Spoiler – they all die in the beginning.
Actually, no. By the time the movie starts they’re all dead. We set in on Kaleche, who finds herself in the middle of the wilderness. It is through the eyes of Kaleche that the world of Kati Kati is revealed to us and it is through her experience that we discover its nature. It is through Kaleche that we learn that Kati Kati is basically a form of purgatory.
The film uses this train of thought to weave a narrative on questioning, understanding ourselves, loving, and letting go. What would you do if you had to stop telling yourself the stories you told yourself? If you were forced to face the stories that you have put together to keep you afloat? The space of Kati Kati does not only ask that you face yourself in this way – it demands it.
This definitely becomes interesting when we found out that Kaleche herself has no recollection of the past. How can you face a past you don’t remember?
Of course piecing together this memory immediately becomes a key motivator for Kaleche and it is in this piecing herself together that we see her trigger the film into action – pushing people into different spaces of themselves. And Nyokabi Gethaiga plays this role well. She leads us to question with her and to seek with a similar earnestness and (possibly) naiveté.
Kaleche’s role is supported by that of Thoma, (played by Elsaphan Njora). The longest residing resident of Kati Kati, he has found himself their somewhat sensei, with an alcohol dependency and this all knowing smile. All from the beginning we see the group naturally turn to Thoma for direction on what to do next, and he always has the plan. Later in the film we found out that he is the one who set most of the traditions of the little commune – which makes sense as he has been there longer than most.
There’s something about this film that reminds me of growth. Because growth cannot truly happening without healing.
We see the question on healing particularly strongly in the scene where King(Peter Mwanzia), a clergyman of sorts (won’t even try to trip myself up on this one) is forced to face the burning of his own church during electoral violence, perhaps the director’s hat tip to the events that happened in 2007/2008 at Kiambaa. The context and meaning of the scene to the film is important. But, for a moment, allow me to dwell on the sheer beauty in the scene. We see King painting frantically, perhaps in a bid to silence his own guilt. Then we see his parishioners gathered around him, singing. The harder he paints, the more they sing. Until he gives up.
It is struggles and moments that like that the film manages to capture so well. All through Kati Kati we see characters grapple with the things they need to confront. And, while the film is about death, death doesn’t become the central theme of the story. Rather, death is a way the story moves, a way to show that something has happened in the story. In a twisted way death loses its meaning to departure. We see this as Kaleche ‘saves’ Mikey from drowning to the laughter of all – but when the thunder claps we see a different face of sorrow. The members of the commune throw a party for everyone who leaves – no one can tell if it is a happy party or a sad party because no one has ever come back (and because your fate is dependent on whatever demons you faced). But the sorrow is clearly seen on everyone’s face when the thunder claps to mean one has gone.
Sorrow is the overtone of the show and, when characters are not participating in an activity we see them moody, brooding and reflective. We watch them develop different coping mechanisms to handle the strain of having to find their way out of Kati Kati. And this sorrow weighs on their conversations. Characters tread lightly over each other, ensuring not to say words that could trigger each other too far over the edge. When Kaleche arrives on the scene her lack of memory seems to walk all over this unwritten code, setting the stage for a winding plot with a dramatic finish.
Another interesting thing about the film is how the camera wobbles. Not that it seems unstable. Rather, all through the film, the shots are bobbing – as if to remind you that you are in an eerie place (cue X Files theme music). The shots seem to hoover a bit – over characters shoulders, around their faces, behind their backs. As if peering. It makes one feel rather more like they are watching the film through their own eyes – rather than a captured, packaged and edited version. The scenery of the set is amazing with the semi-arid background somehow speaking to the barrenness of death.
The film was written by Mbithi Masya and Mugambi Nthinga. Mbithi, formerly of just a band, also directed the film. It was first released in September 2016 and has gone on to win several awards including Best Movie at the East Africa AMVCA (2017), The Fipresci prize at the Toronto international film festival (2016) and Cinemafrica Stockholm (2017).
Kati Kati is available to view on demand on several platforms including Showmax and on One Fine Day Film’s website.