Interview Meena Nanji & Zippy Kimundu
"It wasn’t until the last year of filming that everything fell into place."
Film still: Testament, dir. Meena Nanji & dir. Zippy Kimundu (Kenya).
They thought it would take a year – eighteen months at most – to make Testament. In 2015, when Meena Nanji and Zippy Kimundu met and decided to realise Nanji’s plan to make a film about the independence struggle in Kenya, they believed they were starting a relatively speedy process. "We thought we'd be telling a fairly straightforward history as told by the freedom fighters," Nanji says. "And so thought the film would take only about a year to make."
In 2016, they participated in the IDFAcademy Summer School where they presented five minutes of raw material: mostly interviews with former fighters from the Mau Mau liberation movement; shocking never-before-told stories of British concentration camps, oppression and murder. “The conversations we had in Amsterdam made us realise we could make a richer film. We had to expand the concept, and go into greater depth with a number of the storylines.”
“Then Wanjugu Kimathi’s story came more and more to the forefront”, Kimundu adds. “She is the daughter of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, who was executed by the colonial forces in 1957 without achieving what he was fighting for: land and autonomy. At first she was our fixer, but increasingly she took on the role of an activist agitating for land rights for those who had taken part in the struggle for liberation. Following in her father’s footsteps, she became more and more determined to finish what he had started.”
Attention from the two filmmakers and the presence of the camera acted as a catalyst in this process, Kimundu believes. “Wanjugu started out with a tiny office in a shed and from there built a whole organisation. The strong woman inside her started to flourish. Our presence gave her a sense of protection: they couldn’t just kill her without being found out.”
“At this point, we knew we needed to up our game too”, Nanji recalls. “Until then we didn’t even have a crew, we were doing everything ourselves, with just one assistant. We were filming what we could, without really thinking about style and form. Because of my background in experimental film, for a long time I still had the idea of intercutting documentary scenes with a performance of the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. Finally, we decided to use a pure cinéma vérité style, and we started to shoot more consistently. In actual fact, it wasn’t until the last year of filming that everything fell into place in terms of the lenses and type of shots we were using.”
By 2020, when the pair took part in IDFA’s new online talent development programme, IDFA Project Space, they had a lot of material. “We started playing around with it”, Kimundu says. “Thanks to the feedback we received, we realised what we had – that this is a film. But we didn’t yet have an editor. But we soon found one. They asked us how much material we had. ‘About a hundred hours’, we said. It turned out to be three times that. It was very good to be able to talk to colleagues going through the same process in the IDFA Project Space. This gave us more confidence.”
And the same applies to participation in the IDFA Forum. Nanji: “Some of the parties there expressed serious interest in our film – more than the obligatory ‘send us your rough cut’. We found a budget for the editing and translators, as well as finance for a workshop in March 2021.”
The worldwide socio-political discourse has now shifted, and the colonial past and its legacies is an extremely hot topic. “We have to take advantage of this. This is the moment for our film. So in a way, it’s a good thing we didn’t get our financing completed five years ago. The impact of our film is so much greater now.”
The team of Testament pitching at IDFA Forum 2020. Photo by Jurre Rompa.