WE ARE WATCHING

This Gotham City-style web video thriller is set in Kenya and scripted by viewers

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

How does one provide a solution to the rampant crime and corruption that plague a city?

“Tuko Macho,” which means “We are watching” in Kiswahili, is a new Kenyan web series that presents that question to its viewers. In the pilot episode, a well-known carjacker is kidnapped by a vigilante group, who then straps him to a chair and streams his capture online. A masked man then asks the public to vote on the fate of the criminal, and whether he should live or die for his crimes.

Since its launch in June 2016, the slick and well-produced series has struck a chord with Kenyans and has garnered over a million views. The show is the work of The Nest, an arts collective based in Nairobi.

“The series is us trying to explore a conversation that hasn’t really been had here [in Kenya] about who justice applies to, and what it’s like to be young and used,” says Jim Chuchu, the show’s director.

The series is an adroit social commentary on the problems that ail Kenya. It also stands out as a possible model for the future of filmmaking in Kenya.

As a vibrant, bustling city, Nairobi is at times witness to violent and sometimes fatal robberies, kidnappings and carjackings. Locals have derisively nicknamed the capital as “Nairobbery,” and the police have been accused of allegedly carrying out extrajudicial killings instead of keeping peace. By depicting this tangled daily reality in a visual form, “Tuko Macho” is able to resonate with many Kenyans.

The show also builds on the thriving online community in Kenya, often dubbed as the Silicon Savannah. Kenyans on Twitter, best known as KOT, are a force to reckon with, who use social media as a public court to correct stereotypes and confer opinions on the country’s problems. “Tuko Macho” mimics the proceedings in this space, which can be theatrical and funny, as well as grim and profound.

Besides technology, the show also brings a lot young people into the fold by using the conversational code-switching inherent in Sheng, a slang that combines both English and Kiswahili.

“Tuko Macho’s” online release could also herald a new era for Kenyan filmmaking. The country’s TV screens are inundated with Nigerian movies and it’s been losing as a destination for filmmaking to South Africa. There’s a general lack of support for filmmaking both from the government or from major local and foreign financiers.

Regulatory agencies, like the Film Classification Board, have also in the past demurred over access to online visual content, at one point dubbing Netflix a threat to Kenya’s “moral values and national security” and calling for its regulation.

Mark Wambui, a Kenyan filmmaker and founder of the Re-tuning Cinema in Africa program, says that shows like “Tuko Macho” point to a positive future for filmmaking in Kenya.

For Chuchu and his team, their crime thriller has now received worldwide attention, surpassing their original local target audience. On Sept. 14, the series will be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s the icing on the cake,” Chuchu said.

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