Pain of forgotten county social halls

On the third day of hosting outdoor screening sessions for the inaugural Kitale Film festival, the cast went off script and turned to the people. What was initially the crowd of three at a comfortable venue with plenty of plastic chairs on the first day of screening turned to 60 when they set up on the streets of Kitale town. By the final day, the show was attracting crowds stretched out on the ground, for movie night under the night village sky.

Many rural areas can still remember the white trucks of Factual Films going round the country hosting open air film shows that used to attract such huge numbers. Unlike urban areas that have witnessed the rejuvenation of big screens in high definition theatres in malls over the years, projected movie screening in the rural areas has since died.

A group of young Kenyans, who realise the potential in filmmaking especially for the young unemployed Kenya in the digital age, are pushing back with an initiative to not only bring back the big screen to counties but also tell local stories.

The first edition of the Kitale Film Week ran for eight days this February and saw a total attendance of 1,513 witnessing film screenings, engagement in community issues, school events, workshops and setting up of an ambitious short film und which the festival hopes can help two projects by upcoming local talent to get produced in Trans Nzoia.

The workshops showed how filmmakers in a local community can make films without necessarily moving to Nairobi, in the spirit of devolution.

But when Peter Pages and the organising team tried to host screening sessions in Kitale social halls, they encountered challenges getting good internet access as well as getting to the physical locations given the abandonment of the social amenities.

Social Halls across the country used to be centers of communities, and part of municipal planning but have since fallen to disrepair, handed over to churches or taken up by private interests.   

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The Kitale Festival team did not get good attendance at social halls due to the inaccessibility of the venue, poor internet signal and they felt had the county or national government shown interest, they would have pulled in a better crowd.

The team had then planned to host outdoor screening at Kitale Town Hall, a natural choice given the perimeter fence for crowd control. But borehole drilling on the sight and the county bureaucratic concerns of having a crowd enjoying a movie outside the Governor’s office raised a pickle.

They had to relocate to Royal Hotel court, opposite Mega centre, a spacious location where they hired seats only for three people to show up.

“The yard was spacious enough and we hired seats for the potential crowd but almost no one showed up on day one so we had only ourselves and the volunteers,” Mr Pages said.

Initially he thought they set up the projector too late into the night and the next day the set up early on to attract just 23 people. So they went off script the third night and went into town.

Boda Bodas, street children, old men who had last seen the white Factual Film trucks stretched on the ground and followed the movies as if entrapped by the irresistible catch of motion film stories.

Here they treated the surprisingly big crowds to a selection of diverse films and even learned something about the audiences. They had a liking for specific types of films i.e. those with languages they could relate with (Luganda language films struggled even with subtitles), they also liked fast paced films as opposed to slow-burning dramas, and related ore to actors they could recognise.

“We witnessed something really interesting and a great opportunity in getting messages across communities. Mobile cinema, which was very popular in the late 90s and early 2000s in Trans Nzoia, could be an effective way to reach communities,” Mr Pages said.

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