A Time There Was: Using documentary film to come to terms with your past

Films

This guest post was written by filmmaker Donald McWilliams.

On June 1st, Kenyans throughout the world celebrate Madaraka Day, a commemoration of that day in 1963 when Kenya won internal self-rule from Great Britain. 6 months later, Kenya achieved full independence. In recognition of Madaraka Day, the NFB is posting my recently completed A Time There Was: Stories from the Last Days of Kenya Colony.

I was born, in 1935, into the English working class – the railways, the shipyards, the mines. I am of that generation which began to break out through education. I won a scholarship to a Jesuit school. The conflict between my background and that of the elitist education was intense and I did not do well at school. But I became middle-class and to this day felt guilty for becoming so. I have a feeling I lost something true.

But the British are masters of assimilation – one of the characteristics of the Empire. As a boy, I believed the Empire was a good thing – an expression of the White Man’s Burden.  I was conscripted into the army and inveigled a posting to Kenya from 1954 to 1956. It would be an African adventure – it was the time of the Mau Mau. But I found myself face to face with apartheid in the British manner. Over a period of 18 months, my mistrust of the values of the British ruling class was in conflict with my background. Slowly I began to question what I witnessed. It came to a head one horrible day when I was involved in a a conflict with a Mau Mau gang.

After demobilisation, I emigrated to Canada and buried the past. And lived in this wonderful land. As I grew older, so surfaced the need to face what had been, to find what still remained of this young soldier, and to learn the history of Kenya Colony, of which I was still so ignorant. So I have made this film.

The struggle for independence was spearheaded by the Kenya Land Freedom Army, more famously known as the Mau Mau. Thousands of British troops suppressed the uprising. The rebels were portrayed as savages intent on destroying the civilizing influence of British settlers. But in fact, the conflict arose from long simmering resentment among Kikuyu who had lost vast tracts of fertile land to white settlers. As in all wars of liberation, brutality came from both sides — and Africans died in far greater numbers.

I have tried to be unflinching in my self-enquiry, because I believe I have valuable lessons to share. Young people are still surrounded by myths and half-truths about the rest of the world, and the wars we continue to wage. Life is not a Hollywood movie. And they who serve suffer trauma and guilt.

Despite the darkness of my tale, I present Kenya in all that beauty which caught my young soul in the 1950s. A Time There Was: Stories from the Last Days of Kenya Colony is a film essay made  from personal and archival imagery, official and personal writings, animated sequences, found lantern slides, performances of Kikuyu song and creation mythology and personal accounts from three others whose experiences intersect with his own.

Mwaria Njuma, who took the Mau Mau oath to reclaim the native birthright of Kenyans, details the on-the-ground struggle — as a freedom fighter in the forests, a prisoner in the British detention camps, and a hero forgotten by a country anxious to move on.  Lawyer Achrroo Kapila, legal defender of Jomo Kenyatta and hundreds of Mau Mau during the rebellion, describes his struggles for justice and the realities of living as an Asian minority at the time. John Nottingham, a British District Officer charged with the goals of counter-insurgency from 1952 to 1962, recounts his own transformation as his sympathies for the African cause beset him. Now a loyal Kenyan, he is married to a Kikuyu and a Nairobi publisher of African writers.

With A Time There Was, I complete a autobiographical trilogy which includes The Passerby and The Fifth Province, three films in which I have tried to get below the surface of things.