Softie: Review. By Trent Neely.
This new documentary from PBS follows Boniface “Softi” Mwangi, a Kenyan photojournalist turned political activist. Who, after years of watching everyday Kenyans suffer injustices on nearly every level, due to economic instability, civil unrest, and political corruption, decides to run for a seat in the Kenyan parliament. But for Mwangi, it is not enough to simply want to do the right thing in order to be elected. He faces economic barriers. While his opponent in the race has the support of other Kenyan officials, Mwangi relies mostly on small individual donations.
There is distrust among a large portion of the citizenry of Mwangi. They seem doubtful that someone with a lack of political and economic capital like himself can even be elected, and even if he can, that he can avoid being corrupted by the dirty politics so prominent in the country. In addition, Mwangi and eventually even his family face intimidation and death threats. The film takes a look at how the current political climate of Kenya was created, what motivated Mwangi to run, the effect the campaign has on himself and his family, and asks the question of whether a political system can ever truly be changed.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is how it educates people who may not know the complexities and origins of the Kenyan political system and the corruption that is prominent in it. During the film, we see firsthand and also hear testimony on how the police force in Kenya is used as a tool to maintain control over and suppress the citizenry, harassing, beating and even murdering political dissenters. One of the most potent forces in Kenya is tribalism. The film demonstrates through testimony and archival footage that when Kenya was under English imperial rule, the English crafted biases and a pecking order of sorts for the tribes that continues to be embedded in modern Kenya, and has allowed wealthy, power-broking political dynasties to form.
One side effect of this is that a lot of political candidates we see in the film are generational candidates who are descendants of tribes exalted by the British forces years ago. These candidates sometimes “buy” votes by giving small amounts of money to the impoverished citizenry while riding in luxury vehicles during campaign events. According to the testimony of Mwangi and others, there is a strong sentiment among a lot of the people that once elected, these candidates do little to stop the violence and suffering of the average citizen.
Instead, they seek to maintain power, money and control. Even when corrupt politicians are threatened with exposure or conviction, evidence seems to vanish and the cases fall apart. It is these injustices among others that motivated Mwangi to run despite his limited resources. As a result. We see that Mwangi is forced to take a grassroots approach, walking the streets and having conversations with people who are willing to engage with him. Mwangi for his part is largely undeterred by his status as an underdog, believing that what is important is that he fights for positive change in his country and to stand up for the average citizen.
With regards to the filmmaking, director Sam Soko and his crew for the most part allow the subject matter to speak for itself. For instance, there are not long protracted voice-overs about clashes with police, instead we see a cameraman in the streets with Mwangi and other protestors as they try to avoid tear gas and physical confrontation with the police. Instead of an interview with Mwangi where he is asked how the people are reacting to his campaign, the crew follows him as he campaigns and talks with citizens and hears feedback from them himself, whether it is support, skepticism, or flat-out rejection.
We even see the moment that Mwangi tells his wife Njeri that he plans to run for office, her shock plain to see. Occasionally we do hear a probing question from the crew delivered to one of the subjects but it is always in pursuit of a deeper understanding of the subjects. One such time is when they ask Njeri how the campaign has affected her and the children, especially the death threats. This relatively observational and unobtrusive style allows the audience to not only be fully engrossed in the subject and at times forget they are watching a film, but the relative lack of directorial intervention allows the subject matter to make the impact rather than the filmmaking, which gives the film a sense of authenticity.
If you are looking for a documentary that offers some insight into another nation, a story of optimism and idealism in the face of corruption and cynicism, and an honest telling of a strive for change, watch this film if possible.
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