Arts Festival

Political case study of a Kenyan mensch


BONIFACE Mwangi’s riches: his children and his wife, Njeri. Photo courtesy

MANY OF US can see the flaws in our country’s leadership. Not many of us have the balls, the centrality of total focus – and maybe the naiveté – to think we can take it on and bring a happier face to a country battered by violence and corruption. The almost whimsical story of Boniface Mwangi’s career trajectory is one of hope in the resilience of decency. Softie, the film made by Sam Soko, tells his story. It features on this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, available online from 20 until 30 August 2020. Because of the ongoing pandemic, access to this festival is free of charge.

Softie is the tale of the youngest of seven children born to a single mother in impoverished Taveta, Kenya. It’s about the colonialist injection of tribal prejudice, and the hypocrisy of political leadership. Above all, it is about God, family and country and the order in which those elements should be loved. And while the obvious main protagonist in this beautifully conveyed yarn is Mwangi himself, who developed from war photographer to political activist to political aspirant, it is his wife, Njeri who is actually the central hero of the work.

Curiously similar to the kind of focus aimed at in For Sama, Softie may not have been directed by a woman, but much of its punch rests on Njeri’s candid and wise response to what many would consider an untenable life, but one based on love. Softie is shot with vigour but not sensationalism. You feel that you are in the mix of the situation, be it in protests riddled with pigs, or the privacy of the Mwangis’ household, with their three lovely children, yet the cinematography never oversteps its mark. There is footage which makes it difficult to believe that a videographer had insinuated himself in the context, and other footage which will take your breath away – not for its depiction of violence but for the manner in which it gets you to see poetry amidst things not conventionally seen as poetic. This is not about aestheticising others’ poverty, but rather looking with a strong and fresh cinematic eye.

Photographically, the work evokes the passionate and adrenalin-driven thrust of the important careers of South African war photographers of the ilk of Dean Hutton, Alon Skuy, James Oatway and the so-called Bang-Bang Club – Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, João Silva and Ken Oosterbroek, who worked in the thick of internecine and deathly conflict.

The work’s underpinning story is told with an unflinching series of narrative lines. It is unpredictable and poignant, but tough and encouraging. The fierceness of campaign leader Khadija Mohammed adds to its sense of social spice and conviction, to say nothing of the splicing of jazz and colonial footage which brings a fulsome image of a country beset with complexity and tainted with anger. Like The Kingmaker, the work offers a blatant reflection of the evil concept of tossing money at a public.

Softie is, in short, a magnificent work. It stands up there alongside arguably the top pieces on this festival’s programme – Influence and Banksy Most Wanted.

  • Softie is written and directed by Sam Soko. Produced by Toni Kamau and Sam Soko, it features creative input by Mila Aung-Thwin, Ryan Mullins and Sam Soko (editing), Cory Rizos (sound), Chris Rhys Howarsh, Joel “Ingo” Ngui and Sam Soko (cinematography) and Olivier Alary and Johannes Malfatti (music). It is on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 20-30 August 2020, and this year is accessible online and without charge.

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