Looking with a new set of eyes

Timothy Mwaura is a Kenyan cinematographer and director. He has worked with Makmende on many assignments across the continent. But, in the rush of a production there’s never time to really get to know each other, so we asked for an interview to find out what drives him. It ended up being a conversation about the human condition and the love of cinematography. 

“Filmmaking gave me a different understanding of my country”

Growing up in Kibera, Nairobi, I saw a lot of misery and it made me angry. I felt the need to say something about my society. I started writing poetry about police brutality, neo-colonialism, politics… I’d dropped out of school and worked at a fast-food restaurant. Writing was my outlet and it allowed me to process and learn about all these societal topics. I went on to perform at spoken word events, or ‘poetry slams’, and became quite successful. The crowds would applaud me, but I wasn’t happy, the negativity of the writing drained me.

In 2008 I had my first encounter with film. A friend of mine gave me a camera and I was intrigued. At the time I didn’t have money to buy tapes, so I would go to events with my camera pretending to film. That’s how I met Gerarld Rehm, who was actually making a documentary. I approached him and said I’d work with him for free. We had the same camera and he was very patient in teaching me to use it. When I saw the raw footage that he shot for his documentary, I realised how beautiful my country is and I fell in love with cinematography. This was very different from writing, filmmaking gave me another understanding of my surroundings. As if I looked at my country with a new set of eyes.

“I’ve realized that dealing with human emotions can actually form a piece of art.”

I haven’t stopped filming since and now, ten years later, I’ve become a professional cinematographer and director with my own company, FullFilmEnt. I’ve shot commercials, fiction films, web series… but to me, documentary work is most fulfilling. You speak with real people and you forge relationships with them, that’s very important to me. Through my work, I’ve fallen in love with the human condition, as I’ve realized that dealing with human emotions can actually form a piece of art.

“It’s time that we should take control of our own stories and tell them the way we see them”

Every trip that I’ve ever made has taught me something new. It helps me to understand the geographical, economic, and social situation of an area. It’s my school and that’s why, for me, all these projects that you guys have sent me to are unique.
I see it as my task to show the humanity of the people that I film. I want to portray them as they are. That can be about very simple things. For example, filming black skin against a white sky can be challenging and if you don’t do it right you make people look bad. I don’t want that. Growing up all the images that I saw on television were of foreign people. Mexican and Filipino telenovelas, American films… there were no Africans. That’s changing, and so I think it’s time that we take control of our own stories and tell them the way we see them.

“Being able to feel that you have the space to talk and to express yourself, I think that is what growth means in Kenya.”

When you have a way to learn and a platform to express yourself, you can become a part of a global world. And I feel like filmmaking has done that. We now have made films that are being nominated for Oscars, we have films about issues that were never talked about but were always there. So being able to feel that you have the space to talk and to express yourself… I think that’s what growth means in Kenya.

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