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Filmmaker Katja Bentrah Discusses ‘Watu Wote’ and the Crisis in Eastern Africa

Katja Bentrah is the director of the award-winning short film Watu Wote (All of us), based on a true story that has won over thirty-five film festival awards. Recently, we had the opportunity to talk with her about the film and what it took to get it made. Here’s what she had to say.

Hello and thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Could we start with you? Tell us a little about who you are and what you do?

Hello – my pleasure – even though talking about me is not my favourite. I am the director of watu wote and I am thrilled that this story is getting so much attention. Since it is a true story – the true people behind it abut also the team deserves that. My past is not all cinema and movies – I spent my youth in school theatre – I became a costume taylor and I studied acting and singing in Vienna – so my influences are not only from movies and filmmakers.

But what always touched me the most is the art of authenticity and how people can “create“ it. I love experiencing new perspectives through art. I want to experience art and films with all my senses and I try to create something, that touches people on different levels – makes them smell, feel, hear, see and taste and in the best case open up new perspectives.

Being a filmmaker has changed my life a lot and I am very happy to create worlds and tell stories which are important … working together with amazing, talented and inspiring team members and hopefully I can be part of this world for the rest of my life.

RELATED: Our full review of Katja Bentrah‘s short film Watu Wote

Your latest film is a short called Watu Wote. Could you briefly tell us what it’s about?

Watu Wote means “All of us” and is a short film about a true story that happened in December 2015. It is a very powerful story about humanity, loyalty and respect. The border area of Kenya to Somalia is considered highly dangerous. In recent years the region have been struck repeatedly by terrorist attacks. 

Since a decade the Islamist militants of Al-Shabab terrorize both, their own people in Somalia and their Christian neighbors in Kenya. Even in the heart of Africa jihadism is on the rise. On 21 December 2015, suspected Al-Shabaab militants attacked a bus in Mandera County/ Kenya. In the past similar attacks resulted in a massacre. Mostly Christians lost their lives. Those who could not quote from the Koran were executed. This time the terrorist coerced the Muslim passengers to help them identify the Christian passengers. However, the passengers opposed.

How did you become involved in the project?

We read it in the newspaper and on the BBC Website and decided that this is the story we want to tell and want people to know about. The impact was huge. It was in the days before Christmas. In our world right now – in my opinion – it is necessary to focus on a great goal or good things more or at least  as much as on the bad side. If we don‘t know where we want to be, we will never reach it. Shining a light on events where people stand up for each other, despite religious beliefs, or prejudices just because the person next to you is a human being  might give us a chance to realize, what could be possible.

These thoughts gave us the spirit to fight for the possibility to shoot this short film where it belongs in Kenya. But attached was a huge responsibility. We didn’t want to go to Kenya, “colonize” a story and tell it from a European perspective. We wanted to find out, if Kenyan filmmakers were already planning to make a movie about it and/or if they would team up with us and give all our passion and skills into this project together. Kenya has great and inspiring filmmakers and we were able to do it all together. Lightbox Africa was our amazing partner during the project.

Was telling a true story rather than a fictional one important for you?

It wasn’t planned in the beginning but when the true story happened it touched me so deeply and set such an inspiring example, that I felt I had to make it. It was an interesting but also frightening process. How much can you add to a story without making it untrue? We had to invent a few things and I really didn’t want to change what we knew was true because of dramaturgical reasons.

The issue is so volatile and I wonder, especially after watching the film, were there concerns with keeping balance with both sides?

The main idea was to not tell the story of different sides – but human beings acting human in a situation that can’t be more dangerous and difficult. When we travelled and researched in Mandera close to the Somali border, people from both religions approached us and asked us to tell the world about the community they built. For sure there are still prejudices between the religious groups but they put the community first knowing that they need each other to survive. My vision was, to open up a new perspective, show what really happened and in the end it was all about being human first and not part of one “side”. 

There are many tragic stories coming out of the region and the message you deliver is so solidifying. I felt deeply inspired by the final moments and I believe that most people around the world are just like these people and want to live as such. Any thoughts?

I believe the same thing – deep down we really want to be part of a strong community, trust each other and be kind to one another. But could I stand up for a stranger when someone is pointing the gun at my kid? I don’t know. I want to be like this and I think I give my best to be  but would I? Could I? Either way I think, we want to live in peace and freedom. Sometimes those thoughts mislead us into a thinking in categories of people – who is “us” and who belongs to “us”. I wonder when will be the time we truly understand.

What were some of the larger challenges you faced in making the film?

It was very challenging. Our camera was stolen, we didn’t have enough drinking water in the desert sometimes, one of the main actors was imprisoned because of racist reasons, the police car we rented couldn’t be there on time because in the next village there had been an attack, and also “normal” things like a not working generator.

Every challenge was big and it felt like we had every day a bigger one but somehow – with the help of so many great people – we managed to solve them all. Actually, I think one can feel the power of so many people who follow their uniting vision.

Why did you choose the short film format as the method for telling this powerful story? 

Actually, the graduation movie at the Hamburg Media School HAS to be about 20 minutes long, so it was interesting and challenging to find out how much this story we could tell in 20 minutes. One could easily make 5-7 feature films about those interesting people who were on that bus.

You have a terrific cast for Watu Wote. Were you involved in the casting? Could you give us some insight on working with these actors?

I was totally involved. We organized several castings in Nairobi and I worked with each and every person you see in that movie. Most of the people you see in the movie aren’t actors and it was the best decision to work with them, but we found some great actors. Adelyne Waimiru our lead actress was part of the big casting call. She was too young but very fascinating – but since the best makeup artists in Kenya already were on board (Suki Kibungury and Valery Mdeizi) we decided to work with her and make her look older. 

We rehearsed a lot and worked on her part. Since I am also an actress, I learned a lot about the Meisner technique and used it for the rehearsals and on set. The teacher, played by Abdiweli Rakim Faarah is not an actor but was part of the project “Fishing without Nets” so he had some set experience. He did a great job. Rehearsing with him and other non-actors was very intense. It is important to help the actors to enter the emotional area of the character but more important to help them find their way out again. Most of our cast and Extras weren’t actors but they invested a lot of themselves and their personal experiences in the movie and I am very grateful for this. It also took a lot of courage to be part of a project with this topic. A lot of the “work ” was conversations. We talked through the night and built our trust. There are people in the movie who lost family members to attacks like this – people who experienced a similar bus attack and also people who lost a family member because he joined the al Shabaab. All those Somali extras and actors wanted to tell the world, that their religion is not bad – only what extremists make out of it. Bakhad Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed also starred in the movie Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks. They also supported the project and flew in from America to help us make this happen.

The Western world seems largely out-of-touch with what’s happening in Eastern Africa, aside from the refugee crisis that briefly dominated news. I think some filmmakers are becoming sort of like journalists, exposing and educating what life is like in this part of the world. How do you see yourself in this role?

I cannot see myself as an important journalist or educator about Eastern Africa. I am only the messenger for this particular story. I am a big traveller and definitely have a huge interest and also an empathy for cultures and  people but I would never see myself as someone who really knows about the country and the culture. I can only talk about my personal experience as differentiated and questioning as possible and I definitely want to go back  – be there – make another movie – experience this very vivid and creative and controversial and spiritual and trying country again and again – and hopefully ALWAYS with such a great team and friends like the people from “Lightbox Africa” who made this movie with us.

When can audiences get a chance to view the film commercially? Are there plans for wide distribution? 

So far it is only possible at film festivals to see the film. Until the festival circuit is over and then the distribution is in the hands of the “Kurzfilmagentur” – I don’t know, how far they’ve come until now – but this is the contact, if you need information how to screen the movie.

Thank you so much for talking with us. Best of luck with Watu Wote. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

ASANTE SANA (“Thank you” in Swahili)

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