On the occasion of the Human Rights Day on December 10, the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin, together with the Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt Foundation, will show the winning film of the Willy Brandt Documentary Award for Freedom and Human Rights for 72 hours online for free.
Photographer and activist Boniface “Softie” Mwangi prioritizes his family, country, and God, but not in that order. Determined to see an end to political corruption and the British imposed colonial-era tribalism, Softie has placed duty to country above all else. From the moment Boniface decides to run for office in a regional Kenyan election, he responds to each challenge with optimism. However, running a clean campaign against corrupt opponents is becoming increasingly dangerous for him and his family.
Interview with Sam Soko, Njeri Mwange & Peter Brandt
Njeri, you allowed Sam to dive into your daily live. How did you manage to have the camera around you during all these critical situations?
Njeri: When Sam started filming, it was all about my husband. The children and I just happened to be within the space of the story that he was trying to tell but he was not telling our story. Over the years I got used to seeing him and the cameras around, and the kids did as well. By the time the camera turned on us he was a very good friend.
For me keeping a private life was very important because my husband is a very public figure. It made it an easy transition when the cameras turned to us and started telling our story, I thought it is an important story as well because women like Nadia Murad said we are not seen as if we are bringing anything, but our stories count, what we do matter. So, when this became about me I said “Okay maybe we can do this”. I still was not sure, but he told the story anyway.
The whole time I had to remind myself why it was so important that this story is being told.
Sam, you made a very powerful film not one just about one hero but about a family of heroes, how did you meet Boniface and his family? When did you decide to start making a film about him?
Sam: It has been a seven-year journey to get here. We started this in 2013 and at the time we were just shooting a short video with Boniface in order to inspire people. Meeting Boniface and engaging with him, and later meeting Njeri and the family it evolved into this conversation that speaks to what the roles of the individual and the family are in democracy. Often we have, like you’re saying the hero, but often we don’t realize how much pressure the society puts on that hero and never sees beyond that - those people behind them and everything they do. The people who are affected by the decisions they make. In this case it was a privilege to meet Njeri and the family. Every small decision that Boniface makes impacts their life immediately. I think that a turning point even at our relationship with the filming was when he announced that he is running for the office. For me it was about highlighting not only the outcome of everything that takes place but also to celebrate the people that you never see, like the children.
Sam, depending on one’s perspective, your film could be a romantic film, a drama or even a political thriller. What kind of film did you have in mind when you were in the editing room?
Sam: The film is a love story, it is a love story of a country, a love story of a family. Yes, it just questions what comes first, the country or the family, and that is a complex question and all of us have those questions in the stuff that we do so. It is a love story for me. It is a love story with a taste of thriller.
Njeri, being an activist and having a family must be tough from time to times, is it compatible?
Njeri:I think there is a compatibility because the reason why we started this was because we wanted a better life for our children. We want our children to grow up in a free country and to be able to enjoy what they can get: a good education. medical care and all these great things in life, a life of dignity. That is not something that we can provide just because we are parents, it is the government, a system that is capable providing us that. It is not just our family who will benefit from it but the whole nation. The love of family is what makes you to take the next step saying that we need to fix the system. Once the system is fixed then my dream is realized. So, they do exist, and they should exist together. I think they go hand in hand, and they should not be separated.
Sam, do you think your covering of Boniface made him stronger believing that he could engage not just as an activist but also more as an actual political player? What do you think about the responsibility that the filmmaker has, especially during documentary film making, in giving someone maybe imaginary power or also giving them real power?
Sam: In the particular case of Boniface I would say no, because just using Njeri’s words Boniface has his own conversation and he makes his own decisions. After he has already decided the rest of us learn about that decision.
But I do agree with you that especially in documentary film making your presence does have an influence. In many cases I think it is ignorant to think that it does not. We do not have a rich history in documentary films in Kenya. Many people do not trust and welcome you to tell their stories easily. A lot of the stories that we tell are short, they are like pieces of news. One of the most beautiful things about storytelling is the various ways how stories can be told. That is something we do not take for granted, because we still need to learn more. There is so many amazing stories to be told in Kenya. But I think it is important that those stories are also told by us because for a long time they have been told by someone else. People come elsewhere to tell our story on our behalf, and they think that they are doing it for our good. A Kenyan family allowed me to enter their home to tell their story and here I am in Berlin sharing the same story. We need more of that.
Peter, the prize was awarded by the international jury of the Willy Brandt Documentary Film Prize for Freedom and Human Rights. The film is about a journalist and activist, how did you perceive the film?
The documentary film award commemorates Willi Brandt's services as German Chancellor and as an international statesman. It recognizes filmmakers whose work exemplifies Willy Brandt's principles. All his life, Willy Brandt campaigned for peace and freedom, for social justice in Germany and worldwide, for the promotion of democracy and for reconciliation and understanding between people.
Softie may be a nickname for Njeri's husband, but it is her strength as an activist, as a mother, and as a partner that gives the film that special something.
Only an outstanding director can bring all this to the screen. Sam Soko not only companioned an activist over seven years, but he also created an extraordinary work about people caught between personal convictions, values and the threats to their families and lives. Up to the last shot, the film illustrates the importance of the decision to stand up for democracy.
The world needs people who fight for freedom and justice. Some even manage to change the world. Today human rights and democracy are facing major challenges. Even in the USA and in an increasing number of European countries, authoritarian governments and populist right-wing parties are calling into question democratic values and rules. Look into your heart and ask yourself: How can I make a difference?
The film Softie and its protagonists are shining examples of the power of people to do good. They are a reminder to all of us not to take democracy for granted, but, as Willy Brandt said, "to dare more democracy".
Sam, Njeri, the film has won awards worldwide. Now also here in Berlin with the Willy Brandt Documentary Film Prize for Freedom and Human Rights. Does it strengthen you in your work?
Sam: Yes, this award encourages us to go on and keep telling stories. I am just a witness to an incredible love story for my country, a story in their lives, it is amazing to see the film being understood by Germans. This is such a critical moment in time, that we need to be boulder and stronger and continue to be louder in articulating conversations and narratives in the protection of democracy, because it is not as strong as we think it is, and it can easily disappear while we are not watching. We were strengthened in this by this award.
Njeri: A lot has been said in that film but what I still wanted to add is that this is not just my story. It is a story of every activist that you have heard of and seen, and some of their lives are so much more difficult, and some have lost their lives, and I’m lucky that mine is still intact. So, my call is to ask that we will be active citizens, that we support causes that we believe in in every way and that we might stand up for what is right. There is a lot of injustice in this world, and some of us are just watching it happen, and we should not because it should not be happening. Nothing is little, do the little that you can. Those little things together make all the difference and that is that makes change. And the things that have been achieved as freedoms that you enjoy there are people that lost their lives for those, so guard them and protect them.