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Mwenda wa Micheni
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No surprises as 'Toto Millionaire' hits screens
Toto Millionaire, by Simiyu Barasa (Kenya)

Great films are those that easily appeal to the senses; with characters who sweep viewers easily, captivate emotions and get viewers involved.

In the words of a screenwriting expert featured in the authoritative film publication Screenplay: "Anyone sitting down to watch a film does not only want to be interested in and care about the people they see on the screen; they want to be passionate about them, whether they like them or not."

On the same vein, the screenwriter expert adds that a great film must also feature: "great heroes and heroines (that) inspire us (this means the viewer); great villains make us want to jump onto the screen!"

Unfortunately, many of the Kenyan films are yet to invoke these sort of results. After watching the several Kenyan films submitted to the Kenya International Film Festival, Olivier Barlet, an authoritative French film critic who has written widely on African cinema commented that most of the films in competition were in the realm of television drama.

On that basis, films that had been expected to take home awards from the annual festival failed. This obviously led to the disappointment of many filmmakers who had expected to be named favourites by the jury.

In this case, it was clear that film vocabulary is still not very clear to the many struggling to make a mark on the Kenyan film scene. The debate on what is film as opposed to television rages on, but that has not stopped Kenyan filmmakers from creating what they want to.

Clearly, more Kenyan films are still falling in the television category, and this is a boon for television stations.

This week, another new Kenyan film premiered. Directed by Simiyu Barasa-the young filmmaker who has been scripting television drama Tahidi High and has won many hearts locally- Toto Millionaire has attracted some good deal of attention. Just like most of the other Kenyan films, this is apparently cut out to be television drama.

This could be thanks to the fact that the director-who also doubles as the screenwriter-learnt his craft by participating in training programmes that are television based.

Toto Millionaire is a simple story of a boy going through a rough patch in life with a sickly mother. But this state does not deny him an opportunity of this life.

After struggling with life, the boy named Toto, lands onto millions of cash that easily expose him to conmanship. Before luck strikes, the boy goes through the hands of an opportunistic pastor who perceives the boy as a god send gift that could bring in some fortunes; drunkards who almost see their thirsty throats get a cure and even most unexpectedly; neighbours who now want to move in with the family to reap where they did not sow.

Mostly shot in Nairobi's Eastlands, the film that stars the usual television faces is a piece woven with some interesting shots-but mostly restricted indoor shots.

The "millionaire actor" was apparently poorly directed: the boy is a promising talent, but his acting fails to show any growth especially from a naïve village boy to a hero who triumphs through several traps.

Throughout the film, it's apparent that the screenwriter ignored the cardinal rule of film that has worked in so many films: tell less, show more.

This is a cue from the Nigerian films and the verbose Gikuyu comedies that have been making a good kill in the "Riverwood" market that this film targets.

"There is always something at stake in a good movie," writes the expert in screenwriting. Info adding: "Not just something someone wants something that must be acquired, no matter what the risk, Or something highly desired by as many main characters as possible…Some times it can be an intangible thing, like the freedom of a people in … All these things drive the character's quest, even gives the hero superhuman strength.

It can be something personal (romance) or for the good of all (saving the world from aliens) but it must be powerful and grow more desperate as the story unfolds."

Toto Millionaire does not deliver the above expectations that a film should. Instead, the "so what feeling" takes over as it ends. It's not clear what questions the film is trying to raise; there are no twists or surprising turns that drama should be made of.

With most of the cast coming from stage, the acting in most scenes is tiring; the conflict is also very feeble.

According to the filmmaker, the film is a product specifically shot for the growing mass market that was created on a low budget.

Going by the standards in the mass market, Toto Millionaire will definitely be scaling higher in standards.

IN HIS OWN WORDS - Simiyu Barasa:
"A film maker, especially an African one who is still faced with several challenges especially on matters distribution and marketing has to make conscious choices: either to be a commercial filmmaker or an artistic one. While the commercial one is a businessman targeting a mass audience, the later is only an artist targeting festival judges. Through their experimentation, the artistic filmmaker makes their contribution in cinema. But this is mostly at a great cost because they rarely make money out of their craft.
On the other hand, commercial filmmakers have been able to make their money and at the same time earn a mass following. To succeed in the commercial field, a filmmaker must research thoroughly on the needs of the market and just offer that at a price that the market can afford. This often comes with several compromises on the part of the filmmaker. Without any apologies, I have chosen to be a commercial filmmaker, with a mission to tell Kenyan stories to a people who watch them on television sets. As such, I am struggling to develop a style and format that is Kenyan- borrowing a lot from the popular Genge artists and Riverwood producers who are already doing very well in the market. I can make artistic films, but I won't. This is because, I have learnt that Kenyan filmmakers must have our own style that Pavarotti might not think is real music or film, but it's ours; as long as we love it and it sells to enable artists to earn a living without government and donor help" -
Simiyu Barasa, director and scriptwriter Toto Millionaire. He is one of the Kenyan filmmakers who visited Nigeria to learn tricks applied by the Nollywood filmmakers.

Written by Mwenda wa Micheni

Published in THE NATION (Nairobi, Kenya), November 16, 2007.

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Toto Millionaire 2007
Simiyu Barasa

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Barasa Simiyu

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Nairobi critics Guild

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