Africa Now: Our Review of ‘Kati Kati’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - March 04, 2019
Africa Now: Our Review of ‘Kati Kati’

Kati Kati’s has some flaws but it probably has one of the coolest opening scenes in cinematic history. Kaleche Miano (Nyokabi Gethaiga), the movie’s Kenyan protagonist, wakes up in a field next to what looks like a rehab facility. Everything else, like her scrubs, indicate to that. She eventually finds other people, including Thoma (Elsaphan Njora). Despite dressing casually like everyone else, he seems like the group’s leader. He tells her that she’s in Kati Kati and that she is dead. The others take bets on whether or not she runs. Which she does, only stopping because a force field, bustling with traffic on the other, invisible side of it, makes her. The image alone of her bumping into the force field makes watching this movie worthwhile, showing audiences how it executes its concepts.

In Swahili, ‘katikati’ means ‘the middle’. At one point, Kaleche asks Thoma if she’s in hell, which she isn’t. This place in the middle where some dead people go can make the people in it ask questions. I myself wouldn’t mind death, especially if dying means that she can get things like new clothes. She can ask for whatever she wants, except for the children that she remembers leaving behind. Getting ample resources is a good way to spend the afterlife. But her catatonic phase, a reaction to her status, is understandable especially since she has no memory of her death and life. It’s also equally frustrating to be able to ask for anything except for the two things she wants. And one of those things, her memory, is something that feels close yet far.

There’s a hellish feeling that Kati Kati evokes without having to use the usual Western tropes. It shows such a nice place but some of the people in it are as miserable as Kaleche. Thoma tries to console her but his efforts seem futile. He gets the same results with Mikey (Paul Ogola), and even afterlife brown liquor doesn’t help. Mikey shows Thoma some white spots on his legs and tells him about the stories that he hears – about people walking around Kati Kati like zombies. Thoma tells Mike that he’ll be fine, although he, of course, has his own worries. Thoma keeps seeing a version of himself with more white spots than the ones Mikey has. The spots, presumably, indicate that some of the souls have stayed and languished in Kati Kati for too long.

Thankfully, Kati Kati doesn’t just use Kaleche as a window into the pain of the men that she meets in the afterlife. This is also a great study of her, which is always when one of the characters is amnesiac. Kaleche is sporty, trying her best on a one on one game with Mikey. She’s also desirable, at least in Mikey’s eyes. She also dresses in what us Westerners call summer casual which causes the ire of at least one female resident. These encounters comment on social mores that isn’t specific to Kenya, that event the afterlife can’t stop people from slut shaming each other. There’s also a sadness here, that such a strong willed woman has a short life, that she could have influenced others by showing them a different kind of woman.

Mikey eventually leaves Kati Kati without a trace halfway through the movie. His disappearance affects Kaleche, this event making her add more questions to a list she probably already has. Which leads to the questions that some people watching this might have, adding to a list that began stacking since that cool opening scene. Why does it take souls years to get to Kati Kati? Why can they feel pain in the afterlife, or at least, the physical version of it? If they’re dead, why do they need to eat or sleep? And yes, watching someone leave another’s presence can make others sad, but why aren’t they happy for Mikey? Isn’t leaving Kati Kati the goal here, even if some of them don’t know how? I’m fine with these decisions even though there’s something slightly arbitrary about them.

And for a movie with a relatively short running time, Kati Kati has its share of filler scenes. Some of those scenes are just the characters hanging out, which, understandably, is what souls would do in the afterlife, even in its limbo stages. There are even some party scenes, like one after Mikey moved on from the place. One of the souls explain to Kaleche that Thoma organizes not just the parties but the other activities that they do here. He tries not to be conspicuous even though he’s noticeably sulking in a party that he organizes himself. There’s probably a double meaning within these scenes. Ones that Thoma designed for others to forget why they’re there even if that won’t stop the gnawing feelings and questions that some of them have.

The movies in this Africa Now retrospective, in one way or another, touch on a relatively recent even that shook Kenya. While Supa Modo brings up that topic subtly, Kati Kati does it as well as it can. Thoma tells Kaleche to avoid King (Peter King Mwania), which is something she eventually disobeys. When she finally talks to King, he tells him that he died. Of course, he’s telling his version of his story. King spells that he died during Kenya’s 2007 post election violence for maybe one of two reasons. One – that Kaleche might have been a child when it happened. Two – the script does it for the Western audiences who might have forgotten about the event. The second reason seems truer and it’s the kind of wink that can slightly take audiences off of a movie.

Any critic can look for holes in a movie about the afterlife, but despite those holes, director Mbithi Masya executes many of his concepts well. It also gives Kaleche and its audiences enough answers, tying enough of its narrative strings. Masya even pulls off the trope about the connections between strangers, doing it better than more experienced writers. His lead actors are also an immense hep for making that ending work. His directorial debut also won a lot of main and technical praise at the Kalasha Awards, the Kenyan version of the Oscars. He even incorporates those technical aspects within the story, its cool colors adding to the contradictory yet complementary tone of relaxed tension. Some scenes alone make me want to see more of what he and Kenyan cinema has to offer.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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