Why Westgate film is being shot in South Africa

A Hollywood film about the 2013 terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall will allegedly not be shot in Kenya. This heart-wrenching story will be filmed in South Africa starring Hillary Swank. By Shirley Genga

Another story, a biopic on world famous anthropologist, Dr Richard Leakey which is to be directed by Angelina Jolie and starring her hubby, Brad Pitt, will also be shot in the Rainbow Nation.

Although Kenya was for ages the preferred location for films in Africa, Hollywood and other filmmakers have found it hard to even shoot local stories in the country and instead filmed The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) and I Dreamed of Africa (2000) in South Africa.

This is disheartening according to Kenya's foremost casting agent, Lenny Juma, who told The Nairobian that the South African government offers incentives to filmmakers "in terms of cheaper or free hotels and waivers on taxes. Also, they help to streamline permit procedures and reduce bureaucracy when it comes to getting location permits." Juma added that Kenya has lost filming locations for the story about Dan Eldon, an English-born Kenyan photojournalist who was killed in Mogadishu in 1993.

Juma has been the casting agent for films such as Oscar award winning Nowhere in Africa featuring the late Sidede Onyulo as Owuor, In a Better World, Tomb Raider, Constant Gardener and recently, Lupita Nyongo's new film, Queen of Katwe.

Juma laments that 2015 was a dry year for film as "we only had one major Japanese film that was shot in Kenya, yet the country is not only rich in location, it also has diversity when it comes to casting. There was a time Kenya was the number one film shooting destination in Africa, followed by Zimbabwe, but now, we are nowhere."

Juma hopes the tide will change with the government introducing rebate tax as an incentive.

Chris Foot, the former chair of the Kenya Film Commission, concurs with Juma that "the main reason people film in South Africa is the very attractive tax incentive that they offer" and that from a creative perspective, it is a huge pity for the Westgate story to be shot in South Africa.

"The Westgate story deserved a Kenyan script, written by a Kenyan scriptwriter, produced and directed by Kenyans, with Kenyan actors and filmed in Kenya," says Foot. He observes that, "There's plenty of work to be done marketing Kenya as the film destination of choice" even in the face of South Africa not having major advantages besides tax breaks.

Foot says that, "If you were to net out the costs of filming in Kenya versus South Africa, then we are not too dissimilar. In other areas, we compare favourably against South Africa - our crew are cheaper and more flexible (though in fairness their crew base is broader) and we trump them on topography, climate, cultural diversity, light conditions and the genuine 'Africa experience.'"

But these aside, South Africa is beating Kenya on marketing. It spends over eight hundred times more than Kenya in marketing South Africa as a filming destination - about Sh1 billion - besides the tax incentives. South Africa also offers a 30 per cent reduction in qualified film expenses for foreign productions.

"By comparison, the Kenya Film Commission has received zero development budget from the Ministry of Sports Culture and the Arts for two successive years, laments Foot, adding that, "It is ironic that as a country, we are spending more regulating film than developing and promoting film. If Kenya is to compete with South Africa, we must ensure that tax incentives (and indeed the broader incentives) become operational as soon as possible. This will be the biggest game changer for Kenya."

However, according to the CEO of the Kenyan Film Commission, Lizzie Chongoti, Kenya has not lost the Westgate film to South Africa "because as early as last Wednesday, the filmmakers were still talking to a Kenyan agency. Also, the film on Dr Leakey is still a work in progress and they have not begun shooting in South Africa yet." She stated that the Kenyan film industry is on the right track, since for the first time in Kenya, Treasury has put in place a rebate tax incentive for the Kenyan film industry.

Chongoti is upbeat that "a detailed modality on how the tax rebate will work" is on the cards, besides Kenya hosting the Kalasha International market and big Hollywood stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and the president of the Emmys.

In the meantime, as Kenya grapples with how to regain its lost glory, Cape Town is the world's newest filming hot spot. In the last five years, it has attracted not only top television series, but also films such as Chronicle, Blood Diamond, Invictus, Safe House, The Queen of Katwe and Avengers: Age of Ultron.


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