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Some things you don’t run away from. Like when a teenage girl stops you in the street to solicit sex at a small fee of, say, fifty Kenyan shillings. In this economy, that can barely get you a small packet of unga. Heartbreaking. Such things can change your life. Just ask Denis Maina, the filmmaker whose eye-opening documentary The Flesh Business is coming to Showmax this November.
Two years ago while on he was on holiday in Mombasa, a young girl, Tina, walked up to Denis and offered her body. She was only 17 and had been a sex worker since she was 13. “What could push someone to degrade their bodies like that?” To answer this question, Denis conducted his own investigation into Tina’s life. What he found out was chilling: Tina had been sexually and physically abused by family members and friends at an early age. Something had to be done and so The Flesh Business was born. This is a one-hour documentary that sheds light on the rampant prostitution in the coastal region from the perspective of the commercial sex workers themselves.
Denis believes that sex workers too, need to be humanised.
“Society tends to prejudge these women and girls without acknowledging the factors that led them to that kind of life in the first place.”
While working on The Flesh Business, Denis has uncovered some shocking revelations about the prostitution ring on the coast – there are powerful players at the top of it all. He’s been threatened, harassed and had some of his footage deleted but a man like Denis just doesn’t scare easily. We chatted to him to find out more about his creative process and his inspiration.
1. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Actually, I started out as a business student. After one year of pursuing my degree in Bachelor of Commerce (B.Com), I got bored and dropped out of business school. There was a certain push towards cameras and lights. I saw myself doing film.
2. Why is it important to tell this story especially at this moment?
Society prejudges sex workers without even knowing their stories. When you get to talk to them and get submerged into their world, you find that there are factors that contributed to them choosing this kind of life. For instance, one lady I got to interview for this documentary was sexually abused by her step-father when she was young.
3. Any achievement or attention you have received since the release of The Flesh Business?
It was nominated for Coast Film Festival in Mombasa this year and Mashariki Festival in Kigali, Rwanda that will take place next year. I also submitted it to the Kalasha International Film Festival 2017 so I am waiting to hear on that, nominations will be announced soon.
Other than the award, The Flesh Business was selected by Discop (Africa’s biggest TV content market) as one of the 24 pilots that were officially screened during the sixth edition of the event held in Johannesburg. It was an awesome experience. This was the first time I was meeting players from different broadcasters and distributors, the feedback was great. They all felt that this was a story that needed be told. That makes me happy.
4. The Flesh Business is coming to Showmax this November. What opportunities do you think Showmax offers filmmakers like you?
Showmax is a great initiative because with the changing technology, audiences are moving away from traditional viewing, me included. Our generation wants to consume content on the go and on their own terms and Showmax being a VOD platform gives people more options in terms of what they want to consume and when.
5. Other than The Flesh Business, what kind of stories do you want to tell the world?
I’m more drawn to documentaries because of the realness; you can’t make this stuff up. It has to be facts. I write drama for TV, you might have watched some of my shows – Saida, Sumu, Almasi, Nira- but my heart is in documentaries.
6. What are some of the challenges you have faced as a filmmaker working on The Flesh Business?
Putting finances together is a major challenge but I wouldn’t emphasise that as a challenge because a lot of people complain about budget. I think if we could have a structured way to showcase our work – some sort of assurance that once everything is in order from finances to the story itself, we can find platforms to air our films. Again, most filmmakers have that fear that they might not get their return on investment. I have learnt that you might not break even on the first sale but again, if we had a structure from pre-production all the way to airing, it would be something nice.
7. What do you think about documentaries in Kenya right now? Are we headed in the right direction?
Kenyans like a sense of realness about things that are happening in our society. Our traditional TV stations tend to focus on in-house documentary productions. That is limiting because there are so many stories out here. But we are happy that other platforms such as Showmax have come up, giving us an opportunity to showcase our work. If I were to depend on traditional TV stations, my documentary, The Flesh Business, would be screening in my living room with my mother and sister as my audience.
8. What more can we do differently as a country to support this industry?
We should open up more spaces where people can view such kind of work. We still have a long way to go but we will get there eventually.
9. Any life lessons you have picked up along the way?
Filmmaking is not easy, you have to be persistent and hone your craft every day. It has taken me seven years just working on set and learning from other people to actually be able to write and direct my first documentary, The Flesh Business.
10. Which filmmakers would you like to work with if given a chance?
I’m inspired by Roger Deakins’ work. I also tend to focus on films by Steven Soderbergh and Denis Villeneuve.
11. Any future projects?
I’m working on a documentary on maternal healthcare. Six of my friends have lost their wives in childbirth in the past two years. This is a story that we have to tell.
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