29 January 2020
Kenji Gathecha on directing Ma’Empress, Kenya’s most topical show about the female experience
Kenji Gathecha might just be the busiest director in Kenya. He’s the director of Hullabaloo Estate, Sue na Jonnie and Ma’Empress (all three streaming on Showmax), and still had time to direct The Whistle Blower (2019), a short film starring Joe Kinyua (Njoro wa Uba) that won three awards including Best Short Film at the Kalasha Awards 2019. And to think that he discovered his love for film in his last year of university as a business major in 2008.
He’s worked with many great actors in the industry – comedy legends like Makokha and award-winning actors like Catherine “Kate Actress” Kamau and Martin Githinji – but if the future would be kind to him, he’d like a chance to direct notable actress and Kalasha winner Mkamzee Mwatela (Mali, Stay).
The filmmaker, who’s currently directing Ma’Empress, a comedy-drama series that follows five women navigating through life and their everyday struggles, shares more about his experience as a director and what it means to be involved in a show as important and as topical as Ma’Empress.
Ma’Empress is a show about women, co-written by women like Gathoni and produced by a woman, Denise Kibisu. What was the most valuable thing you learned from being in such a space?
I’ve worked with these women since I was an Assistant Director on Sue na Jonnie and they have always championed for stories to be told from the female experience. When it came to Ma’Empress, I really leaned on them and the whole team of writers to bring out these stories with the right perspective.
Which episode did you most enjoy directing?
There is this episode where Zawadi (Nyokabi Macharia) is going through a tough emotional moment. We shot that scene twice and by the end, the whole crew, including me, was in tears. Having such real emotions is why I do this job.
Talking of emotional moments, Ma’Empress (other than being hilarious) is also a show that needs to be taken seriously, especially since it’s highlighting real issues affecting real women today. Were there moments where you were overwhelmed by some of these issues?
There’s this particular episode where we covered femicide. I had reservations about the episode because this is an issue that TV shows are not really talking about, so I was a bit nervous. But the reception from the audience was shocking, and it started a dialogue, which is all we try to do when covering issues like these.
What has been the most challenging thing about directing the show?
Always remembering that as much as I have a vision for the show, I will never know more about the female experience than the women on the show. The balance was sometimes tricky.
Looking back at Sue na Jonnie and how popular and loved it was, do you feel being involved in the project elevated your career as a director?
I will always be thankful to Philip Karanja, Bob Muriithi and Abel Mutua for giving me the opportunity to direct what was at the time, the biggest show in Kenya. Working on Sue na Jonnie taught me a lot of things that I use on every project I’ve done after Sue na Jonnie.
Hullabaloo Estate features three of the greatest comedians this country has ever seen – Ondiek, Makhoha and Olexander. Getting a chance to direct such a legendary cast must be incredible?
It is a dream come true; the most fascinating thing about these guys is that they’ve been in the limelight and they have millions of fans but that hasn’t gotten in the way of their work. They are some of the most disciplined and hardworking actors out there, always trying to improve the show. It is just a delight being on set with them.
Ma’Empress is the third Phil-It Productions’ show you are directing, after Sue na Jonnie and Hullabaloo Estate. What’s the story there?
I worked with Phil and Abel as an intern in 2011 and they told me they would give me a call once they start their own production company. Five years later I received the call and jumped on the opportunity. I started as an Assistant Director, soaking up as much knowledge as I could from Phil. When he felt I was ready, he started giving me scenes to direct. I wouldn’t have a career now if it wasn’t for these guys.
Any lessons you have learnt from working with them?
They are some of the best content creators in the country, when you work with them you understand why. The type of work they do, and the passion and dedication they put into this job, is immense. They always want to improve on previous successes and they are also not afraid to try new things that might be challenging.
Between Ma’Empress, Hullabaloo and Sue na Jonnie, you must have a favourite?
All of them have been really great experiences but Hullabaloo Estate is just so much fun to direct because it is not scripted. The cast will shock you with some lines or facial expressions that will have you bursting out laughing on set. I’ve ruined many takes by laughing out loud.
Have you ever been in a situation where you had to manage a difficult actor?
I generally feel like actors want to give their best performance, so you’ll find that most of the time the difficulty comes when a director has a different idea on how a scene should be. It’s the job of the director to find a way for both you and the actor to be happy.
What comes next?
Well, I’ve written a feature that is being produced in 2020 and I’m working on my own company now that does fun and engaging videos for corporates and online businesses.