Kati Kati (2016)
Dir: Mbithi Masya
Starr: Nyokabi Gethaiga (Kaleche), Peter King Mwania (King), Elsaphan Njora (Thoma)
Kenya / Germany, 75mins
Kati Kati is a dream retreat from the world, a peaceful holiday resort in the middle of the Serengeti, where your every day is occupied with games and activities, and anything you want can be yours simply by writing it down on a piece of paper. Those staying in Kati Kati have no idea how they came to be in such a wonderful place, and they have no idea when, or how, they will leave it. But why would anyone want to leave?
Mbithi Masya’s tightly compacted and elliptical debut feature was the stand out fiction film screening from this year’s Africa in Motion (AiM). It came to AiM having already won the FIPRESCI prize for the Discovery programme at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), earlier in the year. Having been developed by Masya and his screenwriter Mugambi Nthiga during a film training and development program in Nairobi funded by Tom Tykwer and Marie Stenman, the film was then picked up for production by Tykwer and Stenman’s production company One Fine Day.
Kaleche (Nyokabi Gethaiga), the nominal heroine of the film, literally emerges from out of nowhere at the movie’s opening. Stumbling upon an incongruously pretty and serene holiday complex, Kaleche walks in upon a group of holidaymakers engaged in a game of Charades. Where is she and how has she got here? Kaleche has come to Kati Kati, an oasis of calm in the middle of the Serengeti. The fact that all the holidaymakers seem to be expecting her is enough to make Kaleche run – something that has already been predicted by some of the others. Running away from Kati Kati, back out in to the seemingly endless surrounding savannah Kaleche is further panicked by the sight of the other holidaymakers animatedly pursuing her. Just as she thinks she is pulling away from them another key facet of her predicament is revealed as she runs into an invisible barrier. You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.
This is the disturbing and intriguing opening to a film that uncompromisingly examines the various manifestations, processes and reactions toward guilt, both within the individual and the wider community. The idyllic benignity of Kati Kati and the breathtaking plain land that surrounds it is just one of the many creepily claustrophobic aspects of the film. Initially the other residents, the likes of Thoma (Elsaphan Njora), King (Peter King Mwania) and Grace (Fidelis Nyambura), seem to be happily engaged in idling each day away in accordance with a loose schedule of activities and amusing diversions. The resort is kept spotlessly clean, but nobody seems to know who keeps it clean. No staff are ever present. Food seems to magically replenish itself. Whilst the holidaymakers need only write something down on paper and it will be delivered to them in due course. However, this seeming Eden is underpinned by the knowledge that the holidaymakers initially share with Kaleche, everyone in Kati Kati is already dead.
The beauty of Masya’s film is in the way in which it presents a purgatorial afterlife that raises more questions than it answers, but never once leaves the audience feeling cheated. Kati Kati is a variation of Sartre’s play Huis Clos (1944), with Kaleche acting as the narrative catalyst who rouses the other holidaymakers from their aimless routines, forcing them to gradually question what they are doing in this place that seems purpose built to pacify. Each member of the community begins to examine why it is that they are stuck in the resort, although not everyone wants to become unstuck. There are inexplicable presences within the film that gradually reveal their wider significance. All these subtle hauntings are directly linked to some aspect of the guilt that fixes each holidaymaker in Kati Kati. Part of the object of the resort seems to be the prevention of remembering, which is then, in turn, a key obstacle to acknowledging and dealing with guilt. As Kaleche gradually pieces together her own past existence, one of the other main characters is shown to be directly intertwined with this past and has a vested interest in preventing Kaleche from remembering. Masya and Nthiga have achieved a very rare thing in this debut. They have created a concrete alternate reality, with an intricate internal logic, that is nonetheless elusive, mysterious and compelling. Much of this atmosphere is established through a visual process of alienation. Masya works with the safari scenic landscapes of the Serengeti, but has filmed them using harsh white light and desaturated colour, that makes these vistas simultaneously familiar and unrecognisable. An overly attentive handheld camera, which frequently gives the impression of spying upon the protagonists, also helps to give visual strength to the notion of haunting presences lurking within and around the frame.
With the film’s running time being just 75 minutes the director has resolutely pared back the narrative to the point where it has an almost poetic quality, rich in allusion and allegory. That said, it also contains some interventions into the contemporary politics of Kenya, most notably in the story elements relating to King’s presence in Kati Kati. King is one of the most troubling ancillary characters within the film. He is the one person among the group that is unyielding in his abdication of responsibility for his actions. It should come as no surprise that his dark secrets are some of the most disturbing, and indirectly reference a sensational news story that occurred in the run up to the last set of elections in Kenya. That said, what lingers most in the memory is not Kati Kati’s reflections on contemporary Kenya, but rather its unerring ability to navigate a truly uncanny space. Kati Kati marks a supremely confident feature debut that surely augurs well for both the director and the Kenyan filmmaking scene that has helped to foster him.