Watatu or how to fight radicalisation
Watatu is not like any other film. Not because it is in Swahili, is set in Mombasa or talks about radicalisation. It’s because it is made to be an interactive experience with the audience. At the very beginning, Salma, one of the actors, invites spectators to tell them “what we should have done differently”. The movie is used as a tool helping SAFE, an NGO in Kenya, to engage with the communities where screenings take place and give them a forum to express how they feel about radicalisation.
“Watatu in Swahil means three people. It is the story of two best friends [Jack and Salim] and the young man [Yusuf] who becomes radicalised.” says Nick Reding, founder and executive director of SAFE (Sponsored Arts for Education).
The manner in which the film was made was inspired by the forum theatre of the Brasilian theatre director Augusto Boal where spectators determine the fate of the performance. “We found it to be a powerful way to engage communities to find solutions to the problems they were facing and we have used it for a number of issues, HIV, female genital mutilation.”, explains Reding, a former British actor.
Watatu is about radicalisation and is based on a forum theatre play that SAFE performed in the run-up to elections in 2013 and which was looking at the conflict between the Christian and Muslim communities. SAFE was approached by a company that wanted to do some work on radicalisation and the team decided to adapt that play to have a story about radicalisation.
“So, that became the first forum film we’ve ever made. It is basically a film with a bad ending and then it becomes a documentary [where we show] the play performed live to audiences [who] are given the opportunity to take over the roles of the characters and change the outcome of the story. The end of the film is entirely written by the citizens of Mombasa.”, says Reding.
After the first 45 minutes, the film shows a very attentive audience watching the play version of the movie and afterwards giving the various versions they think would have worked best for the plot. It is interesting to notice that the Kenyans gladly airing their views are a very diverse group of young, old, men, women, Christians and Muslims. And then we are shown how members of the public go on stage to “act out” their own versions, much to the delight of the audience.
Watatu is entirely in Swahili (with english and french subtitles available). And this makes a huge difference because it is the language the audience speaks and one they can relate to.
“It is an advantage to have that movie in Swahili”, says David Kalume, community programme officer of SAFE. “It gave the atmosphere of what is happening [as if we] have seen [their] problems. Many people wanted to have a discussion on that but they were lacking the right communication tool.”
As much as they enjoy performing in a play and relish the interpersonal contact of theatre, the SAFE team felt that a film is a useful tool that can reach many more people. “The costs of performing a live theatre show are extremely high in comparison.” says Nick Reding. After having watched the last part of the movie showing how spectators are allowed to change the outcome of the plot, the audience of the screenings becomes a very active one. “So, it is an incredibly successful way of sparking debates and discussions. It is something we are very keen to replicate with our next film.” adds Reding.
Working and living in Kenya for nearly 15 years now, Nick Reding observed that the Muslim youth on the coast are angry and for very justifiable reasons he feels. “The coastal region of Kenya has been occupied by Yemenis, Omanis, Portuguese, the British and there is strong sense now that it is occupied by upcountry Kenyans. It is not a feeling shared by all people. And this is compounded by discrimination against young muslim men.”
The character in the film is a university graduate and he can’t a job. But he sees people arriving from upcountry who have only completed their secondary education and they are getting jobs in front of him.
“There is also a lot of anger over access to title deed, and people who have lived on a plot of land for generations find that they are unable to get a title deed but someone from upcountry will buy the plot next door and he will get a title deed.” adds Reding.
A sense of social injustice, of being made to feel like second class citizens create a lot of anger among the people from the coast. Nick Reding says that the government response to this anger is to impose arbitrary arrests and that there have been many cases of extrajudicial killings reported.
Reding believes tha the majority of coastal Kenyans, want to be Kenyans. “There is a muslim majority voice that is being silenced by extremists at the coast and, as [depicted] in the film, most coastarian muslims want to be part of Kenya, they want to live in peace with their Christian neighbours, they want development, they want tourism.” says Reding.
Watatu deals with the sensitive issue of Al-Shabab, the Somali terrorist group and its reach over the young Kenyan Muslims. A number of young men in Mombasa and on the coastal region of Kenya have enrolled in Al-Shabab. “They feel it is the only way they are going to be heard because the terror group shares a common idea and it is ready to listen to them.” explains the actor Benson Obiva who plays the role of Jack, the policeman/Salim’s best friend in Watatu, he is also the finance manager of SAFE. “They join them because they believe they are fighting a common battle. And they fall in the trap because no one has given them the chance or a platform to express their feelings and their views.” adds Obiva.
Entertaining radical views of Islam is not the only problem, there is also a separatist movement, the Mombasa Republican Council, gaining sympathy, particularly amongst the youth. They are advocating for the coastal region to become a separate state. Their support base seems to come mostly from the unemployed.
This film is a way for SAFE to give voice to the majority seeking to live peacefully. “This film is our tool to bring people together and allow them a forum to give voice to their concerns and to look for other ways than a radical group to address their grievances”, says Nick Reding.
Watatu and the issues it brings forward – unemployment, social injustice, being disenfranchised, radicalisation – are universal in the sense that it could have easily been applied to what is going on the other side of the continent, in Niger or Mali for example.
Watatu ends with hope: “We can make very big changes. What can you do? [For] Our Mombasa, Our future” Salma asks the spectators. And as Nick Reding says it only takes one afternoon discussing with the people to witness the change operate and see how they want to mobilise and do something.
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