Slums on the Reel

An uncommon mix: take the creativity of young professionals, add their passion and love for their (and other's) land, season it with digital technology, and spray it with a dose of geniality. Here you have the recipe for the Slum Film Festival (or SFF, in its third edition this year), which is now taking place in Nairobi, Kenya, and is co-hosted by two Kenyan media groups: Hot Sun Foundation and Slum-TV.

For a fortnight, until September 9, the Kibera and Mathare slums will turn into an entertaining space under the slogan "African Slums on the Reel" -- two weeks packed with events you can choose from (the festival actually opened on Aug. 26); SFF will feature specialized workshops dedicated to young filmmakers, several shows of local artists and six days of free evening screening, shown strictly at sunset using large inflatable screens.

The festival's vision is to develop a network of partnerships with slum-based media production groups through organizing screenings and events across Africa's informal settlements, promoting and sharing slum stories, and becoming a key network for the distribution of films made by and about slum communities.

Federico Olivieri, one of the cultural managers and one of the organizers of the event, told me that they came up with the idea of the festival when they discovered that in Nairobi's biggest slums there were several young artists who were using digital filmmaking to produce short movies as a way to tell their own stories. None of them had any hope of their films being seen, let alone entering a film distribution circuit. However, they saw it as an opportunity to reverse those negative stereotypes about life in the slums that constantly affect people's perception of these communities, and their dwellers. What's better than a film to express this reality and their sentiments?

Motion-picture has a special and universal power to present new ideas; it shows and tells whatever you want to say, exactly how you want to say it. It vividly opens a window on any less known reality. The growing urban slums are nowadays the invisible side of our global cities; movies can become an effective tool for changing this tendency by making these invisible stories visible to the public at large.

Kibera and Mathare are estimated to have more than one million residents and 60% of Nairobi's population lives in informal settlements, according to UN-Habitat figures. Poverty levels continue to escalate.

My memory runs backwards to the time when I lived there: It was then, as it is today, a place of striking contrast, a painful reminder of inequalities.

In direct response to those inequalities, a program consisting of eight Millennium Development Goals was established by the UN in 2000, and ratified by the 191 member nations, setting forth the goals (among others) of halving extreme poverty rates and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015. When confronted with contradictions of such magnitude questions inevitably arise, and I am reminded that paradoxes are difficult to explain and even more difficult to accept.

It is notable that Nairobi has become a global metropolis, where a truly diverse Kenyan cultural identity is growing solidly, thanks in part to initiatives such as SFF, whose real contribution is to make these stories visible promoting talent and restoring dignity for people living in urban slums, while purporting only the facts, without rhetoric.

The slums of Africa and other parts of the world have a long way to go before they enter the consciousness of the world's stage but the young Africans are fast runners, not by chance they earned George Ayittey's definition as "a cheetah generation." Indeed they are!