Scene tourism: Connecting the power of film to unlock tourism in Kenya

Nairobi IG Tour 2018
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There was mass jubilation in Kenya, and rightly so, when ‘Watu Wote’ a short film shot in Kenya and inspired by a real terror event, was nominated for the Live Action Short Film category at the Oscars. While ‘Watu Wote’ eventually got beat by ‘The Silent Child’, which scooped up the award, there was a general sentiment that the Kenyan film industry was turning the corner. What fanned these flames even more was the role Lupita Nyongo had in the blockbuster Marvel movie, Black Panther. A country mired in political uncertainty and nefarious scandals for the better part of the last 12 months had something genuine to cheer about and build on. Right?

Not exactly.

Professionals in the Kenyan film industry have long held the belief that creativity in the industry is stifled rather than propagated, to put it nicely. Before the ‘Watu Wote’ and ‘Black Panther’ euphoria had barely started to settle, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) rolled out new regulations for operating drones. Outlined in the press release were a long list of fees that are to govern any current or aspiring drone operator. What makes this all bizarre, and pointed out by many observers across social media, was how all the fees were denoted in dollars. For instance, were you to decide to import a drone into the country, you’ll have to part with a cool $200, for starters. You might want to take a seat, because this gets even more ridiculous. The opening statement of the press release reads “The KCAA has noted with concern the proliferation of Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in the Kenyan Airspace that are operated by various entities or individuals”. Hostile tone aside, one could be forgiven for wondering whether they think drone operators are an outlandish cult who spy on people, coordinate heists, steal cattle and attack passers by. That would actually make a great movie.

The release goes on to say that all individuals seeking to procure, test or operate drones are legally required to obtain authorization from KCAA & seek approval from the Ministry of Defense! You would also have to mail in these authorization and approval requests via mailing addresses to the Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Defense and The Director General of the KCAA. Failure to do so would attract a one million shillings fine or a six-month prison sentence.

This is yet another symptom of an ailing film industry that doesn’t do enough for upcoming film creatives. You might have watched the movie ‘Eye In The Sky’, a story about a British-American military coordinated drone attack (ironically enough) targeting a suicide terrorist attack in Nairobi. This was a real event that happened in Kenya. The movie was however shot in South Africa. This is not the only example that a Kenyan story has lot its filming location to another country. The 2013 Westgate terror attack, will allegedly also be shot in South Africa. The scene that took place in ‘Mombasa’ in the blockbuster film Inception was shot in Morocco. Kenya lost to South Africa again for the filming location of ‘The Journey is the Destination’, a story about a photojournalist, Dan Eldon, killed on a Reuters assignment in Mogadishu, Somalia. One can even argue that The Lion King ended up being shot in Serengeti because the filming fees for shooting in the Masai Mara were too high.

No matter how good of a location you might have to serve as a canvas for filmmakers from all the world to make some magic with, it is all for naught when you don’t grant incentives along the way to attract filmmakers. One of the more popular ones is tax incentives for production houses. Take New Zealand for example. One of the most famous locations for The Hobbit Trilogy was shot in New Zealand. They didn’t just choose it randomly. New Zealand has well established film incentives for filmmakers as long as you are marketing, promoting and showcasing New Zealand as a tourism destination. It is not rocket science. Far from it. FIlm-induced tourism has been on the rise in recent years, in part because of the drastic increase in competitiveness between destinations. Traditional methods of destination marketing don’t cut it anymore in this day and age. Travelers now have a powerful wide array of tools to use in choosing their next destination.

Kenya has immense and diverse beauty, ranging from white sandy beaches to the famous savanna to the Rift Valley to bird tropical havens. We have two spectacular animal migrations (Wildebeest & zebras in Mara and Humpback whales in Watamu), we have some of the highest mountains in the continent, we have the Big 5, we have the biggest desert lake in the world, Lake Turkana, which has an island in the middle of it (Central Island) with the highest density of crocodiles in the world. We have some of the most successful rhino conservancies in the world. We have some of the best flower farms in the world. Really, we could go on and on.

It is fundamental that the government recognizes the power of film in promoting Kenya as a tourist destination. The individuals and entities best placed to do this are filmmakers, without a doubt. Tourism is one of the most effective catalysts for GDP growth and rural & urban development. Forcing down a myriad of fees on a drone operator trying to make it in this tough film climate that Kenya has is not how to go about it. Not sitting down and laying out very attractive location incentives for production crews to shoot films is not how to go about it. Spending more money in regulating imported film content as opposed to promoting local content is not how to go about it. Not creating a combined task force between the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Arts & Culture and Kenya Film Commission is not how to go about it. Not setting aside big budgets for institutionalized film scholarships is not how to go about it. Not realizing that a global multi-billion industry can be your best tool to provide long-term marketing benefits for Kenya’s destinations is not how to go about it.

Perhaps it is time we stopped relying on the government to fill in all the gaps. This country does not belong to us, it belongs to our children, and their children and their children. Questions will be asked of us, of why we waited so long to do something about it, to do something about the stagnation of Kenya’s film industry. This is a PSA to all current and aspiring filmmakers out there. Go out there, discover Kenya, and shoot. If your product convinces even one person out there to book their next flight to our beautiful country, that represents progress. And that is something to build on.

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