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The film and TV industry in Kenya has always been run by women. Take Appie Matere for instance, who, in 2013, produced 71 Africa Magic Original Films in just six months. In the same year, she produced KONA, one of the biggest local TV shows to ever grace our screens, featuring the indomitable Nini Wacera in an equally indomitable role. Fast-forward to 2017, and she does the unthinkable by finding humour in the most unlikely place – inside the confines of a prison in the sitcom Jela 5-Star.
And to think that she just landed on filmmaking by chance. “I actually wanted to be a nurse at first. While working at a company called Coverkraft, I was loaned to Baraka Films to work as a PA to filmmaker Njeri Karago because business wasn’t doing so well at the time. Going into Baraka Films, I never looked back.”
As the co-founder, CEO and executive producer at Zamaradi Productions – one of the biggest and most successful production houses in Kenya – Matere says Zamaradi are driven by their commitment to tell the African story. “We really want to be true to ourselves as Kenyans. There are so many stories that haven’t been told yet, we haven’t even tried.”
Read on to find out what she had to say about her career in filmmaking, running a production house like Zamaradi, and making some of the biggest shows in Kenya.
What drove you to form your own production company?
Starting off as a PA in a production house, I’ve literally risen through the ranks. When I started producing films, I got to a place where I felt really stagnant. I started getting bored and I needed a challenge. The next thing was to form my own company. Having worked on some M-Net productions, I realised it was not so hard for me to find work and lucky enough my first project was an M-Net production.
Zamaradi Productions has produced a number of hit TV shows like KONA, Nyumba 10, Trade Centre and currently Jela 5-Star. What’s your secret ingredient as a production house?
I’ve been able to put together a really good team. For instance, when somebody comes up with a concept, there’s a team that sits down and goes through it, and it’s never a one-person decision, but a team one. And within this team, everybody has their strengths – for instance as an executive producer, I’m good at marketing, sales and pitching.
What would you say has been Zamaradi’s biggest challenge?
As you know, getting finances to fund film or TV projects in Kenya is hard. Sometimes we put our own money down and also negotiate with broadcasters for a 50% advance to finance production. Another challenge is the broadcast rates for commissioned or licensing projects, which we try to overcome by having as many productions out there as possible. Equipment is also quite expensive and hard to come by which is again tied to financing. The talent and the stories are there but there are just some elements that need to be put into place to overcome the challenges, and the industry will grow to another level.
As a female producer in Kenya, do you think there are enough spaces for women to evolve in this industry?
Women have been running this industry for the longest time, but there is space for more female producers to come up. And not only as producers, we also need more women in technical and in directing because there’s definitely space for them.
How did the idea of Jela 5-Star come about?
We were pitching a jail drama show to M-Net (Maisha Magic East) when the team mentioned that they were looking for comedy and they asked if we could turn the show into one. At first, we didn’t think it was possible to make a funny show in jail. But then we accepted the challenge and started to iron it out. It took us two weeks to get back to M-Net, and when we pitched the new concept, it was an instant hit… they liked it.
As an executive producer, to what extent are you involved in the production and creative process of Jela 5-Star?
Initially, I was involved in the creative process when we were coming up with a concept but now I’m involved in the editing process, which means the quality control of the whole show.
Do you have a favourite character on Jela 5-Star?
I can’t have any favourite character because every character brings something different to the show; all of them are funny in their own way.
As a top woman in the industry, what can you say about the portrayal of the prison warden Melba as a strong woman in a male-dominated environment? Was this a conscious decision?
Yes, this character was well thought out. When we did a show called Sunrise a while back where the main character was a woman chief, we realised that there is that element where women in uniform are ‘seen’ and respected. We don’t see that a lot, women being at the forefront in leadership, and so we sat down and created a woman who is a leader in a comedy setting. Not only is Melba hilarious, she also brings in the element of softness to a very hard-core show. If we put a male in charge, then it would be all testosterone and egos fighting. But looking at Melba, we see a woman who is tough on one side as the prison warden but also acts as a mother to everybody. She brings all the love and softness, and still has to deal with all these crazy people in prison. We knew it would be funny, just the perfect comedy.
Which one of your projects would you do all over again if given a chance?
That’s a tough one but I’d love to do the Africa Magic Original Films (AMOF) again. We made 71 of the AMOF movies in six months; we were shooting three movies at the same time, and then we got to a place where we were making four movies per week. It was the best project that ever happened to me and I would definitely do it all over again.
As someone who is involved in both TV and film, where do you find yourself more at ease?
I’d go for film anytime because I also started off with film. And I just love the intrigue of being out everywhere at the same time and seeing the film come together.
What is the first rule of filmmaking according to you?
Making sure that you have the right concept is very important. Secondly, you have to have the right team behind you and then you’re good to go.
Shonda Rhimes or Issa Rae, which TV producer would you like to work alongside?
Shonda Rhimes any day. If you look at the TV shows she has done, she is very bold with her genres. You can’t really pin her down and point out her strength; she’s a mixture of so many things and I love that about her. I’m also a big fan of her book The Year of Yes and I’d just love to get into her head and figure out how she comes up with these amazing concepts.
Five of your shows are currently streaming on Showmax. What opportunities do you think streaming platforms like Showmax offer in Kenya and Africa as a whole?
This is the best opportunity for us filmmakers to showcase our work because the internet has no boundaries; everyone is able to watch and download shows and movies from wherever they are. There is no other platform that showcases a variety of African content online – even in terms of volumes. You find the Nigerian ones that only show movies and exclusively Nigerian content but Showmax gives us a variety of content. It’s the best platform out there but it needs to publicise more of its African content. They need to push more local content because Kenyans want to watch their own shows.
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