How a gritty Kenyan director brought her film to America

he UpTake: Jinna Mutune rejected the negative images of Africa in Western films, instead bringing her own vision of her native Nairobi to life in her debut film. But getting the film made and then shown in America involved a grueling entrepreneurial journey.

For decades, African stories on the big screen revolved around images of starving babies with flies buzzing around them, of war and of white do-gooders parachuting into the “Dark Continent” to find themselves and save the world.

Jinna Mutune rejected those images.

The young Kenyan film director grew up in a middle-class family in Nairobi, and she saw her country in three dimensions: sparkling high-rises popping up all over Nairobi, the commercial center of East Africa, alongside massive slums such as Kibera that never seem to begin or end. There were gangsters working those slum alleys, but there were also hard-working men and women doing the best they could to raise their families.

Mutune decided to write and direct a dramatic feature film, “Leo,” that would set the record straight, telling an African story with dignity and depicting her country as it is — a diverse nation with a rapidly growing economy and the problems that go along with it.

After a tortuous five-year journey, “Leo” filled a Studio Movie Grill theater for a one-night screening in Dallas on March 20. Though Mutune, 31, couldn’t be there to savor this small taste of success in America — she wasn’t able to obtain a U.S. visa — she is determined to find an American audience for her film. She has another screening scheduled in San Francisco on June 18 and is working on setting up dates for three locales in Massachusetts,all via Gathr, which allows indie films to crowd-source screenings in traditional theaters.

Mutune has also cut deals with several airlines — including Emirates and Kenya Airways — to offer “Leo” in flight. “Leo” reaches Africa’s growing middle class through M-Net, a South Africa-based cable TV channel, and Zuku, an East African satellite TV provider. Pioneering her own paths of distribution, Mutune hopes to cobble together a platform for her English-language movie, a sort of Nairobi-based Slumdog Millionaire, the hit indie film about an Indian boy who pulls himself out of the ghetto through luck and smarts.

Jinna Mutune

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