Filmmaking As A Healing And Problem Solving Mechanism: A Dialogue With Zippy Kimundu
Zippy is a Kenyan Filmmaker who has been working in the global industry for over a decade. She has worked on both fiction and Non-fiction projects filmed in over 20 countries across continents as a Director/Editor.
In 2013, Zippy co-directed a short Documentary, “a fork, a spoon & a KNIGHT” with renowned Director Mira Nair, for MontBlanc/Tribeca Film Institute/Nelson Mandela Foundation, and in 2016, she worked as the 1st Assistant Editor for the Disney Film “Queen of Katwe”.
Zippy is a Maisha Film Lab alumni – class of 2007. Today, she is actively involved in training and mentoring young filmmakers across East Africa mainly through collaborations with Maisha Film Lab. She also co-runs an annual refugee girls training program in Nairobi, Kenya www.Illtellyoumystory.com and is currently spearheading film training workshops and content creation in Kenyan prisons. Her latest Feature Documentary “Testament” currently in Production, has received production support from IDFA, IDA, Blue Ice, Afridocs and Docubox – It is an investigation into Kenya’s buried British colonial history.
Zippy holds a Diploma in Mass Communication (TV), a Degree in Public Administration (HR) and a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA- Film) from New York University, Tisch School of the Arts – Asia.
BY ELELWANI NETSHIFHIRE
This conversation took place in the surprisingly sunny Juneau, Alaska and Kisumu Kenya where Zippy Kimundu is currently filming her latest documentary.
Elelwani: Zippy, you just told me that you are currently onset where you are in the helm of filming a project all by yourself, why is that? How is it going?
Zippy: Indeed, I am currently in Kisumu filming a project called Widow Champion, produced by Heather Courtney and Funded by Sundance. I am filming it myself because of the sensitivity of the topic. I started filming in March, now I am doing a follow up on the matter.
Elelwani: Sensitive topics demand thoughtfulness and caution. This helps you as a creator to be fully immersed with the matter, to be open with the people involved and to gain their trust. What is Widow Champion about?
Zippy: Widow Champion is about a culture in Kisumu where when your husband dies you are suppose to be inherited by your in-laws. Nowadays, when women refuse, they are kicked out of their homes. At the moment, instead of the issue being taken to court, elders of the communities intervene. Thus, the film aims to bring light into this problem.
Elelwani: That is a powerful subject Zippy. I’ve heard of such a practice. I cannot believe that it still goes on today! You know how we have managed to do away with many cultural practices that do not empower us.
Did you always know of this tradition and how did you get hold of your subjects?
Zippy: It is a practice that is still happening, unfortunately. I have to say that I am all for keeping in touch with our culture, our being, but there are things that do not make sense and should be changed.
With the selected subjects, I worked hand-in-hand with an organization that has been helping women know their rights, by assisting them with rebuilding when they are no longer allowed in their homes. A filmmaker who is also a good friend of mine has been involved, working closely with the organization, so we are working alongside each other in making this piece materialize. We need to find ways in which removing women from their homes when their husbands die no longer take place.
As I said before, I am doing a follow up on the mediation of the cases that I have filmed previously. We work with women who went through the same thing and conquered it—now being referred to as widow champions, they assist other women to succeed. They basically educate them on their rights, specifically land rights, so the film is essentially about women and land rights.
“I have to say that I am all for keeping in touch with our culture, our being, but there are things that do not make sense and should be changed. With the selected subjects, I worked hand-in-hand with an organization that has been helping women know their rights, by assisting them with rebuilding when they are no longer allowed in their homes.“
Elelwani: I am strongly interested in the piece you are bringing to life on a personal level now.
Tell me, are the women you are working with against this practice or they support it to a certain extent?
Zippy: Eradicating cultures that do not make sense is one of the main reasons I am making this film; to educate women about their rights and how they cannot simply be inherited because of some senseless culture. So, everyone involved is about eradicating this practice except for the very traditional people.
However, something worth noting is that, in the past, you being inherited by your in-laws meant that they take care of you not that you have to have sex with anyone of them. And now, it is more about sex and Kisumu has the biggest prevalence of HIV because of this. So, a lot of women now are educated, and they are saying: “no, you will not marry me because my husband died of HIV”.
Even then, refusing a culture means that you get kicked out and you lose your home. So, there are a lot of these crazy stories. Some of these women are really educated but there is nothing they can do to save themselves.We now have trained elders who are educated about land rights too and they mediate between families, instead of the matter going through the court system, because the family is important and they have to keep it together.
Elelwani: That approach is seemingly ideal because you do not want to win your land rights and end up not having any family on your side, whereas the mediation plays a role in keeping peace and you can still unite as one, as we Africans do.
At the same time, I don’t understand where the practice came from.
Zippy: Yes, before you could just come in and merely hang a coat, as a symbol of showing that you are there for the widow. Now, the whole custom has turned into a very oppressing tradition. So yes, that is what I am working on right now.
Elelwani: I wish you well with this piece. Diving into your other works, almost two decades later in the industry, you have done so much, listing the household names you have worked with in this realm is an understatement. So, let’s have our attention on the two films you have made, Burnt Forest and Give Me Back My Home; they seem to share themes with the current piece you are working on.
Zippy: Oh, yes, those are the films I made after my time at New York University, as you would have gathered from the bio that it is where I studied. I will share more about them alongside each other because they are related. So, in 1992, it was the first time where they held multi-party elections with candidates from different tribes here in Kenya. One candidate was Kikuyu and the other was Moi. The first president was Kikuyu, which is my tribe, and the second was Moi. Post these elections, war erupted and our house was burnt. We got to experience the war or this tragedy firsthand because everything happened right in front of us.
For the longest time it remained something that occurred, never spoken of again, you know how it is like in African culture—letting things be, left unsaid. We moved on but our lives were changed greatly because we lost everything.
Many years after, when I was in film school, I kind of started finding my stories as unique stories. So, when I shared this, people were like: “you mean that happened to you?” I said: “yes”, and they would just be shocked and they would say I should make a film. Then a light bulb moment came, Burnt Forest became a feature film I made with great support from people who loved the story.
For me, it was rewarding. I felt that I had healed to a certain level so I decided to make a documentary as a follow-up to see what had become of our old home. My father was really against it because it is not safe, but I had to go. I felt the need to see what it looked like but seeing the remains of the house did play its part in my healing journey. No one in my family had gone back to revisit this past, to see where we buried my brother and my grand mother. It became an abounded veld of nothingness yet that was our whole life at some point. It will always be a special place and so that is the story of Give Me Back My Home.
Making these films was difficult, very emotional, but deeply rewarding.
Elelwani: This makes me emotional because I can relate to it. I am the kind of filmmaker who is interested in revisiting places and stories that made us who we are. The journey can be harrowing. But like you said, making these films can become a healing process. So when we fully immerse ourselves in the experiences we have blocked out, rebirth is inevitable.
Zippy: I was trying to avoid making sad movies, but I guess the issue of Africa and land is what I want to challenge. And in Africa, especially in Kenya, there is always something about land and its sensitive nature you cannot avoid. I am busy with another project that deals with this on a much deeper level.
There is no two sentences without land in Kenya, there is always a land issue where someone stole it or someone is trying to steal it. I have been meaning to make a film about the independence movement because that is where the land problems come from; the British came and took the land, when people went to fight, they came back and the land was gone. So, I have been meaning to make a feature piece about that and now I got someone who wanted to make a documentary instead, so I researched it and I have embarked on the journey on this, it has been four years now. The documentary is titled Testament, funded by IDFA, Hot Dogs and more. It is basically about a woman who is trying to find her father’s remains before her mother dies. We are unbarring the history of Kenya, which is where the land issue with my personal experience has led me right now.
Elelwani: Land is a big issue, on going debacle, all round. Even in South Africa, we are dealing with reclaiming the land and the effects of colonialism. We have woken up to the realization of being slaves in our own land.
Zippy: Indeed, researching the documentary really opened my understanding of the land matter. It is what has been taking most of my time. As much as the various community trainings I get to do from time to time.
Elelwani: I was certainly going to touch on the trainings you do and their importance. I spoke to a Swiss Rwandan Filmmaker Kantarama and she also focuses on community trainings as there are no film training facilities in Rwanda. It is something I believe in too. There is a lot we can and need to do to empower the communities we come from.
Zippy: I am a strong believer in mentoring and passing on skills I have because the same has been done for me to gain the skills I have. For example, ending up in NYU was the result of Maisha Film Lab led by Mira Nair who pushed me to get to where I am. That is why I believe that I need to do that to push other people who would not have the opportunity to do that.
I made a film called “a Fork, a Spoon and a Knight” that I co-directed with Mira Naire so it is the same piece Mira showed to Disney and they understood the world of what she was going for and she got the final funding to then make “Queen of Katwe”. She was already working on the piece when we co-directed this documentary, but she showed them and now the short film is part of the Queen of Katwe DVD extra. I am sharing this backstory because it is where I met my colleagues who I run Afro-films and partake in these community trainings with.
As of now, we are working with refugee girls whose experiences cannot come close to my story, simply cannot be compared. These are kids who are being wives of soldiers in their teens. Since we are not trained psychologists, we train these girls on how to share their stories, and for me, I find that through my own films I can communicate with them better because it is a whole experience and a journey I walked myself. It does inspire them to open up and tell any story they want in any form.
There is so many ways we can put resources we have to give back, by simply just doing it. I really enjoy teaching as well. There’s a pilot project, a film club in prisons, I have started. We have done first trainings, shot a few things and that is where we are.
Elelwani: There is so much care in your tone, and the passion comes across. It’s a common thread I find with most of the African filmmakers I interview.
Zippy: That is me. I believe in telling real stories, even when it is a fiction piece it will be inspired by something real because they is power in seeing people who look and talk like you. That is what I love to do.
I know it is challenging because there is no support here. So I do projects I love and I let commercial work pay the bills. However, even when I am doing commercial work, I let my voice be out there. I convince the client that I can do it in a different way because I want to be proud of the work I put out.
Elelwani: Thank you so much Zippy, at the end of the day stories inspired by our sense of reality will inspire and have an impact you wish or hope for as a filmmaker.
Elelwani Netshifhire is a writer, Filmmaker, and the founder of Thase Media. She has worked on various international productions and now focuses on growing personal projects utilizing mediums she specializes in.