The Role of Their Lives

Keyan movieThe crescent moon of the railway track divides the slum, a metal slash in the tumble of rusted tin roofs, stinking channels of sewage and narrow paths where children play with toys made of scraps of wire and rubbish.

A band of youths hangs about on the track, perhaps slum hoods and their girls. Closer, you make out the boy among them. He looks tense, surrounded.

Closer still: He wipes his hands over his face, as if washing off anxiety. One of the bigger youths totes a grubby supermarket bag. Gently, as if lifting out a loaded gun, Victor Onuoch produces a video camera. He softly reassures the boy. Then points the camera at him and begins.

It takes imagination to build a film school in Kibera, a crime-torn slum outside Nairobi where people routinely are beaten to death by mobs for stealing cheap TVs, radios or cell phones.

Might not the camera gear and laptops be, well, taken?

“My approach is just to give people access and see what happens,” says U.S. filmmaker Nathan Collett, who’s based in Nairobi.

In 2006, Collett, then a master’s student at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, set up a nonprofit film production unit, the Hot Sun Foundation, and shot a student film called “The Kibera Kid” in the slum, using local talent.

The film won awards. It was fun, but then it was over.

“People said, ‘Thank you for making this film, but now what? You are going to go back to film school? But what about us?’ “

Collett won a fellowship to make a feature film, “Togetherness Supreme,” scripted, filmed, cast and edited by Kibera slum dwellers. It’s now in its final stages of production. When filming ended midyear, Collett created the film school, funded entirely by donations (, to train 10 Kibera students.

That’s how Onuoch, a 22-year-old who dropped out of school because there was no money, comes to be standing on a railway line behind a camera. In front of the lens is Teddy Onyango, 11 but small for his age; he dropped out of school for the same reason.

There’s a shout of alarm as Onuoch frames the scene. A rickety train grumbles along the track. The group scatters, the girls shrieking and giggling.

Onuoch tries again. But the evening light is diamond hard. It’s no good. They’ll have to come back later.

Walking back along the railway track, Onuoch takes the boy’s hand.

They’re alike, these two. Both motherless, struggling to rise out of the jostling heap that is Kibera. Rags-to-riches miracles rarely happen here, no matter what the TV evangelists say.

Teddy Onyango doesn’t remember his mother’s face. Victor Onuoch grew up with no parents.

Onuoch’s grandmother struggled to raise him and six siblings, then sent him to an uncle, who she hoped would pay the boy’s schooling. Instead, the uncle made Onuoch clean, wash, mop and sweep all day.

“All I could do was sleep, wake up, do the housework, sleep,” said Onuoch, a man with soft eyes, a ready smile and a gentle, hesitant voice. “I felt like I was locked in.”

Evans Kangetha writes, the words pouring out furiously. A screenplay: his story.

He hears Collett’s voice in his head, urging him to write everything he’s seen and experienced ? telling him he can stay in the filmmaker’s apartment to write.

He remembers running. He hears the old man’s screams in his mind too. He writes, but it gets to be too much.

He trembles, afraid of his memories: December 2007 in Kibera. Mobs are hunting members of his Kikuyu tribe, furious that the Kikuyu president, Mwai Kibaki, has claimed victory in elections.

Kangetha runs. He sees an old man attacked by a mob. They roll him up in a mattress and set it alight.

Nightfall in his mud shack. He has padlocked the door from the outside, to make it appear that no one is home.

The mob gets louder. Metal machetes clang on iron shack walls nearby. They reach his door, begin smashing the lock. Kangetha escapes through a hole in the roof, leaps onto a wall and drops silently into a back alley. He runs, and is swallowed by the darkness.

“The voices I could hear were the voices of the people I knew. Neighbors,” says Kangetha, now 27. “There were so many evil things within just a short space of time.”

The story of his experiences during the election violence inspires the screenplay for “Togetherness Supreme.”

“I think people will shed tears when they see the film,” says Kangetha, who wrote the script last year in collaboration with Collett. “People will remember what they did was wrong.

“We should put aside tribal loyalties and let togetherness be supreme.”

By chance, while channel surfing, Onuoch hears that a film called “Togetherness Supreme” is being filmed in Kibera. On the morning of auditions, in January, he’s one of the first to arrive.

He anxiously waits for his chance at the front, watching as the people casting the crowd run auditions. He just wanted to be a part of the project ? any part, he didn’t mind. After some waiting, he is chosen to help cast and audition the people who want to act. It’s his foot in the door.

“I didn’t know anything about auditions. But for two days I watched and I caught up,” he says. “On the third day I was given a chance to audition people. The director, Nathan, started trusting me and giving me things to do. I became happy.”

Onuoch is casting boys for the role of Peter, one of the leads, when he discovers Teddy.

Most boys mumble, camera-shy. Teddy quickly grasps the need to speak naturally. But he keeps forgetting his lines.

There’s another boy, who has the script down word-perfect. He’s the natural choice.

Teddy sees it. He knows he is losing his chance, like a castaway watching a magnificent sailing ship disappear.

Late that night, Teddy is still awake. He has a copy of the script and reads it over and over, his face set in concentration.

“We didn’t think Teddy would get that role,” Onuoch says. “He was slow. And the other boy was fast. But then one week before filming started, Teddy just changed. He became Peter.”

“I changed because I was afraid the other kid would get the part of Peter,” Teddy says. “I was so afraid that if he got the part of Peter, he would play many roles. One day I borrowed the script and I went home and read it. And when I came back the next day, I’d put many words in my brain.”

Finally, after weeks of work and about 1,000 auditions, the casting people aren’t needed anymore. Onuoch is out of a job.

“After the auditions, people like me were told to go home,” he says. “I refused to go home. I said, ‘I’ll just be sitting there. I’ll just sit and watch.’ “

He comes to watch the crew of “Togetherness Supreme” every day.

One day when Onuoch is in his usual position, watching Collett and the cast rehearsing, the cameraman isn’t around. “Nathan said, ‘I want you to take that camera and shoot.’ It was like giving someone a (camera) and they have no idea what it was.

“I wasn’t even in the crew. I was chosen. But Nathan just gave me that freedom. That’s what gave me the courage.”

At the daily meeting of the Hot Sun Foundation trainees, Teddy sticks close to Onuoch. Often the young man rests his hand softly on the boy’s shoulder, touches his face lightly, puts an arm around him.

They’re like brothers.

He’s making a short film about Teddy for his film school project. He asks the boy about “Togetherness Supreme.”

“Being in the film changed me, because before, I wasn’t going to school,” he says. “And now I’m going to school, because I paid my school fees with the money I got for going in the movie.

“I know my talent. Now big people will see me all over. And people in the street will know me.”

(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times. Source:? McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.