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Exposed! Kenyan film industry’s toxic culture

The Kenyan film industry has been driven by talented actors, writers and producers who have for decades had to brave cold waters to produce content to entertain their Kenyan audience. What most do not know is that within the walls of the industry itself, lies an even colder, toxic culture of key industry players mistreating their own cast and crew all for the fame and success of their films and television shows.

Natasha Likimani, an actress, producer, and screenwriter, is known for her creative prowess showcased in several Kenyan films and TV series such as Makutano Junction, Tabasamu, Mali, Veve, Sincerely Daisy among several others. Despite bagging several awards, she admits that the film industry has become a treacherous world to venture into.

“I got my second big break on a TV show which ended up being a nightmare. The people who commissioned the show were extremely toxic. It was the first time I was producing. There were several times that I was being sabotaged by local authorities being sent to my sets to disrupt filming. Then my main actress died. Even with all these challenges, I had to finish the series by all means necessary as required by the terms of my contract. That show messed me up and I ended up going to therapy for a long time and nobody checked on me. I had big dreams and they all collapsed,” Natasha recalls.

Natasha eventually took a break to focus on her mental well-being with the hope that she would return to her passion for filmmaking with a new spark but was once again faced with a bigger obstacle – blacklisting.

“When I came back looking for work, my friends in the industry asked me what I had done because no one wanted to work with me. I kept applying because that was how I earned a living. My name was being thrown out of big TV shows where I could have been the head writer or an actress. It has been almost five years of being blacklisted,” she said.

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“I am one of the most successful screenwriters in the country but it is hard for me to tell young people that the film industry is a safe place to work. I have to work too hard for certain things,” she added.

Natasha founded Africa Female Filmmakers Collective (AFFC) alongside Kate Snow, Mkaiwawi Mwakaba, and Serah Mwihaki to support collaboration between female filmmakers and also address the unique challenges that women face in the industry.

In conjunction with Kenya Film Commission (KFC), they held a mental wellness event for all filmmakers on May 30, 2023. Actors, writers, and producers in attendance reported that they are facing several work and mental health issues that have barely been addressed over the years and keep recurring.

Natasha Likimani is an award-winning film producer and scriptwriter. PHOTO | COURTESY

Kenya Film Commission CEO Timothy Owase acknowledged that people who work in the entertainment industry tend to have a higher risk of mental illness caused by the nature of their work.

“A recent report from Australia identified performing artists, support workers, broadcast, film, and media operators as the most vulnerable groups. It reveals that these workers suffer from the effects of uncertain employment, low pay, shift work, and the need to be willing and able to work under all these conditions. This is a scenario that I feel is replicated here in Kenya,” he said.

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KFC Film Development Officer John Kyalo said that the commission is working towards creating policies that protect members of the film industry at their workplace which includes requiring production companies to pay for insurance for all their cast and crew members as some of the scenes they film in their productions put them in danger.

Kenyan actors and actresses have quit different shows due to mistreatment on sets. Mkamzee Mwatela, who played Nana Tandala on the TV drama Kina, caused a stir on Twitter after posting about being denied access to her contract and then later on being summarily dismissed. She was replaced by Sanapei Tande who quit the show in February 2023, stating she was taking a break from acting due to exhaustion.

In April this year, Melvin Alusa went on Instagram to announce that he was leaving the TV drama Salem and ‘requested the production team to manage the welfare of their actors and crew, many of whom are suffering in silence.’

“I unfortunately could not bear the toxic work environment anymore. The bad leadership, emotional blackmail, gas-lighting, manipulation, and health hazards led to an environment that became impossible for me to perform my role as an actor,” he said in the post.

Mumbi Maina also quit the same show as the leading actress in August 2022 and was replaced by Illya Frank who then quit in March 2023 posting a heartfelt farewell letter to her fans but also calling out industry players for lack of transparency and consideration.

“Actors and crews in our local industry need to learn how to speak up and stand for what is right, honest, and healthy on set. The culture of fear needs to end, as artists should not have to compromise their well-being for the sake of their careers,” she wrote.

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