Joan Rispa is a Kenyan filmmaker working in both fiction and documentaries. Her films have received acclaim and numerous awards, tackling complex personal subjects and social causes. Joan sat down with Right for Education to discuss her work and views on cinema in Africa.
R:Ed: Why do you make films?
I don’t know, I honestly don’t know, I just kind of stumbled into the path. And then I found it the most convenient way for me to express myself. I feel like I am not defined by one particular box. So it’s interesting to make films because you have various characters expressing themselves. And so in doing so, I’m able to express various thoughts that I have through different and multiple characters.
R:Ed: What makes cinema a special medium?
I think that there is a way you can express yourself in cinema that is unique. It is able to capture both audio and visual. So even when I’m not using my words to speak, you can tell just by the look of it. And then another powerful thing, I think, for me is the fact that we’ve been able to incorporate things like music, such that now you’re able to evoke emotions in people, it’s just the most beautiful and perfect medium, because it incorporates just so many things, so many elements that actually come into play when you think about the human condition.
R:Ed: Is it important that cinema can often be understood without translation?
Definitely, I think that’s the biggest Pro actually. Because if you ask me, I don’t have to be speaking the language of the home, for example, if it’s in Swahili, for you to understand, because without subtitles, you’re able to see through the characters, the journey that they are going through, you’re able to sort of get an inclination in terms of what are they feeling, how they are doing and so on. You’re able to actually perceive the character with or without their words, for years.
R:Ed: Your films seem to be focused around people, most of the time. They are the drivers of the story, not just part of it. Can you tell us about that?
The characters are the story. You can only relate so much to anything else, but you can relate to me as an individual, you can relate to the character who you’re portraying. So it’s the human connection that for me forms the basis of film. It’s how you connect. Are you connected to the villain? Are you connecting to the protagonist? You know, it’s the people and their decisions. That’s why you’ll be like, Oh, I think if it was me, in such a situation, I might have not done the same thing. I would have actually chosen to do these. So people ask the story because that’s the only thing that we know. We sort of live through them. They are vessels.
R:Ed: Do you think there is such a thing as African cinema? Is there similarity between the cinema industries across the continent?
I think the beauty of the continent is that we have so many things. It’s a beautiful, beautiful spectrum of things. When you watch films from West Africa, they are a bit different. When you watch films from South Africa, they are a bit different. When you watch films from Kenya, they are a bit different. So it’s very, very diverse but one thing that I will say is that, for my films, they always have to show the current pace that I am in, because the audience that I have is mostly people who are going through similar experiences.
R:Ed: Do you think African films share a characteristic in their sociality? Few films from Africa show a lonesome, unconnected life. What do you think?
Yes, that makes a lot of sense. That’s part of our tradition, an oral tradition. We are the people who will, at the end of the day, come together and just listen to stories. And it’s very instrumental just to think about not just oneself, and even think about the whole community at large. And what these teachings mean, to the whole community, the implications of a particular individual actions to the whole community. I’m looking back now and I’m thinking of women, the stories that I grew up with; I didn’t grow up with Cinderella. Our stories are about wisdom and a communal setting.
R:Ed Do you think there is such a thing as Pan Africanism? In a continent so diverse, is it the outside, European influence, that created the notion of a shared identity?
Definitely at the time, there was a need for all African countries to come together and sort of push away the colonialists. But now if you look at African literature, you’re having the same struggles. It’s the same for music. The pan African lens exists to help people to be heard by the western forces really. But it’s a complicated concept. Look at the Maghreb countries. It’s not the same music. Or in South Africa for example, there is a spirit of Ubuntu. It’s cool. Yeah, it’s nice. When you go to West Africa, it’s singular again. Pan Africanism is a sort of umbrella body to help people be heard.
R:Ed What advice would you have for someone trying to make films?
I would say just do it. The factors will never be 100% working. It’s not, you know, it’s not a utopian world, there will always be something that will be a hindrance or a challenge. So just do it. I have actually done a film on a phone, because at the time, that’s the only thing I had to film on. I have edited a film on my phone. I have never really liked to look at the challenges and hindrances. Just use what you’ve got to help you tell a story you enjoy.