From climate change to mental health, Sema Stori films highlight narratives of impact

27th October 2020

Over the last 2 years, Comic Relief and DocuBox launched a project that supported 10 East African filmmakers to create films, through the eyes of local communities, about issues they care passionately about - stories that might not otherwise be told. One year on, we proudly present Sema Stori - meaning Stories that Speak in Swahili.

The filmmakers we have worked with are changemakers, exploring important social issues through the eyes of local communities, and their films have sparked conversation within Comic Relief and inspired us to explore ways of telling more nuanced, more accurate and more insightful stories about life on the African continent. We hope they will have a similar impact within the lives and communities of all those who see these important films.

The following is a review of some of these films by Wilfred Okiche - one of the most influential critics working in the African culture space.

In the instantly arresting short film, Footsteps in the Dark a richly rendered opening animation sequence gives way to a live action exploration of the role that religion can play in managing depression and other mental conditions.

Dark, realistic yet optimistic in tone, Footsteps in the Dark which is scoring its European premiere at the 9th edition of Film Africa (30, October to 8, November) in the documentary shorts program is directed by Shuria Abdi.

Abdi’s film details the accounts of two young muslims of Somali descent, both living in Kenya, as they navigate living with depression while reflecting on the role that their Muslim faith plays in helping them deal with their struggles.

Abdi and his producer Azza Satti were part of Sema Stori (Stories that Speak,) a Kenya focused pilot program that focuses on funding and supporting talented filmmakers in countries of interest in the East African region to make documentary shorts that have social impact as the primary objective. 

Funded by the United Kingdom based charity Comic Relief and implemented by Docubox- The East African documentary film fund, Sema Stori has since 2019, awarded selected projects the sum of £10,000- a one off grant. The pilot also supports locally rooted filmmakers with creative opportunities like accessing technical assistance, mentorship and distribution platforms. From mental health to climate change and gender justice, the issues that Sema Stori highlights are ongoing concerns prevalent in local communities but also with real time universal implications. 

Mbarak Ahmed Twahir, one of the subjects of Footsteps in the Dark narrates his experience with depression. The characteristic low energy, mood swings and loss of interest, but also the stigma- both internal and external- that comes with speaking out. Abdi makes use of dark colors and constantly moving images to paint a vivid picture of what it is like living under a dark cloud.

For Mbarak and the female protagonist who chooses to not be identified by her real name, they both turn to religion for healing as well as for understanding. Footsteps in the Dark considers with sensitivity and tact, the effects of this faith in the overall management plan for depression. Without saying so in as many words, Footsteps in the Dark seems to be urging for caution in how religion is deployed as it possesses the power to help and hurt, sometimes simultaneously.

Also dealing with depression but from another angle is Eugene Muigai’s It’s ok not to be ok, an introspective first-person account of coping by building communities and safe spaces. After tracing the source of his episodes to childhood lack and bullying at school, filmmaker Muigai turns to spoken word and poetry to help him through his dark days. With It’s ok not to be ok, Muigai turns the camera on himself in clear, unadorned style as he goes about the community, working with students and young people to raise awareness and organize therapy through artistic expressions.


Photo credit: It's ok to not be ok, Eugene Muigai

There is some power to be derived from speaking out and while Muigai names the toxic patriarchal attitudes that tend to prevent people from speaking out and seeking help, he also interrogates his own role in enabling this system. Addressing this challenge leads him to an emotional encounter with his mother in which he opens a communication channel that will hopefully lead to more frank and honest conversations on the state of his mental health.

Muigai’s efforts at advocacy are largely welcomed by the communities where his interventions are targeted. Things get more complicated when it comes to the titular heroine of Rehema, an ordinary hero if ever there was one. After losing her husband and suffering through some of the most obnoxious male traditions, Rehema dedicates her life to stopping child marriages in her local Maasai community, thus allowing girl children realize opportunities that could easily have been lost to them.

It would seem like a no-brainer, this campaign of Rehema’s. While she is encouraged by some government officials, she is persecuted by traditional gatekeepers who find her advocacy at odds with the long held, patriarchal traditions that seek to place women in continued subservience. In a heartbreaking development, Rehema was attacked during filming and had to flee for her life. She persists, nevertheless.

Without settling into cliched depictions of poverty and paucity of opportunities, director Josh Kisamwa conveys through drone shots and striking cinematography, the stark realities of Rehema’s Mwereni ward. Kisamwa renders these images alongside the unvarnished backward thinking that guides the actions of the men who insist on maintaining the oppressive status quo. 

This cover of tradition does not quite hold for the women that populate director Pete Murimi’s Chief’s Court. In a Nairobi community, one that is reflective of many other villages in rural Kenya, the local government official, chief Matheke mediates civil disputes, mostly of the domestic type. Chief Matheke’s bare bones set up attracts women who come before him, seeking better or even equal treatment from their deadbeat husbands. At least one of the women wants the man kicked out of their home entirely.

Not all of the disputes can be resolved by a third party and while Matheke does his best to hand out tough love and good- if quaint- advice, he also recognizes he can only win some. It is the resolve of the women that shines through Chief’s Court though. Chief’s Court presents a snapshot of a country that could exist if more women are empowered to stand up for their rights. 

Joining Footsteps in the Dark in the program at Film Africa is River of Brown Water, a short that draws attention to the Ewaso Ng’iro river in Northern Kenya. This body of water crosscuts through the pastoralist communities of Laikipia, Samburu, Isiolo and Marsabit. While the river is a huge lifeline to a number of pastoralists and their livelihood, activities of man have put it under threat of possible extension. 


Photo credit: River of Brown Water, Laissa Malih

The film directed by Laissa Malih traces the river’s evolution as perceived from the generations of locals who depend on it for so many of their daily activities. Malih’s talking heads, all sourced from the pastoralist communities give a brief but potent oral documentation of the river’s history, significance as well as the ongoing threat that climate change poses.

Film can be important tools for advocacy and the first round of films that have emerged from Sema Stori are proof of this. It is just as important that these projects attract a considerable audience as well so that chances of impact are strong. Screenings at the biggest film festival for African film in the European continent are definitely a way to go. May be early days yet but Sema Stori seems off to a pretty impressive start. 

Wilfred Okiche

Wilfred is a member of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and has participated in juries at the Berlinale and the Carthage film festival. His writing has appeared in Variety, IndieWire, Senses of Cinema among other international publications. He tweets from @drwill20