Jennifer Arnold, director, A Small Act
My first trip to Kenya was in the early ’90s on a yearlong foreign exchange program. I lived in a dorm called “Box,” which was named (I presume) for its utilitarian shape. Though, without much running water or electricity, the building wasn’t very functional. Still, Box changed my life. Not just because I was living in a new country or experiencing a new culture, but also because it was where I met Jane Wanjiru Muigai.
Jane became a dear friend. We constantly talked about politics and current events. She changed my worldview and ultimately told me the story behind the documentary A Small Act. Now, 20 years later, I can’t believe Jane and I are reunited in Kenya for a new foreign exchange program–Film Forward. And we just so happen to be staying mere blocks from Box.
Jane Wanjiru Muigai of UNHCR and featured in A Small Act with director Jennifer Arnold. Photo by: Taika Waititi.
The Film Forward schedule is packed. We’re starting with two workshops and a panel at The GoDown, an arts center in Nairobi being run by the super-hipster (and lovely) Joy Mboya. The workshops were great, but the highlight was the panel on storytelling across different mediums, which included Film Forward filmmakers myself and Taika Waititi, as well as playwright Hope Azeda from Rwanda, Kenyan filmmaker Cajetan Boy, PCAH Board Member Alfre Woodard, and many others.
Panel discussion focusing on storytelling across different mediums at GoDown Arts Centre: moderatered by Orlando Bagwell from the Ford Foundation. Panelists include: Jennifer Arnold, Hope Azeda, Catejan Boy, Phil Robinson, Indhu Rubasingham, Taika Waititi, and Alfre Woodard.
Next up is A Small Act screening in downtown Nairobi at the Goethe Institute, a place I had visited in the old days – it hasn’t changed much. The Kenya audience definitely laughed in new places, especially when the strict primary school teacher started scolding students. I had a proud moment after the Q&A when a filmmaker told me she was “amazed that I didn’t put myself in the story at all.” I explained that I didn’t want to be on screen, but she clarified that she actually meant it didn’t feel like a foreigner made the film – she couldn’t see a western point of view in the storytelling.
That got me thinking about foreign exchange, about the responsibility that comes along with sharing each other’s stories. While I was on this trip, which was filled with sweeping statements and photo ops, I kept thinking about Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How to Write About Africa,” a biting commentary on Western portrayal of the continent. For those who haven’t read it you can find it here. I get terrified that my work could fall into the category he describes, but something about that one filmmaker’s comment reconfirmed that we can tell one another’s stories, as long as we are sensitive, because there really is a universality in the human experience.
Jane, who is now a lawyer for UNHCR (United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees), spent the first half of the trip watching me in the film world. It was now my turn to experience her world. From Nairobi, the Film Forward team headed to Kakuma, a refugee camp in Northern Kenya. Jane and I discussed the situation in Kakuma as well as Dadaab, a larger camp growing exponentially because of the drought and famine in Somalia. That night, both of us introduced A Small Act at an outdoor screening for roughly 3,000 refugees. We had come full circle. We were back discussing the state of the world, living in a place with limited amenities and witnessing things that would change us. Neither Jane nor I could have predicted how long our friendship would last, or how much we would teach one another, but that is the incredible thing about foreign exchange–you meet people you wouldn’t meet at home. You see the world in a new way. You grow.
Audience at outdoor screening of A Small Act at the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Photo by Jennifer Arnold.
So much came out of that original trip in the ’90s, including this film. Who knows what will come out of this latest exchange… time will tell.