Soul Survivors: "Kati Kati"

in 41st Toronto International Film Festival

by Michael Sicinski

Supposing you wake up in a strange place, some sort of island vacation spot. No one seems to be around. You have no clue how you got there, but at the same time you are not sure exactly where else you are supposed to be. As you explore the rustic cabins that form this mysterious tropical getaway, you see an events schedule on the wall, promising game time, swimming, and “group talk” sessions. Is this rehab? A self-help retreat? You don’t recall signing up for this.

This is the predicament that befalls Kaleche (Nyokab iGethaiga) at the start of Mbithi Masya’s Kati Kati. Afterwaking up in a hospital gown exploring the grounds, Kaleche eventually finds the other residents of the Kati Kati ‘resort.’ But the explanation she receives sends her running in the opposite direction. She is informed that she is dead. Thoma (Elsaphan Njora), the self-appointed Mr. Roarke of this Fantasy Island of Lost Souls, has seen this before, and so no one is surprised when, upon reaching the edge of the beach, Kaleche is rebuffed by an invisible barrier, bouncing off the force field like a character in a Tex Avery cartoon.

So begins a cinematic parable on the ineluctable tug of unfinished business. Kaleche, we find, is not the only onewho must put certain earthly matters to restin order to move on. Part of the beauty and fascination of Kati Kati comes from its simultaneous familiarity and newness, the sense that Masya is discovering new tools with which to convey a very fundamental human tale. While the island is essentially a Purgatory, we do not immediately know why its occupants are there, and to what extent the crises that bind them to the world of the living are individual or social.

While there are many African nations with rich cinematic traditions, Kenya is not one of them. So although Masya draws on certain identifiable modes of address – the political / mythological cinemas of Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambety, the melodramatic immediacy of contemporary Nigerian popular film, and even the lyrical / experimental styles of Abderrahmane Sissako and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun – Kati Kati moves at its own unique pace, forging highly individuated characters, each with their own specific struggles in the face of poverty, cowardice, and ignorance. From a young man who strove to better himself but was overcome by failure, to a preacher who let his congregation down at a pivotal moment of need, Kati Kati does not discriminate between frailties large and small. Rather, the process of staring down one’s own demons is universal and absolute. Masya’s film offers a modicum of hope that, even after the end, we might not have to face them alone.

Michael Sicinski