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Toni Kamau: Super-collaborator

By Ngwatilo Mawiyoo

Toni Kamau became the youngest female documentary producer from Africa invited to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in 2020. It happened within months of the release of her first and second features: Softie, directed by Sam Soko, and I am Samuel, directed by Pete Murimi. Softie opened at Sundance Film Festival, where it won a special jury prize, while I am Samuel premiered at Hot Docs and BFI London Film Festival. None of this “just happened.” It was the culmination of twelve years in the film industry, during which Toni multiplied opportunity with community, and supercharged both with a dogged drive to succeed.

Toni’s mission is to tell stories of outsiders, rebels and changemakers. Softie follows Boniface Mwangi, his wife Njeri and their family. Boniface is already an international award-winning photojournalist and activist; a larger-than-life character in Kenya by the time he decides to run for public office. But it’s Njeri’s presence in the film that enables viewers to realize the cost of his pursuit on his family, to their safety, to their relationship. Sam had already shot the material by the time he approached Toni to produce, so Njeri only interacts with her during the festival run. “Toni’s very driven, very outgoing,” she begins, “she’s a go-getter, she speaks her mind.” Because of the pandemic they’ve been meeting mostly on Zoom.

According to Njeri, Toni didn’t immediately jump at Sam’s project since it wasn’t the first time Boniface would be the subject of a story, “She wants to tell stories differently.” To hear her tell it, Toni was only impressed when she saw the unique perspective Sam captured in the footage: “that's why she [agreed] to join the film.”

I asked Pete why he wanted to work with Toni on I Am Samuel back in 2013, when neither of them had any feature film experience. Before that, she had produced half-hour documentaries for Al Jazeera, MTV Europe and BBC. Both of them had worked together before, and went back even further to film school. Pete knew she was a good choice “because of her commitment. She had the character of a super-producer, that’s why I asked her.”

Softie team at Sundance

Toni puts it in more concrete terms; she says earning a producer credit for an independent documentary means, “you're the one steering the ship, you're doing a lot of fundraising and project management. There’s creative contribution, releasing it into the festival circuit and looking for distribution.” Now on this side of the project, Pete adds, “I was impressed with how fast she adapted and learned; the Toni we began with and Toni now are completely different. She understands the industry now inside out.”

Toni and Pete weren’t learning alone: “The good thing is we were a group of people learning at the same time through Docubox (The East Africa Documentary Film Fund).” One of a cohort of six documentary grantees, the first of its kind in the region, Toni speaks fondly of the community she found there. “We learned everything end to end: about fundraising and festivals.” It helped them understand that film is a relationship business. Relationships take time and resources to develop; fortunately, the program at Docubox included funding to pitch at festivals. Later, Doc Society also helped: “[Travel funding is] a barrier for producers in Kenya, not everyone has access. We were lucky.”

From that cohort, The Letter (2020), co-directed and co-produced by husband and wife duo, Maia Lekow and Chris King, became Kenya’s official submission for the 93rd Academy Awards in the Best International Feature Film category. Philippa Ndisi-Hermann directed and produced New Moon, which was released in 2018, and went on to win Best Documentary at the Durban International Film Festival. Softie would repeat the feat in 2020, setting the stage for the film’s Oscar campaign.

I spoke to Maia Lekow briefly about her relationship with Toni in this season. Maia was quick to brush off even the suggestion of tension, “Even though we’re kind of in competition, [Toni] sends emails and says, ‘Oh, have you checked this out? Maybe you should consider this…’” She adds, “Toni’s always been super-helpful, a super-collaborator,” Maia & Chris reciprocate with information they come across: “It’s the only way that we’ll move forward as a film community.”

 

The awards campaign is only one of the projects currently keeping Toni busy. I am Samuel is still in the festival circuit, and she’s fundraising for both films’ impact campaigns. She also has a feature about home and belonging that’s been in production for the last three years, for which she’s collaborating with Pete. Toni hopes 2021 will be the last year of filming. She’s also in development on a few other projects. On the decision to collaborate once again, Pete says, “In East Africa, there are very few producers now who have the networks, and experience to see a film to the finish line.” He adds, “When you know something will work, why would you spoil that?”

I ask Toni how the work coming her way has changed since the release of Softie and I am Samuel. “I have a lot of people reaching out. I've also had calls with, like, major production companies in the US and the UK” – she chuckles here – “who reply my emails and take my calls. They understand that [I am] someone who can handle the process, who has a creative eye, strong project management and collaborative skills. Someone with relationships and goodwill. And that's valuable.”

It sounds like the blood, sweat and tears of the years on Softie and I Am Samuel are paying off. Both films have secured international sales and distribution. But Toni doesn’t list her achievements as mere personal victories. She returns to the community she found through the documentary film fund, Docubox; each member with their own companies and projects but all advocating for one another. “Releasing a feature, and having it play at a festival… I don't think any of us saw ourselves doing that. It didn't seem like a world designed for us, accepting of us. [But now] I think we've come to understand that we have the right to be in these spaces, internationally. We have the capacity and talents to make projects that can resonate with global audiences. That's huge.”

Beyond the Docubox community, Toni is actively involved in national film associations, through which she engages with developments in Kenya’s film policy environment. She argues that it is time for young filmmakers to step up, and particularly encourages younger filmmakers to join these organizations. “A lot of the leadership is in their 40s and 50s fighting for change in the industry, which younger people have benefited from.” At the time of writing, the Kenya Film Bill, a draft legislation to replace the 1962 Film and Stage Plays Act (Cap 222), was in the public participation stage. The proposed bill would consolidate the laws that pertain to the film industry, and address film funding, production and distribution in line with the opportunities of the global content market.

In the face of uncertainty around the world, 2020 was an incredible year for Toni, and the excitement isn’t over. For Njeri, Softie has already had a profound impact: “My hope was that people will see themselves more than they see my family. I feel like it achieved that.” I Am Samuel’s journey thus far has also exceeded Pete’s expectations: “I'm just happy that we're sharing this story with the world, that it’s being accepted and embraced in the festivals that we’ve shown it so far.”

Toni’s working on her self-care this year. She’s into power-walking, in part to give her dog, Peanut, some exercise, and she’s on a high protein diet for mental clarity because Toni Kamau has got things to do, and places to go. And she’s not slowing down.