TAKE 5! with Arnold Mwanjila

In this edition of TAKE 5! We speak to Arnold Mwanjila is an award-winning writer and director based in Nairobi, Kenya. He graduated from Columbia University in the City of New York with an undergraduate degree in Film Studies and Economics. He is also an alumnus of Mira Nair’s Maisha Screenwriting Lab in Kenya and of Talents Durban (part of Berlinale Talents).

Q: What do you like most about your job as a producer?

A: I have loved creating worlds and populating them with various characters pretty much all my life. It was my favorite pastime as a kid and now I get to do it as an adult. I am lucky and blessed. The practice itself is harder now because craft and a lot of hard thinking must be applied to the inspiration for it to make sense to you and your audience, and for the work to have some level of impact, but I still love the process and that helps fuel me.

But these two aspects are different. Writing is lonely, and it is the bulk of the work. So Directing becomes a sort of recalibration act. Where a lot of the writing work is done by myself in the dark hidden recesses of my mind, directing is a marshalling of the creative forces of other collaborators (including my writing self!). I give those forces a vision, a glimpse of the promise land, and then unleash them to their full potential. I love that aspect of directing, of getting surprised by the actual magic that so many people can and often do create together.

Q: What do you consider your artistic process when it comes to making a film

A:This is a difficult question because the total processes vary from project to project. Necessarily, I think. But in general I start with a generative… thing. It could be a word or sentence overheard on the streets; it could be a random thought or image that just pops into mind unbidden; I’ve worked off dreams; I’ve worked off stories inspired by books, articles, conversations; anything and everything, really.

Often, this generative idea sits in one of my many notebooks (digital and physical) for years. I’ll occasionally add to it random thoughts as they occur in relation to the idea. And then one day it’ll just announce itself as ready.

Now the hard work starts. I explore what the generative idea evokes in me — what thoughts, what images, what philosophies of life. I ask truly and deeply why that generative idea meant and means something to me.

Why is it important? What was/is the feeling/ emotion that inspired or was inspired by the idea? This is hard but necessary psychological work that doesn’t actually end at any point throughout the artistic endeavor. But once I do have some grasp of the thing I start designing the story. Which character best encapsulates that feeling and emotion? What journey would this character go on to best explore that feeling/ emotion/ idea? Who would stand in their way? Why? And slowly the story emerges.

Then it’s just a simple matter of spending the next several months and years writing the film and trying to get it made, and then hopefully making it! Ha! Just.

Q: Why did you start making films?

A: I actually didn’t consider filmmaking until my first year of college. Before then I wrote and shared short stories, and I also re-told movies that I had watched to friends who had either missed the boat (this was pre-everything available everywhere and everywhen!) or weren’t too keen on watching the movie later and would rather just listen to my very involving and partially re-acted telling. These were my first lessons on screen story structure because I was painstaking about revealing things in the right order in order to shock or surprise my audience, or to make them laugh or cry in precisely the way the movie did to me. It also meant learning to plant what was needed to maximize those payoffs.

Anyway, college. I went to study Economics. The plan being to make money and write in my spare time. As a hobby. That desire evolved. I decided I’d rather just write, so where and how could I live as inexpensively as possible and just write? I thought maybe I could bartend on some touristy island somewhere, sleep on the beach, and write during my many spare hours.

So I took some bartending classes. Someone in this class mentioned that they were taking an intro to film class as one of the electives they were allowed to have. I thought, ‘That sounds interesting. I should do that.’ So I did. And my mind has never been the same since. The universe collapsed and reassembled around me. This was my tiny place in the grand scheme of things, I discovered. Tiny, but mine. And it had always been there, just waiting for me to discover it. Only one small tiny problem: it takes a village to raise a child and an army to make a film. But, what else can one do?

Q:What are you currently watching?

A: Many many things! But I cannot say enough good things about BLUE EYE SAMURAI on Netflix! The storytelling, the art, the animation, everything – maridadi! It is highly highly recommended. I think I’m going to watch it again this weekend.

Q: Any advice to those starting out in the film

A: Dig deep. Always.

First, truly ask yourself why you want to be a filmmaker. External goals like making money, being famous, etc, will not sustain you. Those are side effects that you might or might not be one of the lucky few to get.

The work, the art, the craft, the processes — those are the things that matter. I think.

I hate to describe myself as someone who knows anything in this multi-faceted universe of everything! But I think these are some of the things that matter, or will, at the very least, sustain your career. Or rather, sustain your life in this often trying career! Also good humour! That one maybe is important generally in life as well.

I mentioned Blue Eye Samurai in the previous question. No spoilers, but there’s a scene where the sword maker speaks with his former apprentice saying that everything he does is for his art, which is making swords. He eats, sleeps, recites the sutras, etc., in order to make swords. That’s the dedication I’d like to bring to my work, and that I think the best of us do.

That being said, maybe that kind of obsession over anything is unhealthy. I can’t say because saying is not the point of art. The point of art is to raise questions about things, including the art itself.

Here’s the best piece of advice I have ever received, and I received it as a child, often: HAVE FUN.