Moving and enigmatic, Kati Kati flits between the eerie and the stylish as it meditates on life and death, guilt and shame. Kenyan director and co-writer Mbithi Masya makes his feature-length debut, screened for the first time in the UK at the Royal African Society’s Film Africa festival 2016.
The film’s stunning opening sees a young woman, Kaleche, wake up in the bush, her blue hospital dress stark against a bleak, sepia landscape. With no recollection of who she is or what she’s doing there, she finds her way to a commune called Kati Kati inhabited by a group of young Kenyans who duly explain to her that she is here because she, like them, is dead.
It’s difficult to take your eyes off Kaleche, played by Nyokabi Gethaiga, her confidence growing as she settles into this strange commune with invisible walls and disappearing food, where you can write down whatever material object you desire before you go to sleep and find it hanging up outside your door in the morning.
The only thing more enigmatic than the place itself is the group of young men and women who live there: There’s loudmouth Mikey (Paul Ogola), who died before his graduation and so struts around in his mortarboard and gown, playing up to Thoma (Elsaphan Njora), the charismatic leader who looks after everybody but seems to take a particular interest in their newest arrival – and what of King, played by Kenyan star Peter King Nzioki, the quiet minister with ghostly white hands?
Trapped in a strange resort, occupying a liminal existence between life and death, unsure of what they’re there for or what waits to come, they do exactly what you or I would do in their situation: hang out by the pool, party, shoot hoops, flirt, bitch – they live, essentially.
A fairly friendly afterlife then, or at least it seems it, until their real purpose in Kati Kati begins to make itself clear. Behind the smiles, each suffers from the guilt and the shame of secrets from their past life, secrets that visit in ghostly forms to torment them with the memory of their sins.
Kati Kati – literally “in between” in Swahili – is a purgatory then, only with a Big Brother twist. The film is at times tense and moving, at others energetic and frivolous, and Masya makes full use of his background both as an advertising creative and member of DIY art/music collective Just a Band (guess who wrote the soundtrack) by putting in snippets of music video-esque montage that almost makes you want to be there.
If it loses momentum at times, and one or two scenes don’t quite deliver the punch they should do, this is made up for by the film’s honesty. Behind the fresh clothes and spooky make-up there’s a palpable sense of genuine rumination behind it all. Masya wrote the film shortly after having suffered a bereavement himself, and as the characters play out their afterlives, you can sense somebody mulling over their own regrets behind it all. But the shame confronted in Kati Kati is not only its writer’s, but also that of Kenya. Perpetrators of the 2007 post-election violence have escaped justice; its leaders remain in power, ethnic tensions still abound… And yet, Kenya still continues as it did: Nairobi is still pumping, the young still party, and flirt, and bitch, life goes on in its liminal state, caught between fear and frivolity. “As a country we do have a habit of not confronting our demons” Masya tells us in a Q&A session afterwards, referring to the post-election turmoil of 2007 that left over a thousand dead, referenced in his film through King, the minister. “Kenya has not faced up to what happened”.
In Kati Kati, we start to see a fragment of what it might mean for a country to confront its past.
Kati Kati premiered at Film Africa 2016.