Robbie Odongo, an award-winning self-taught film producer, director, and scriptwriter, started his film career by taking on acting roles in set book plays after high school, honing his skills over the years.
His latest and most renowned film, “Bangarang,” is inspired by real-life events. It depicts the brutal murder of baby Samantha Pendo and other victims of police brutality during the unrest following the 2017 election. Running for one hour and 28 minutes, the film has gained Robin popularity in Kenya and across Africa, earning nominations for over 40 awards.
Tell us about yourself…
I was born and brought up in Bondo district. My late father was an assistant chief at a village in Yimbo where I was raised. The first time I left my rural home was after completing high school when I moved in with my brother who lived in Ahero, Kisumu County.
Did you study film production in college or university?
I have always loved performing arts from way back in 2003 when I was in Form Four. After my Kenya Certificate of Secondary School Education, however, my parents were unable to send me to college due to financial constraints. After their death, I moved in with my elder brother who lived in Kisumu. It is while I was there that I joined a theatre group known as Magnet and by then, our major focus was acting set book plays. From then, I have continued to perfect my skills.
Although I never had a chance to attend any college or university to learn about film production, I am a proud graduate of YouTube. Apart from the online tutorials, I have also been keenly listening to critics whenever I release any new film and that helps me improve.
So, without a background in film studies, how did you end up in this industry?
It took me a while to realise that I am good at script writing, and my Facebook page was my playground at the beginning. I would write long descriptive stories and my friends who read them were impressed. From the feedback, I realised I could write good scripts so I began by attending training workshops while also watching YouTube classes on film production. When I finally tried my hand by writing my first film in 2016, the reception was beyond my expectation. I was so encouraged and vowed to continue giving it my best. Here I am today!
How many films have you produced so far?
I have produced four films, all based on topics that my audience can relate to. What makes me more proud is the fact that three of them have bagged various awards. The first film was called Piny go Jawajawa, a Dholuo film on the impact of alcoholism. The second was titled Serade, a movie on how poverty pushed two brothers to auction their sister’s property. Jonarobi was my third movie, which was a story on people who are deep in poverty but falsely present themselves as if they are living a comfortable life in the various towns in Kenya.
What inspired you to create Bangarang?
Bangarang is Jamaican word meaning chaos or lack of peace. The movie is inspired by a couple of occurrences during the 2007,2013 and 2017 general elections. The movie features a boda boda rider who, after staying jobless for over 10 years after graduating with a degree in automotive engineering, takes to the streets of Kisumu to protest the results of the presidential election.
One fateful day, as he runs for dear life from anti-riot police, he finds himself inside Dan’s house. The police trace him and beat up everyone in the house, including Dan’s six-month-old child, Baby Joy.
What was your goal in producing the movie, and do you think you achieved it?
My main agenda was to create awareness on the impact of violence especially after the elections. We always lose property, lives, jobs…you name it, but people never seem to learn. I am however glad that those who have watched the film always relate to it, and they even mention similar occurrences in their locations. That said, I think that the movie is yet to receive the full attention of my target audience. I am hoping that our youths, residents from the informal settlements and slums, as well as politicians get a chance to watch the story to get a clear understanding of what happens during post-election violence and how the innocent bear the greatest brunt.
Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
One of my biggest successes is getting recognition not only in Africa but across the globe. After the release of Bangarang, I had an opportunity to travel to Russia and other countries. I have also been nominated for the Africa Film Festival set to be hosted in Atlanta, United States of America next month.
Additionally, the movie has won an award for Best African Feature Film in Durban, South Africa, and Best East African Film in Uganda. In Kenya, it has won several awards including Best Film on Human Rights Education at the Lake International Pan-African Film Festival (LIPAFF), Best Director and Feature at the Coat Film Festival and Best Feature at the Swahili Festival, among others.
Bangarang also featured on international platforms including Netflix, Amazon, VIU (a South African platform) and My Africa Movies, a Kenyan platform that can be accessed worldwide. Locally, my films have been featured on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), Mnet movies Africa and several local TV stations.
What challenges have you faced in your journey?
My main challenge is insufficient funds whenever I am producing a new movie. We are also yet to reach the majority of our target audience. I’d like to encourage Kenyans to watch locally produced movies so that filmmakers like us can grow.