Review: “Kati Kati” Confronts Tragedy Through The Afterlife

Mbithi Masya's strikingly original debut forces Kenya to confront its violent past through metaphor.

By , 1 May 18 18:47 GMT
Courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.

There are several practical problems that limit filmmaking in Africa, and a major one is money. More often than, not big ideas never make it past the minds of creators who lack resources to make their vision. But a piece of work like Kati Kati, the feature debut from co-writer/director Mbithi Masya, looks like a definite sign of production and thematic progress from a growing artistic movement. Its visual effects for the fantastical elements in the film are thoroughly convincing and simple, creative makeup allows the world to be fully realized while exploring tragic themes of grief and forgiveness.

Kati Kati- which translates to “in between” in Swahili- refers to the film’s surreal, deserted, parallel universe between death and the real afterlife. This is where Kaleche (Nyokabi Gethaiga) wakes up, with no idea why or how she got there. She finds her way to a resort-like location occupied by a group of strangers and starts the journey of unraveling the mystery of how she died, why she’s there, and when she might move on to the afterlife. It’s later revealed that the reason people are sent to Kati Kati is to confront their bitter and painful past that got them killed. The only way out is by accepting their fate and acknowledging their guilt.

Courtesy of The Festival Agency.

Throughout her soul-searching journey, Kaleche remains as ignorant as the audience. This is something Masya uses to thematic advantage, using her as vessel to explore the suspenseful mysteries and secrets of the other Kati Kati inhabitants, all of whom carry a unique burden.

We get intriguing emotional surprises and drawbacks from characters like Mikey (Paul Ogola), who is always wearing a graduation cap and gown because he died before graduation; Thoma (Elsephan Njora), the friendly leader of the group who has a shocking revelation for Kaleche; and even more shocking is King (Peter King Mwania), a former pastor who locked himself inside his church while his own parishioners cried out for help. Turning them away lead to their own deaths in a revenge-killing during the period of post-election violence.  

Watching these characters in purgatory explore their own existential crisis makes Kati Kati a thoughtful and haunting story about letting go. When asked, Masya said he wrote the film while he was grieving the loss of a close friend. As the stories unfold, there is a sense of someone personally grappling with the thought of what happens next, and what baggage could possibly get carried over when someone’s gone.  But the tragedies confronted aren’t only personal, they culminate into a rich analogy of Kenya’s political struggle. The 2007 post-election violence that left thousands of people dead is used as a plot point in the film, and it presents an allegorical piece of what it might look like if the country was forced to confront its tragic past.

Courtesy of SIFF.

The details and circumstances of the film’s overall mythology remain speculative and ambiguous. We are presented with intriguing aspects of this surreal world, like food disappearing at the end of a lunch break, and any object that is desired appears at your doorstep if it has been written down on a piece of paper.

But the film is not concerned about what spiritual being is making this happen, or if its residents are headed to Heaven or Hell. Instead it’s focused on creating a thought-provoking examination of forgiveness and regrets through sensitive topics like suicide, religion and alcoholism. Ultimately, the film uses many conventional Hollywood tropes, but its unique, authentic simplicity brings a certain depth that makes it special.

Kati Kati was Kenya’s official submission for the category of Best Foreign Language Film at the 2018 Academy Awards but was not selected for the nomination. However, it won a number of accolades such as the Prize of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) for the Discovery programme at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, New Voices/New Visions Award Special Mention at the 2017 Palm Springs International Festival and 2017 Africa Movie Viewer’s Choice Awards for East Africa. The film was co-written with Mugambi Nthiga and produced by Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer’s filmmaking initiative in Nairobi, One Fine Day Films and Ginger Ink. The companies that also co-produced another highly acclaimed Kenya film Nairobi Half Life.

Kati Kati – Kenya. Dialog in Swahili. Directed by Mbithi Masya. Starring Nyokabi Gethaiga, Elsaphan Njora and Paul Ogola.

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