The NEST Collective is a multidisciplinary collective that has operated in Kenya since 2012, with a significant amount of their work taking place in the cinematic sphere. The group are based in Nairobi and their pieces are inextricably linked with the location, as inspiration, as subject, and more. In their artist statement, NEST articulated that they aim to dissect the aforementioned city through a lens focusing on its relationship with modernity; as a complex sociopolitical sphere. This is palpable in their films, from their earlier shorts on fashion (Urban Hunter, Dinka Translation), to their more recent efforts with Stories of Our Lives, The Old Order of Things, and To Catch a Dream.
When I saw the former of these films – Stories of Our Lives – at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, I gave it the highest rating we have on the site. The collective’s ability to paint a portrait of pain, hope, and fear alongside the vicissitudes of being queer in a country that has outlawed such a way of life is unique. Above everything, they paint a far more intricate and complex picture of their country than the external lenses that have portrayed it in the past and are paving the way in defining their own cinematic representation. The NEST Collective are actively dismantling the perceptions of Nairobi, of Kenya, and producing some of the most affecting and poignant cinema of the 21st century. They are one of the most important artistic collectives operating at the moment, and their work is an increasingly solid testament to this. I caught up with the group in April to discuss their career and how they perceive their current momentum and success.
Note: NEST answer their questions as a collective and this interview should be read as such.
The NEST has been around since 2012 – was there anything in particular that prompted you to form the collective?
We had noticed a lack of room for the kind of artistic exploration we wanted to embark on – risky work with new artists for new audiences, and work that wanted to be able to say difficult things and start and continue necessary conversations.
The Collective started its involvement in film in 2013 with Dinka Translation and Urban Hunter. What was it like to make those films, and do you feel they still stand alongside the more recent work from the group?
Yes, they do. Making films together has been a wonderful journey of learning how to do new things, and doing so as a group. Everything we have made together explores different ideas for different reasons, but the collaborative process is our biggest memory from their making. We made the Chico Leco Presents collection of 8 short films as the NEST, with a group of artists (models, designers, make up artists, musicians, videographers etc) in one very hectic, incredibly fun day.
Further to that, we’re excited by the infinite ways it is possible for us as Africans to see and tell African stories – especially ways that subvert the ideas many have of who we are, what we do and where we come from.
I guess Stories of Our Lives is the biggest breakthrough for NEST. Did you ever expect the film to receive such a wide international response, and how difficult was it to fund a film about homosexuality within Kenya?
We were really humbled by the incredible response to Stories Of Our Lives. It was a very big deal for us to have our very first feature film premiere at TIFF and go to other festivals. It was also really amazing to join many interesting, relevant conversations about so many things – love, equality for LGBTI people everywhere, African human rights debates, and the aesthetics of film.
I was curious about the story collecting process. Obviously the film is based on true stories, but from the looks of it, you collected hundreds of these stories? What ended up drawing you to the final few you decide to focus on?
Stories Our Lives began as a documentary research projects to document and archive the loves and lives of Kenyan queer people. We travelled to 9 towns in Kenya and collected about 250 anonymous audio interviews. The ones that ended up in the film just struck us in a deeply visual way.
Was it necessary to release the film as a work of fiction to protect the subjects that you wanted to depict – or was it more complex than that? Do any of the segments focus on a handful of different stories you collected?
It was in the collective interest to fictionalise our approach to telling them, both to keep our promise of anonymity to the people we spoke to, and give us a little narrative room. The conversations around what genre this film have been interesting. For us it cuts across many spaces, but we can understand why people can see it as many different things.
The response to the film internationally has been overwhelmingly positive, however, it’s clear that there was a lot of opposition within Kenya – was that matched by support within the country or was getting the film made and released a consistently difficult task?
Most of our challenges came after the film was submitted for rating. The restriction by the Kenya Film and Classification Board bans us from any screening, sales or distribution within our borders. However, this negative response was definitely matched by a lot of support within the country. From the moment the news about the film’s release became public we received so many messages of support and many of curiosity – Kenyans just want to be able to see the film.
I thought one of the most valuable parts about this film, from an observational sense, was that the stories it tells are not from the distant part being reflected upon, they’re from the present. Do you feel that political cinema in Kenya has a need to be focusing on the present to create change?
We’d be the last people to dictate what Kenyan cinema in any genre needs to be doing, or even need Kenyan film to be valid only by creating some kind of change. Sometimes films just make people laugh or long for love, and that is as important to the human experience globally as making controversial political statements. That said, lessons from the past and imaginations from the future can be just as powerful as present narratives to pass strong political messages.
How do you feel overall about Stories of Our Lives – does NEST plan to make more films in the vein of it, specifically focusing on homosexuality on Kenya or will the group be tackling other issues?
We’re currently working on a book from the Stories Of Our Lives project, so that the rest of the stories can be heard. We’ve learned a lot from the journeys this film has taken us on so far. We’re interested in exploring the same overall theme of otherness through film, but through many different lenses.
I was curious about Chico Leco – how does it differ from your work with Stories of Our Lives?
In many ways it doesn’t. Chico Leco is and continues to be a fashion industry intervention using different projects to address gaps we have seen in the Kenyan sector, which are mirrored in many places on the Continent. We realised that the way things had always been done was limiting to the growth of this essential part of the creative economy in many ways, and every project seeks to ask “why don’t we try something new?” Stories Of Our Lives was pretty similar, to tell stories that don’t usually get heard – a lot of effort is put into erasing or misrepresenting Kenya’s queer community for all manner of reasons, and we wanted this collection of love stories to counter that.
To Catch A Dream – did you feel there was a major difference in how you approached a film about fashion to other topics in the past, or does the NEST collective have a specific style of approaching their film?
No – there wasn’t any major difference. We try to be as present to each project as we can. Also, we like our sets to have a fun, collaborative atmosphere. For us, from one film to another, that doesn’t change.
Is there anything you’d like to say about To Catch A Dream? The film is about the relationship between Kenya and the fashion industry?
To Catch A Dream was an experimental short film, looking to create and share fashion experiences, products and knowledge. We wanted Kenyan designers to reach out to the whimsical and the fantastic, to create art that would explore the fairies and dream intermediaries as described in the story.
For us, the film references our rich culture of storytelling, and the tradition of employing fantasy to suggest solutions for a troubled reality. While avoiding the romanticization or exotification of Africa as pristine or even righteous, we wanted to evoke a certain yearning for a more active and respectful use of our African identities in the construction of our zeitgeist.
I guess to wrap things up: what’s next for the NEST Collective? Are there particular topics or issues that you’re planning on covering or is it unknown at this point?
We’re currently focusing all of our energies on finishing the book and getting it published. There are a few art projects we are also working on, around typography and music. We’re also scripting some new stuff secretly!