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Nathan L. Collett: Director, TOGETHERNESS SUPREME

February 18, 2013

Nathan Collet1Q: Tell us a little about the origins of TOGETHERNESS SUPREME, from concept to financing.

I first became interested in Kenya and in Africa after a visit while I was still an undergrad at Stanford. I went on to study African History and then ventured into filmmaking. I wanted to share stories from Africa, real stories about what I saw and felt. The film started after the (unexpected) success of my short film Kibera Kid which won several awards and was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007. More importantly the story of the making of Kibera Kid was picked up by BBC, and people were excited that film star could come from an African slum. On Kibera Kid, I worked closely with the community in the Kibera slums, and many pleased with what we accomplished yet yearned for more. So we started working on a feature film based on that. Then in late 2007 everything fell apart after a contested election, tribal emotions flared and Kibera went up in flames. People died. Many of my friends and collaborators were displaced. It was horrible. So we felt that we couldn’t tell the same type of story about Kibera, that we had to tell the story of how the community tore itself apart over the intersection of tribe and politics. This was the genesis of Togetherness Supreme, and the core story came from the experiences of a young man from Kibera: Evans Kangethe Kamau.

The financing was tough, though unconventional. We really got lucky because 1. we didn’t aim to have a huge budget and 2. a lot came from organizations that were inspired by the training aspect of the project and the success of the short film. Still of course the money was never enough for the scale of what we attempted…

The process was long and slow for auditions, and for crew. We wanted to do things differently than other films financed by outside groups, who often only use Kibera people in a few onscreen roles. We wanted to do something that in retrospect was a bit ambitious: use untrained people in front and behind the camera. To do this on a feature film, that often had up to 500 extras in a day, was a bit chaotic! But it worked, because we spent over 2 months rehearsing the film, preparing the crew and working through the issues with the community. The film was driven by them, with my guidance, and in the end it really is their story.

After the film concluded, we started the Kibera Film School, to continue the training. The school recently graduated its second class of students, and is taking in its third group of graduates.

togeth2Q: You filmed this documentary on location in Kibera, and used many locals as well.  How did the community at large react to your filming, have they been able to view the film, and what are their reactions to it?

I could see how you might think it’s a documentary. Actually it is a feature film, though so much of it is grounded in reality, I might saY it’s a docu-drama… or social-realist film.  [Editor:  OOPS]

The vast majority of the crew were from Kibera, and all save for two actors, were also from Kibera. The other two actors came from another slum area, not much different than Kibera.

For me, the reaction, and collaboration of the community was crucial. It was a grueling experience at times, Kibera is dusty, has little electricity or running water, no proper toilets, but the spirit of the people is strong. They challenged us daily, and also gave so much of themselves, that it inspired me to keep going when others outside of Kibera looked down on our efforts. Often the picture you get from Kibera, and I say this as a filmmaker who has worked there for over five years, is one that is either too harsh and negative or too positive and avoiding the deeper issues.

After finishing the film, the first people who got to see it were the community. We held three huge open air-screenings in Kibera, and over 5,000 people attended. It was amazing. People laughed, cried and cheered. When the lead actress came out to speak to the audience, she was mobbed by her new fans. The reaction from Kibera continues to be good, as news of the film’s screening in US, and is first award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, have become the talk of Kibera. It’s a great motivator to me, to see that the people for whom this film was made, feel so strongly about it.

3Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making TOGETHERNESS SUPREME?

The best experience was when one of the child actors, Teddy, finally overcame his shyness. Throughout the two months of rehearsals, he was mostly silent and introverted. I was worried about him. Then, through the help of his acting teacher Charity Wambui, two days before shooting he finally emerged from his shell. Once the cameras were rolling he was a star!

The hardest moment was when our lead actor, Wilson Maina, one day collapsed on set. He had been working so hard, that when he got small virus it just took his whole body down. It was really scary. Myself and the producer Mercy Murugi personally took him to the hospital. We were very worried about it. Thankfully, after some medicine and a few days rest, he was back again on set. He didn’t want the film to stop. His spirit was amazing, he truly believes in the film and without him nothing would have been possible.

4Q: Festival audiences often have to make hard decisions about what to see, and the catalog descriptions sometimes run together. In your own words, why should people see your film?

This film is like nothing else you’ve seen about slums. My question to the audience is: do you want to experience insight into a culture different from your own? Do you want experience urban slum life from the perspective of the inhabitants?  Do you want that experience in glorious high definition? If so, come watch Togetherness Supreme. In 94 minutes, you will be immersed into this world of the Kibera slums from the POV of the people themselves. It’s a unique opportunity to gain an insider view of the slums and of urban Africa.

5Q: The current market for independent films is fractured, to put it lightly, and existing distribution models grow more ineffective with each passing moment. What are your hopes or plans for distribution?

Yes, its a huge challenge for all filmmakers and certainly for a film as unique as Togetherness Supreme.

First we want this film to continue to have impact amongst the people from the community in Kibera and for Kenya. The issue of tribe and politics looms largely over the country, and as we head into the next election in 2012, there could be another explosion of violence. We’ve found that having approval in US and internationally really has made this film more appealing and, we hope, more widely viewed in Kenya and in Africa.

For US distribution and International Distribution, the film is quite unique, it doesn’t fit into a clear genre. That’s why festivals will be crucial for the film. It needs a ‘niche’ that can be identified by the potential audience. I’m encouraged by the fact that now, more than ever, American audiences are interested in the rest of the world and in Africa. I think our film can tap into that interest, as it shows a unique street level view of the slums in Urban Africa. It’s something that can educate, inform, inspire. We hope, after film festivals, to show the film in US universities, and then explore limited theatrical and online / DVD release. I believe there is a market for this film, we just need to more clearly identify it. I think showing it in festivals will help us with that, and give us the necessary boost.

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