Acting dreams and crime collide in Nairobi film

Acting dreams and crime collide in Nairobi film

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Vineyard filmgoers will help decide the fate of a new African film, “Nairobi Half Life,” when it plays at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Thursday, March 21, at 7 pm. The film is screening simultaneously at more than 60 locations in the U.S. in a new undertaking by the Manhattan Shorts Feature Film Project. If 51 percent of the total viewers give “Nairobi Half Life” a thumbs-up, the film will return to the Vineyard and other venues for more screenings.

Georgia Morris of Vineyard Haven’s Galen Films will answer questions after the Island screening of the film. Ms. Morris and her husband, Len, are documentary filmmakers whose film, “Rescuing Emanuel,” addresses the problem of street children in Nairobi and other parts of the world. Their 2005 film, “Stolen Childhood,” examines child labor. They operate an online organization, Media Voices for Children, that promotes children’s rights worldwide.

Kenya’s first entry for a Foreign Film Academy Award, “Nairobi Half Life” tells the fictional story of a 19-year-old African country boy who takes his dreams to the big city. After George Mwangi, nicknamed Mwas (played by Joseph Wairimu), sees a Nairobi acting troupe perform in the village where he lives and sells pirated DVD movies, he aspires to join them.

It doesn’t take long for Mwas to lose any illusions he might have about big city life. Almost as soon as he steps off the bus in Nairobi, he is robbed by a street gang, not only of his money and belongings, but also the stereo equipment a relative has paid him to deliver to an electronics store. Before the day ends, Mwas lands in jail, where the lavatory is an offal-littered pit.

Befriended in jail by Oti (Olwenya Maina), a small-time crook, Mwas joins a street gang and learns how to heist car parts. Although he settles into a life of petty crime, he does not give up his dream of becoming an actor. Mwas’s luck changes when he goes to a theater audition and wins a small part in a high-minded production about the African affluent who are blind to the poverty surrounding them.

As his crime career progresses from stolen car parts to even riskier car-jackings, Mwas tries to juggle his two separate lives, inviting the young prostitute he has befriended to watch him perform. Almost inevitably, disaster shows up as the uninvited guest.

The vividness with which first-time director David “Tosh” Gitonga brings to Nairobi street life makes it a memorable coming-of-age tale. The filmmaking is matched by Mr. Wairimu’s skill at creating a convincing and appealing portrait of a young man with nothing but talent and drive to keep him out of harm’s way on the road to success.

“Nairobi Half Life” came about thanks to German director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run” and “Cloud Atlas”) and his production company, One Fine Day Films. They underwrote this project to make a feature film in Kenya with a first-time Kenyan director and cast. Completed in 2012, the film won the AFI Audience Award.

The project is the brainchild of Manhattan Shorts founder Nicholas Mason, who observed that while digital filmmaking has made films like “Nairobi Half Life” possible, they need a way to find an audience. That is the function of Mr. Mason’s newly created Manhattan Shorts Feature Film Project.

Dustin Hoffman’s romantic comedy, “Quartet,” will return to the Film Center over the weekend. For information on screening times for it and other Film Center offerings, visit mvfilmsociety.com.

“Nairobi Half Time,” Thursday, March 21, 7 pm, M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $10; $7 for MV Film Society members. Visit mvfilmsociety.com for more information.