Charles Peter Asiba, the founding director of the now defunct Kenya International Film Festival (KIFF) and later the African Documentary Film Festival died in Nairobi last Thursday at 48.
He had been undergoing dialysis, something that pushed him out of the industry spotlight for most of this year.
The man entered the centre stage of Kenyan film when the industry was still struggling, with premiers far apart and funding a nightmare.
Then, film festivals were a great deal for African filmmakers, hence making Zanzibar Film Festival and even Ouagadougou's Fespaco very important. The other alternative was private screening. Both excluded a big chunk of the masses hence disconnecting African cinema from its likely audiences. With internet and more competition among broadcasters, that is gradually changing.
Before plunging into the African festival circuit, the University of Kent graduate was head of marketing at the Nairobi based programme exchange at the Union of National Radio and Television Organization of Africa (URTNA) [note 1]. This is where he made his wide network of contacts. The URTNA was a post-independence effort to strengthen African television content by encouraging public broadcasters across the continent to share content among them.
"I am a defender of the creative works in Africa." Occasionally he would throw a jab at the film commission, where he once served as a board member, or even the government on industry politics. This made him a few enemies and friends in the industry. But he stuck in there.
When he called me last November, I knew something hot was cooking. His festival, with new exciting slots like the mobile phone and the student sections, was to be held in October but had not happened.
"There is change of tact," he announced after some sips at the Java Coffee house on Kamathi Street. "I am injecting fresh blood into the running of this thing to give it new momentum," he said before breaking into his usual probing smile apparently prodding me to response. He was in the company of Sagwa Chabeda, a young Kenyan filmmaker. "I want to do what you have always been telling me." I had been urging him to delegate most of the festival duties and oversee the operation as opposed to struggling with the entire operation single handedly.
As players in the industry from different sides, we would disagree over some issues. Even then, we still shared light moments and a cup coffee when opportunity struck.
It is Wanjiru Kinyanjui, a leading Kenyan film industry, who introduced me to Charlie as they used to call him. That was at the French residence near Nairobi's Kibera where we had congregated for champagne and cheese to mark Bastille, the French national Day, on the chilly July 14, 2006. This has been one of the more reliable source of funding for cinema event in Kenya, with government putting very little into the industry.
At the time, the pair was working on the inaugural edition of the Kenya International Film Festival (KIFF) that succeeded the Nairobi Cine week whose final edition attracted serious criticism due to poor organisation. Asiba was taking over as the executive director, Wanjiru the Chairperson of the trust.
Both were working very hard to get it right, and wanted me to be part of it by writing good reviews. But that was not to happen as the first edition was a messy affair. But that did not deter the man and his team.
In more than one way, Asiba personified the daily struggles of the Kenyan cinema. He would be in a train on his way to the Cannes International Film Festival one day, the next one he would meeting African filmmakers at the Ouagadougou's Fespaco, trying to link the budding Kenyan industry to the rest of the world. His was clearly a daily hustle on scarce resources and lots of industry politics.
As a festival director, there were dozens of films to collect from across the world for screening. Then there was fundraising, the trickiest part of any African festival especially post the global crisis era when most of the arts funding from Europe dramatically shrank. But as they say, the show had to go on.
Charlie, who was also a director of the Copyright Board of Kenya, was daring and inventive. When he went ahead to completely close sections of Nairobi's Koinange Street, he had a serious street carnival in mind. The kind that Brazilians pull off annually or the splash of colours that Nigerians display regularly.
On the cards were flamboyant fashion parades, music and plenty of food and liquor. That was on the first edition. Serious debates followed, especially because the street was better known as a red light district, an image that the carnival was meant to clean up. Asiba later left the festival to concentrate on KIFF after some disagreements with his partners, clipping the event at its second edition.
At KIFF, Asiba who had adopted the Italian brim hat as his signature brought on board several foreign missions in Nairobi offering them their nights to showcase their culture. That was his innovative way to beat the lack of adequate funding. Embassies would screen their best and even fly an artiste for some performance often served with traditional cuisine.
That is how stars like American actor, director, and producer of African-Italian descent, Giancarlo Esposito and the Nigerian Nobel Laureate Prof Wole Soyinka came into the KIFF picture.
The Presence of the renowned French critics, Catherine Ruelle and Olivier Barlet, also helped to raise the event's profile before the French cut funding in what seemed part of the local industry politics and the economic reality in Europe.
As film industry player, Asiba offered a serious platform where filmmakers showcased their films. He also hosted several debates and networked different actors from across Africa.
The son of an ex-politician will be buried next week on the western Kenya, Busia County.
by MWENDA wa MICHENI
Note 1 - The General Assembly of the Union of National Radio and Television Organisations of Africa (URTNA), which was held in Abuja (Nigeria) on October 30th, 2006, has renamed the association as African Union of Broadcasting (AUB / AUR, Dakar, Senegal).