock to many and disappointment to his fans (myself included) when Gatonye disappeared from the screens only to re-appear as a director.
Apparently Gatonye had attended an audition for Makutano Junction and failed to get the part. For those who may not recall, David Thump’s series was a well-funded and highly produced edutainment program that was for a while the only stable employer for Kenyan actors and crew people. Gatonye, did not give up and managed to get a way in as a runner mainly serving tea on set. Due to the training program that the Makutano Junction project was offering while filming, the zealous and determined ex-child star managed to get training in lighting and sound engineering. By now he had marveled at the magic of the camera for so long and was convinced that with his experience as an actor, he would make a great actor-director. Soon, together with award winning director Hawa Essuman, he was trained and nurtured as a TV series director. He later went on to become the main director for Makutano Junction in the seasons to follow; of which his episodes won several awards. But this was just the beginning.
As an East African actor you will enjoy working with Gatonye since he is very keen on the nuances of everyday normal life mtaani (in the hood). His approach to directing a scene is simple. If he was watching it as a show or was hidden somewhere in the scene, what would he be interested to follow up? This helps him to ‘hold the thrill’. I think what stands out about Gatonye as a director is that he is one of the first Nairobian actors to successfully transform to a director. On set he always has time to joke around, even join the cast and crew ‘gossip’. This way the actor is really at ease while working with him. The fact that he can give directions in sheng as easily as he can in English makes actors who are more sheng inclined understand him easily and go deeper in their delivery. Gatonye is also a nerd for quality and detail. He will point out something that was very subtle and make it interesting; so you will also have to nod along acting like you had ‘seen’ it.
Gatonye has since then directed innumerable films – both high and low budget. This included M-Net’s highest budget series, Kona. It is in Kona that he teamed up with producer Appie Matere and George Mungai to form Zamaradi Productions. They are among the few companies that were commissioned to produce tens of Kenyan movies that I think will later on make the Kenyan content a good alternative to the Nigerian or South African markets.
ii. Alexandros Konstantaras
Alexandros Konstantaras on the other hand started as an indie as opposed to commissioned work. This trailblazer made way for many other independent producers and (let’s be honest here) gave the lords of Riverwood a run for their money. This all begun after Vivid
Pictures, the company he was working for had basked in the sun of their internationally acclaimed movie ‘100 Days’. Buoyed by this victory and looking to produce films that would be more accessible to the Kenyan viewer, he helped Nick Hughes set up Jitu Films, a department of Vivid Pictures whose objective was to produce a collection of low budget movies and flood the market in such a way that pirates did not have a chance. This model faced its own challenges just like every pioneer initiative would do. However, it was a breath of fresh air into Riverwood which before then only made sales based on indigenous language movies. In typical Kenyan fashion, we complained that the movies were too cheap (my dear Kenyans!). Nevertheless Alex worked tirelessly on this project and soon became the face of the project on all fronts- starring, directing and producing. This is when you realize not all white people are the same and this one was as hardcore as they came.
I remember attending a Producers’ conference organized by Zuku with Alex. The directors insisted that they required local producers to deliver high quality content. Alex shot up and explained to the directors that they needed to understand that the budget they provided was not anywhere near the quality they were demanding. Of course a debate transpired but it was amazing to see this courageous director air out a pivotal challenge in independent production. Alex forged forward with his star-actress wife Liz Njagah-Konstantaras to form Historia Films Kenya. They have delivered productions that have taken the Kenyan market by storm, including ‘Me My Wife and Her Guru’, ‘Return of Lazarus’ and ‘In The Forest With Gerald Langiri.’
It was however their comedy ‘House of Lungula’ (lungula means sex) that finally gave them the national attention they richly
deserved. This was the movie with the most controversial title Kenya had ever produced. It ignited a lot of conversation with self-righteous Kenyans condemning it and in the process making more and more Kenyans want to watch. Alex didn’t let the dust settle and together with his supportive go-getter wife produced ‘Fundimentals’ which was released this year and one of its main actors, Gerald Langiri, nominated to the Nigerian AMVCA Awards (sorry I’m not writing it in full- Google is your friend).
Alex’s approach is based on wrapping grave socio-economic issues with humor. I don’t know how the fully trained film –maker got the Riverwood syndrome but working with Alex actually makes you feel patriotic. Above him there is only you and the film and no other big guy. He discusses the scene, enjoys it with you without further directorial jargon and excitedly discusses how he sees it shot. Actors also feel like his peers and partners when making a film which makes them give it their best shot. They also stick around with him as he gallantly promotes the film to a Kenyan audience.
Both Gatonye and Alex have one thing in common. They are determined to put Kenyan films on the map and hence create a wider platform for our actors!
In the next article I am going to compare and contrast female directors and look at their enormous contribution to the acting fraternity.
In the meantime have you worked with either of the two directors profiled here and what was your experience? Or what did you think of their productions? Also let me know about your favorite director and why?