Ask Westerners what their images of Kenya are, and many will describe a land of sweeping savannas, herds of big game, noble hunters and elegant colonial farms. Most have never been to Kenya, but they can still picture it, as seen through the lenses of countless filmmakers.
Lizzie Chongoti, head of the Kenya Film Commission, said big-budget Hollywood films like "Out of Africa" inspire people not only to dream of Kenya, but to visit it.
“When 'Out of Africa' was shot in 1985, a year or two later the number of tourists actually doubled, and it’s because people wanted to come and see this beautiful country that the film had been shot in,” she said. “Countries are still capitalizing on films that were shot in their home countries many, many years ago.”
Hosting a major film production brings other benefits to a country as well, she said, from money spent on hotels and food, to equipment rental and jobs for local actors.
Now all the buzz is around a new film about another Kenyan cultural icon, paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, to be directed by Angelina Jolie. But like many films about Kenya, there is no guarantee that this film will actually be shot in Kenya.
Kenyan producer Jenny Pont has been working with international film crews since the 1980s. She said all the best films about Kenya have been shot in the country, including "The Constant Gardener" and "In a Better World." Until recently, she added, it was a popular location to make movies.
“We have the equipment, we have great crews, we have wonderful actors, and of course our locations are incomparable,” Pont said. “We had maybe three feature films a year.”
But the last shooting of an international feature film on Kenyan soil was in 2011. It has become increasingly difficult to attract big productions, Pont said, mainly because South Africa offers more tempting financial incentives. One example: The South African government will pick up 25 percent of the production cost.
The Kenya Film Commission is trying to put together an incentive package of its own that could be as generous as South Africa’s, Pont said, although the government has yet to approve such a package.
Chongoti said there are a number of steps Kenyan authorities can take to make an international film crew’s job easier, including issuing special visas and streamlined permits. But a film’s location, she admitted, is ultimately dictated by money.
“At the end of the day it’s a business decision, so it’s really up to us to put enough reasons on the table as to why it would be advantageous to have it in Kenya,” she said.
As for Jolie’s latest film, Pont is not optimistic.
“I know she’s been here and I know she loves this country, but for that much publicity to be out and nobody has been approached in this country, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be made in South Africa, which is a great shame,” she said.
Until Kenya is willing to invest more in its film industry, Pont said, foreign producers will continue to find their iconic Kenyan landscapes elsewhere.