Wanjiru Njendu from Kenya and currently based in Los Angeles, is a member of Women in Film, founder of A Magic Works Production and has just completed the film Look Again, about two women's struggle to come to terms with the aftermath of an accident.
Wanjiru, what were your experiences with cinema while growing up in Kenya and what brought you to California, a hub of the U.S. film industry?
As a child I was very fortunate to have parents who had a love of reading and cinema and always tried to create opportunities for us to be exposed to both. Video rental stores were a business growing up in Mombasa and I remember rushing to the store after school on a Friday to get the movies for the weekend. Every movie on that tiny grainy screen was truly magical and I was captured at a very young age by Steven Spielberg movies such as E.T which, made me want to become a director. E.T was one of the most magical films in terms of fantasy but had the family values at the very core of the film. I did my undergraduate studies at United States International University (USIU) now called Alliant and graduated with a degree in Psychology. After a year of working, I decided to follow my dream and passion and enrolled at Emerson College in Boston. Emerson is a small campus and really focuses on the students enabling them to work on productions with the professionalism of the industry.
Your thesis film, Safari Ya Jamhuri: A Journey to Freedom, is a documentary about the Mau Mau, what inspired you to focus on this very iconic movement in the history of Kenyan independence?
My parents and grandparents always placed an emphasis on our history and heritage as a family and two or three times a year we travelled to visit my grandparents. Some of my earliest memories were stories told about my paternal grandparents and my father in a camp with other Kikuyus held captive by the British. It always amazed me that even though my father was such a young child at the time, the experience really had an impact on him and the memories he has are so clear that it made me want to know more and once I began researching it really stuck. It is amazing how much the British colonialists got away with at time especially when they were working with other nations against Nazi Germany as it was the Second World War.
You are a member of Women in Film-Los Angeles and have done outreach to include African women. What benefits will African women in cinema receive as members of this organization?
Women In Film is an incredible source for all women: of any ages, ethnicity and nationality. It is part of WIFTI which is the governing body. There are 38 chapters around the world with a newly formed chapter in Kenya. WIF creates an environment for networking opportunities and I have gotten jobs and met people I wanted to work with through them. The opportunities that Women In Film create include but are not limited to: master classes with seasoned industry players providing advice to their members, workshops where members participate, speaker series and best of all a mentoring program, through which I got to my mentoring in directing from acclaimed director Jon Amiel. Being able to have conversations with a director of his caliber opened up my eyes to so many things that you are not taught in college and these conversations have also altered how I work as a director and my casts and crew are much more appreciative of how I work as a director.
The chapters are very supportive of each other and you can be a visiting member of a chapter if you are in the area for up to three months, which allows for dialogue and interaction and above all, networking and collaboration opportunities.
In March 2011 you produced the Out of Africa: A Night of Kenyan Film and Culture at the Women In Film International Series, what inspired you to produce the series and what filmmakers and films were included?
One of the committees I belong to in Women In Film is their International Committee; their signature event is the Women In Film International Shorts Program, which was in its 5th year. The Program is a celebration of filmmakers from all corners of the world, produced by the members of the Women In Film International Committee.
I had volunteered as an associate producer in the previous two years, which featured a night of Palestinian, Israeli and Korean film. The series is different from short film festivals because they are a celebration of the culture of the selected country. There is a pre-reception featuring food; music and art from the culture and the guests are immersed into the culture for that evening. The international committee members select a country each year and for the 2011 series I suggested Kenya. Kenyan film is growing in leaps and bounds and this was an opportunity for it to be showcased as well as for me to produce a series. When I was looking at venues and pitching the series (one of the duties as a producer is to get the venue donated). I made a list of venues and Universal Studios appealed to me the most as they were the studio that made "Out of Africa" with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford and I wanted to make that the series theme, "Out of Africa: A Night of Kenyan Film and Culture.” I approached Universal and by some amazing luck, the executive Jennifer Fitzgerald was a fan of Ayub Ogada and immediately came on board. Universal was incredible in their support of the series, enabling me to turn the event into a full-fledged production where we converted the soundstage into a Kenyan-themed space for the night.
Your production company, A Magic Works Production, what is its mission? Some of its projects?
It is an umbrella for developing strong stories of all kinds, but above all, a place to focus on development on strong thematically themed African stories. I produced and directed Safari ya Jamhuri under its umbrella and I am currently development two Kenyan-themed stories- a feature, which I wrote based on the story of Lwanda Magere, and the other is a TV pilot.
Your latest work, Look Again, what has been its trajectory, from conception, to fundraising, to production and now promoting it?
Look Again was written by Kenyan writer Carole Keingati and my Director of Photography Andrew Mungai, also Kenyan, is a recent graduate of the American Film Institute. Look Again was made with a very unorthodox business plan. We started fundraising for the film in March 2011 on Indiegogo.com and we only raised one third of the production budget. At the end of May we decided to try a different approach. I contacted the vendors and asked them to supply us with what we needed at half cost and to defer payment until the beginning of August. What was the plan at the time? To enable to filming, while continuing to raise the rest of the budget to finish the film on Kickstarter.com., an all or nothing funding platform. By providing behind the scenes of what we were doing, it encouraged people to give to the project and a week after we wrapped production, we achieved our budget goal.
Casting this film was terrifying for me as it was a very performance- driven story. It had a lot of subtlety in the story and I was very stressed during the casting process: sweaty palms and all (ha-ha). We saw a lot of actresses and actors and I am so humbled to say that when I saw the performances of Simone Cook and Lauren Neal, I knew I had found my leads. I then tested them together and their audition brought us all to tears.
Look Again was shot over two consecutive weekends in July 2011, in Culver City and Encino in California. Fortunately our location manager got the locations donated to the film and all we had to provide was location insurance. With a fantastic and very talented cast and crew, this film is a labor of love come to life.
We are currently doing the festival circuit. I feel like I live and breath this film. Every day I am thinking, which festival should we submit to? We have been so blessed as the film has already been accepted into four festivals on three continents, including the Kenya International Film Festival and in the United States in Los Angeles and New York City, and the African American Women in Cinema International Film festivals.
Interview with Wanjiru Njendu by Beti Ellerson, November 2011