Kenyan-German Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann explores how her multiple identities and complexity of experiences inform and influence her work.
You are of Kenyan and German parentage and have lived and traveled in Europe and Africa. How have these experiences influenced you and your work?
I will start by saying I am glad I have seen what I have seen, and that I have been where I have been. It has molded me to who I am. It’s been a long experience and it is still ongoing. For the longest time I battled with being on or the other – and in every location, every place, I am viewed as being other. Sometimes this becomes tiring – during the years I lived in Cape Town – this was harrowing – how others viewed me was incorrect to my vision of myself. However in hindsight this catalyzed my own revision of my vision of myself. Now I believe I am many things – I cannot be one thing – and I do not have to subscribe to one thing. What I am is my spirit, what I am, is my experiences. Being half white and half black, being half African, and half European, and having the perspectives of a German father and a Kenyan mother means that I see two sides to everything – I can put myself in the shoes of two polar perspectives which is advantageous to my filmmaking, especially the films I want to make.
This juxtaposition, this contrast was once a battle within me. However now it means that in my work I am drawn to writing stories about people that are misunderstood in their communities. I am also drawn to writing stories whose objectivity comes from their subjectivity of each character. I live in Kenya, and I love Kenya. Kenya is my country – but strangely, and unfortunately I am viewed as an outsider. I do not mind too much, as I have come to terms with myself and who I am, and I believe I am Kenyan. I know I am Kenyan in my heart, and so one’s opinion of what I am is no longer important. I am often asked, in my own country, where I am from. This can hurt sometimes. Personally, I would say I am my experiences, and I would say I am Kenyan, I am, a black woman and I am an African – this is where my heart belongs. I grew up in a multicultural community in Kenya. So I grew up in a dynamic environment where one's cultural or racial identity was something to be proud of, whilst simultaneously not being an issue at all.
In addition I grew up in the “leafy suburbs” of Nairobi – we grew up protected and educated in a British school system, I learnt Latin. So couple the leafy suburbs with a black white combo and I was an outsider in other people’s eyes. But many people were like me – so my background was not too much of an issue. Only when I went to school in Europe did I get a shock – I was young and sensitive. Suddenly I became aware of the difference between how I viewed myself and how others saw me.
You work with both the still and moving image. Your photography is very cinematographic, not in the sense of a constructed image, but rather that it has a strong narrative character. What is your filmmaking in relationship to your photography?
I have always been heavily attached to visual art through drawing and painting. I am very interested in images and so it was almost natural course to go into an art, that I believed had a “lifelike” embodiment. I chose to go into filmmaking and a bit later I took up photography as a hobby. I practice both – and I find that each honors the other. In addition through practicing as a photographer I enhance my own visual lexicon, deepen my aesthetic understanding and refine what images speak to me, and through this I know what images I want to speak to others. My penchant for photography is in its beauty to embody memory – a memory that is either real or “imagined.” I also like that, at least for the photography that I like, and that I take – I like that photography honors people. This is beautiful – you immortalize a soul, a whole lineage, a whole moment, a whole feeling in one image. That is beautiful to me. With a lot of my personal photography, the photography I do for myself; I want my images to look like a memory and carry the sentiments of a memory – a memory that the viewer relates to whether it is real or constructed.
In this way some of images that I have captured, or lets say, some “evocative memories”, are what influence my filmmaking. Sometimes I am driven to write a story based on a photograph I took, a photography that maybe reminded me of a life I have never had. Some other times I will take a photograph and by chance, it is a images that belongs to a character I am writing about. It will look and feel like a photograph that was taken from the life of Sheba, the protagonist of Two Princes.
Gubi - The Birth of Fruit (2007) by Philippia Ndisi-Hermann
Your film, Gubi - The Birth of Fruit is an experimental folktale, recounted solely with beautiful images and sounds of the drum. What inspired this work? Were you influenced by African storytelling while growing up?
I wanted to write a story that took place in another time. And so, though I must say that African storytelling did not feature in my childhood, I am moved by it. For Gubi, I chose to create my own myth. Actually I wrote some prose based on my feeling for the film – and the prose spoke of seeds and burying seeds so that one’s spirit be reborn, and in turn return. And so with this, I started writing on the concept. I worked together with two other writers and Gubi – The Birth of Fruit is what we came up with.
The drum in the film was surely a blessing – we had toyed with different sounds and songs – and they didn’t work – they were almost too much from this world. I went to a friend’s house who saw the rough cut, and Chris said, “Speak to Kesivan – maybe he can do something for you.” Kesivan Naidoo at the time was an upcoming South African drummer (now he is very established). So I called Kesivan and he came into the studio with a njembe – and we filled a metal thermos with some rice and soil and stones – and in an hour, Kesivan had performed the music for the film. I like the drum a lot in this film. A lot - because I see the drum as being the omniscient immortal character; the narrator of this love story.
At the time I was interested in writing stories that had female martyrs – marginalized people that myopic people found easy to ostracize, however through their sacrifice they brought a great evolutionary change in their community. Which is what mythology is mostly about – African mythologies are like small vignettes of how we got where we are now; how our community got to where they are today. And so my narrative, through the protagonist Nok is about how the Gubi community discovered the circle of life, how we as humans became self-sufficient through learning that seeds reap fruit when buried. That is how I saw it in my mind.
Your documentary, I'm Not Dead Yet (2009), is about anti-apartheid, resistance artist Manfred Zylla. How did you develop an interest in him and his work?
Manfred the protagonist is a man that I really love. We no longer live in the same country and I must say I miss him. He is a close friend. I made the film about Manfred because I found him fascinating and in many ways I was curious about his life. Here is a man, a white man in South Africa – that during Apartheid chose to fight against the system instead of letting it work for him. He took on a problem, that he didn’t need to. I find this admirable. But then of course, in this post-apartheid era he is not recognized for his contribution because he does not fit into the box. So I made the film to honour his contribution and his work.
In addition, as we began to know each other I began to ask myself more questions. If one’s art is not recognized or appreciated, is it worth doing? In addition – Manfred is a man who dedicated his life to pursuing his art – and now 2 divorces and 2 children later – I wonder is he happy. As an artist, and I am sure many people can relate to this – you wonder if what you are doing is right, or you hold the perception that following your passion will inevitably make you happy. But what if it doesn’t? And what if you sacrifice people you love for your art, what then? I don’t know – So those are some questions that I was curious about that spurred me to make a film about Manfred. I wanted to begin some sort of deliberation towards the “truth”.
Your company, Thirsty Fish, an interesting name, what is its meaning?
One of my favorite poems is “A Thirsty Fish” by Rumi. I chose this name for my company and I embraced it as a pseudonym for many reasons – for example, one of my favorite lines is, “a great silence overcomes me and I wonder why I ever thought to use language.” Sometimes there are feelings and moments that I cannot express in words. There are other lines in the poem that I like – that move me. The poem has been with me for a long time too, so it has a lot of memories and feelings that I attach to it. I like the voice of this poem because he or she believes there is so much in store for them. I like that. The words of that poem really move me. Rumi moves me.
Your work in progress, “Two Princes” is a feature film. What is it about and when do you anticipate completion?
To be frank, “Two Princes” is a film that I look forward to watching. It is about love, it is about death, it is about grief and it is about regret. I wrote the narrative because I was overwhelmed with a large bountiful landscape of moving pain in my heart and I knew I needed to write. This was coupled with my curiosity – I had so many questions that I wondered about. In my patriarchal society, what it is like for a woman to return to her husband, after she had left him for another man? Do we judge a woman’s infidelity and “wantonness” more harshly than we would a man’s? In Kenya, our strong Christian, Evangelical majority condemns infidelity, however it is socially accepted for men to have multiple partners and to openly partake in infidelity. A woman accepts that her partner or spouse has other women. These liberties are not extended to women. For women, there is an invisible line between when expression of their own sexuality is a freedom or a form of repression. There seems to be an overarching desire to possess a woman’s sexuality, and if a man fails to possess it, then an undercurrent of contempt brews.
In “Two Princes,” the central idea is ownership. I believe there are some things we can and other things we cannot own. We own our self; our body, our thoughts, our pain, our honor, our sexuality. However we must justifiably take responsibility of our actions. We cannot own others; our husbands, our wives, our lovers, our children. Our cars, our houses, our land; they can never be truly ours, yet we are fixated on acquiring or keeping them. In Kenya; the desire to own is a common denominator. If we cannot legally acquire land, then we steal it. In the history of Kenya, and many other nations, this desire to own has brought conflict and destruction.
My narrative unfolds in Lamu. This Islamic, Creole island embodies the conflict of ownership. Gentrification and animosity are surging. Plans are underway to build “Africa’s largest port. ” I ask, perhaps too naively, why do wealthy foreigners, and the Kenyan and Chinese Government have more say over this land than the people who were born there? Whose land is it anyway? How do we define ownership, and why? These are questions I ask myself, and you see I don’t know the answers, but I engaged myself on this journey to put myself there, and to get one step closer to the truth.
In this phase of my life, I believe we all have our life journeys and we all have to live them – and we can’t stop others from living their life, and in turn we should have the freedom to live ours. I believe as long as we know why we do something, and as long as it is in line with our life journey, and we know why we embark on a certain voyage, and the implications of such a voyage – and if it does not harm somebody - then do it. I believe this – but sometimes I doubt my belief - what happens to the people you leave behind? What if the damage is irreparable? What if you regret it? I don’t know. I don’t know this answer. But I want to find out.
I like “Two Princes” for many reasons – it is a film I need to make in order to let go of certain things I hold onto. It will be very cathartic for me. I find it to be such a hard and taking story to write and revisit. I find the story heavy. But it is an extension of me. This story needs to be made. This story needs to be told. I am also enthusiastic about the contribution that the film will make, certainly to Kenyan and African cinema. The film is slow – its personal and moody but very loving. I would like to finish “Two Princes” by the end of next year 2012 – or latest early 2013.
Interview with Philippa Ndisi-Herrman by Beti Ellerson, November 2011