One of my most vivid and special memories of the theatre was going to the Fox drive-in with my aunt and cousin. It was really old school. You would pull up to a pole with speakers attached, wind down the windows and put the speaker in your car so you could hear the film. Later on you could tune in on your radio. Then you’d just watch the movie in your car! You got to bring popcorn in, and it was one of the few occasions you could actually eat in the car. It was such a wondrous occasion.
The first time I went there we watched Bambi (1942), which felt magical, and I remember not wanting that moment to end: watching it through a windscreen, surrounded by people you love, eating in the car, doing things you couldn’t normally do… I must’ve been young, maybe 10 or 11. It wasn’t something you would do as an older teen, because then you didn’t want to watch movies with your parents. It was really when we were still very much enamoured with being part of adult life, a peek into what it felt like.
The theatre showed a number of different films. I remember watching a couple of musicals there, because Bollywood films are big in Kenya. Devdas (2002) is one of my favourite musicals of all time. It’s glorious. It’s just such an extravagant film in many ways, and so heart-breaking.
There weren’t many Kenyan films being made then. The first Kenyan feature I watched was The Battle of the Sacred Tree (1995). Before that, there were lots of documentaries, but there wasn’t much narrative film. It’s strange but it’s not the films themselves that influenced me as far as becoming a filmmaker. It was the idea that I could create film that started the desire in me. I didn’t truly know it was a possibility until I walked into a TV studio and someone was filming.
The drive-in was in a big field, and at the time it was on the outskirts of Nairobi. It opened in 1958 and was for white patrons only until independence from Britain in 1963, when cinemas were integrated. Cinema in Africa was used in many different ways under colonialism. I discovered that in Zimbabwe they wanted to encourage people to come and work in mines or other dangerous or remote places, so they would play cowboy films to get people to come and then try to exploit them.
The Fox drive-in is not there any more. It’s being developed into a shopping mall and a multiplex, which is horrible. In Kenya it’s really expensive to go to the cinema, so it’s very much a middle- or upper-class experience. And the drive-in was too, as you had to have a car to go there. A cinema ticket can cost from five to ten dollars, which is a huge amount of money in a country where people are often paid less than $1 a day.
There were, and continue to be, community cinemas where people come in and show films on a mobile projector or on live TV. So there is an experience of cinema that is more accessible to all, in a different way.
They also come with translators. There have been a couple of films I’ve seen where you’d have the film playing with a single man in front of the screen translating everything. And he would not only translate the dialogue, he’d translate the action! So he’d be like: “Then he hits him: boof! And then he hits him back: boof, boof!” He would do his own sound effects. People would start going to cinemas depending on who the translator was as well.
There is also censorship in Kenya. The Classification Board sees cinema as a way to promote traditional values, which I think is absurd, because we have internet. My film Rafiki was only allowed to be shown for seven days. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) was banned. Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) was banned. But Fifty Shades Freed (2018) wasn’t banned. The head of the Classification Board told me the reason he didn’t ban it was because they got married at the end!
Looking to the future, I hope theatres can be subsidised, so that more people can go. I think with developments like Netflix, it is becoming more accessible. I hope there are more spaces where there is communal watching because I think it is important – not only being alone in your house watching films, but in a group of people, reacting as a group to art.
Wanuri Kahiu was talking to Isabel Stevens.
Watch unused/unissued British Pathé newsreel footage of the building and opening of Nairobi’s Fox drive-in cinema
Originally published: 15 April 2020