Lights, camera, action: Swahili telenovela world
If you have watched the television series named Selina, Saida, Nira, or Nuru, you have invariably interacted with Reuben Odanga’s genius.
The 40-year-old acting enthusiast is a renowned television series writer and director with over 15 years of filmmaking experience under his belt. He has directed numerous television shows, with his latest film offering Nafsi being a runaway cinema hit in November and December 2021.
Reuben speaks, breathes and lives for filmmaking. It is, therefore, little surprise to learn that he is the founder of Multan Productions, a film powerhouse that he launched in 2009 with the sole aim of making great and authentic Kenyan shows.
The humble filmmaker shares that acting is in his blood.
How it began
“I come from a family of great actors and actresses. Growing up, my siblings acted in Christmas plays. I would be inducted into the hall of acting, and proceed to win a Best Actor award in the drama festivals while I was in high school.
I had won numerous acting and drama awards while in primary school as well,” the Likoni-born director enthuses.
Reuben shares how he was weaned on drama while in primary school at St Peter’s Mumias, and in high school at Kakamega Boys. He credits Oliver Minishi, the then Kakamega Boys principal, with nurturing and growing the love of drama and acting. After high school, he joined Daystar University to pursue a diploma in communication, with an elective in film.
While pursuing his diploma, he started a theatre group, which would stage plays every so often at the Little Theatre Club in Mombasa.
He wanted to pursue further studies in filmmaking, and, therefore, applied to AFDA, a creative and filmmaking school in South Africa. He got accepted but needed to raise a huge sum of money to cater for the school tuition.
So, he held a harambee, which raised some money, but not enough to actualise his dream to travel to South Africa.
He got into clinical depression after seeing his dream thwarted due to a lack of finances. He would use the money to buy film equipment, and moved to Nairobi, ready to try his teeth on the film industry.
He used the equipment for wedding photography and shot music videos for River Road recording artistes. He then joined his friend’s film company, Sisimka, as a production set runner, driver, or any other work that the film crew needed.
In 2010, he joined Zenith Media, where they shot two short films that Reuben had scripted. The first one was a 10-minute short called Shh, which was based on the 2007/2008 post-election violence, while the second was called Saida. They would submit the films for the Zanzibar International Festival, where both were lauded.
That his work could gain critical acclaim that transcended geographical boundaries was what inspired Reuben to keep making films.
“The film festival in Zanzibar was a confidence booster for me. Immediately after, I started knocking on doors of all Kenyan major film houses, pitching for funding of a television series using the short film Saida.
It became clear that I would have to shoot a pilot of the same. We shot 13 episodes using our own money. Luckily, Citizen TV picked it up, and that is how I got my first television series on the air. We would end up shooting 91 episodes of Saida,” the filmmaker recalls.
Saida went ahead to win at the 2014 Kalasha Awards. Good fortune favours the bold. And it didn’t come bolder than persistent knocking on media stations’ doors.
This bore fruit, as he would shoot and sell 60 episodes of Nira to M-Net, and 13 episodes of Nuru to Faiba. Reuben would become famously known as the Swahili telenovela director, as all his productions fit that bill.
This fame is what made M-Net headhunt him as the director and producer of Selina, where he has helmed the production of the show for more than four years. Reuben shares that they have shot more than 830 episodes.
As to how they have achieved this great feat, he explains that he onboarded a few more directors, who would bring fresh eyes and perspective on set.
The cast and crew would also be split into two fully functioning but separate units, in order to cover more scenes, as well as avoid creative fatigue.
The team members have leave days as well as bonding sessions outside work, to ensure that they have a synergy long before they get in front or behind the camera.
And what does unwinding look like for him? Reuben explains that unplugging from watching films comes first on his to-rest list. Watching television is not a restful exercise for some filmmakers, as their minds would still be working, even as they follow the show.
He explains how he will be looking at things like the lighting and the different camera angles while watching a film, instead of enjoying it.
He, therefore, spends time in the countryside or in the city with his family instead. He also travels a lot.
On weekends, he loves going for walks in Karura Forest. Rest gives him the right headspace to be productive; so does hiring the right people. Reuben reiterates the importance of hiring a fitting cast and crew, as this means one can delegate without worry.
“I am a firm believer in systems. Auditions for talent for Selina and Nafsi, for instance, were so rigorous that they took several days. For the crew, I started off with people who had shown exemplary work during my previous productions.
I am also big on mentoring crew members. I have set runners who have risen through the ranks by dint of sweat and hard work, and are now production managers and assistant directors. For me, attitude, availability and the willingness to learn are at the heart of all my productions.
This ensures that the quality of the films I make is not compromised, whether I am onset or out ill,” Reuben elaborates.
How it is going
He adds that teamwork is what makes his productions a success, as the camaraderie tempered with professionalism helps create good work. As to how the Covid-19 pandemic affected his craft, he says that he was able to script more telenovelas, drama series and feature films as production work was halted due to the health crisis.
He has numerous scripts just waiting to be shot into pilots, dramas or even full-blown TV series and feature films.
One film borne out of that period is Nafsi, a tale of surrogacy that he scripted and directed. Nafsi stars Mumbi Maina, Alfred Munyua, Kate Karanja and Silayio among others. It had a successful run in cinemas in both Mombasa and Nairobi in late 2021, with fans and critics being wowed by the story.
Where does he get such emotive stories? Everywhere.
“Stories are everywhere. They are in lived experiences, friends’ stories, on the Internet, in the newspapers, everywhere. You just have to be keen enough to know where to look and tap into them.
Once you get the story, the nitty-gritty of how to knit it into a series, feature film or short film is a craft that one can learn from school or through apprenticeship. The crafting of the story is what is unique, and the tool that a scriptwriter or director can leverage to create a signature style,” expounds Reuben.
He likens filmmaking to planting a tree, where the rewards are seen many years in the future. The film enthusiast further explains his longevity as being a by-product of grit and hard work.
He is always trying to do better than his last job and plans to keep on planting the seeds of good filmmaking one feature film or television series at a time.