Barack Obama was still just a U.S. Senator in 2006, but he was already spooling up for his presidential run. Seizing on his rising visibility and popularity, Obama made a mostly-business trip to Africa. The unprecedented buzz surrounding a senatorial trip culminated in his arrival in Kenya, the birthplace of his grandmother. And, as one does in Nairobi, Obama delivered his top card speech in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum; he promised to combat AIDS, malnutrition and, of course, poverty. Then, as one does in Africa, he left. All that remained were his words, which for all their charm, fed no mouths and righted no wrongs.
This is Kibera: a canvas to be seen against, a cause to be seen with; its residents, meanwhile, do not see anything new. NGOs pour into the slum, each promising specific and lasting development for what was once believed home to perhaps a million Kenyans. Today, the shantytown has ten times more NGOs than it does acres, or one NGO for every 45 people or so. Despite the influx of charities, electricity remains a rarity, and drinking water is collected from jerry-rigged pipes in all manner of makeshift container.
It turns out Kibera houses — and I use that term very loosely: many of its denizens live in one-room mud shacks — ‘only’ a quarter-million people in its loose borders, comparable in size to Central Park. At around 100,000 people per square kilometre, Kibera is one of the largest and most packed slums in the world; abject poverty and long-smoldering tribal tensions only add to this pressure cooker.
It is in this site of crowded, messy tension that Togetherness Supreme operates. The locally filmed and staffed story of hope and disillusionment, borne out of director Nathan Collet’s previous short Kibera Kid, recreates the lead-up to Kenya’s ultra-controversial 2007 elections.
Togetherness hinges on Kamau, a painter and member of the politically dominant, land-owning Kikuyu tribe. In sticking up for neighboring tenant Otieno, a hustler who rents a tiny flat from Kamau’s father, a rare intertribal friendship commences. The lanky, grinning member of the Luo tribe, the numerical superior tribe bereft of political power, convinces the impressionable young artist—played by a doe-faced Wilson Maina—to join the burgeoning Orange Democratic Movement.
The Luo-dominated ODM seeks to dethrone the sitting president, widely accused of tribal favoritism and corruption. But there is a catch: the president, like Kamau, is a Kikuyu. Otieno may have looked passed his friends affiliations, but his colleagues are unlikely to be so inclusive; they may tote a Marley-inspired pan-humanism among themselves, but run-ins with Kikuyus remind the viewer of the deeply ingrained legacy of tribalism.
Kamau adopts a pseudonym, and before long he and Otieno are knocking on doors and handing out campaign flyers. Enter the pastor’s daughter, Alice, who is also a nurse — could innocence be more blatantly personified? — and tensions arise between the smitten cold-callers.
Unfortunately, this love triangle is not well established: the relationships develop mostly offscreen, and the viewer learn of it largely through one-dimensional exposition dialogue. So when Kibera becomes increasingly volatile as the election nears, the relationships fail to heighten the emotion as intended. This does not derail the film, however: the devastation of youths realizing the impotence of democracy when numbers are counted behind closed state house doors needs no amplification.
The decision not to veil the politics — both the ODM and its leader, Raila Odinga, are real figures from the 2007 elections — adds needed realism to the plot, and instills a prevailing sense of dread for the quick-approaching fallout. The writing consistently fails to build the heft of its setting, however, as dialogue-heavy scenes play out as disconnected bits of exposition between the visual-dominated scenes of Kibera’s markets, streets, and people.
Closeups of animals loitering in ditches, quick cuts of active hands—plucking a chicken, cutting up vegetables—and the cadence of the self-constructed and self-regulated shantytown: it is through these transition segments that characters are placed in their visual and cultural context, and the broader story is best told. This narrative further benefits from the largely uncorrected, natural-light shooting, which lends a hyperreal aesthetic which at times jars the viewer out of the suspension of disbelief. This is fitting for the film, which is more of a fictional documentary than a contrived story; the tension between its authentic and its invented elements forces the viewer to recognize both. This comes to a head near the conclusion, when stock footage of post-election violence is cross-cut with staged shots
Though the film has its weaknesses—some glaring, others forgettable—its formal/aesthetic appeal must also be separated from, or at least balanced with, its broader purpose as an economic source for the area. Almost all of the cast and crew are locals, providing both short-term respite from poverty as well as a long-term skill builder. Hot Sun Films, the production studio-nonprofit hybrid behind the film, built upon this by establishing the Kibera Film School in 2009. The school has graduated a handful of classes since its founding, and graduates exit with five months worth of filmmaking knowledge. The goal is to empower Kibera’s residents with skills, rather than simply finances.
There are two scenes into Togetherness Supreme when the two protagonists take in speeches — once at a ODM rally, and once at a church. The speakers’ grandiose style and charitable aims entrance Kamau and Otieno; soon after leaving, however, the power of the speeches fades as the monolithic poverty of the slums exerts its toll. During these scenes, one is reminded of the speeches given in Kibera by politicians and philanthropists that promise and hope before being blown away on the breeze. Kamau’s route to respite comes not from speeches or promises, but from his own artistic skill. No doubt the Kibera Film School aims to be a catalyst for this, so long as Nairobi’s harshest borough avoids another election catastrophe. Come December togetherness will indeed be, more than ever, supreme.