Softie opens with 1,000 liters of blood, and the carnage doesn't stop there. Kenyan filmmaker Sam Soko's bold and emotionally visceral documentary follows photojournalist and activist Boniface Mwangi, on his quest to change the corrupt political system in Kenya. It's a system that has choked the country since colonialism and continues into its near-60 years of independence. Despite the corruption and the high cost of human life, two political dynasties have clutched onto the most powerful political offices in Kenya. At the same time, the blood of Kenyans continue to pool at their feet.
Though the film opens on the cusp of the 2017 elections (government elections in Kenya happen every five years), Soko takes the time to give his audience a history lesson. Using propaganda from the British occupation, Soko explains how Kenya was divided into tribes by the British. Today, those tribes that have been pitted against one another for power and greed. More than an assessment on the political state of Kenya, Softie is a crash course on the man, who, though not yet 40, witnessed the corruption in his country first hand.
A young photojournalist during the violent aftermath of the 2007 elections which led to the country's leaders being tried in the International Criminal Court, Mwangi turned his camera lens on what was happening to his people. Men were being sliced apart by machetes, people were being dragged through the streets and beaten to death . with impunity. Fed up with the press and the government's apathy, when he had the literal evidence to back up his claims, Mwangi quit his job and took to the streets in protest.
Now, a decade later, Mwangi is still working tirelessly to expose the country's corrupt political system. Soko's Softie unpacks what it costs Mwangi to speak up and force change.
A still from Softie by Sam Soko, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Sam Soko.
Now in his 30s with three small children at home, and his wife, Njeri Mwangi, an activist in her own right, Mwangi's willingness to put his country over his family is ripping them apart. When he decides without uttering a word to Njeri that he's going to run for a seat in parliament, the audience gets an unfiltered look at Mwangi's unwavering ambition. Despite the tension between himself and Njeri, as well as the threats on their lives — Mwangi is steadfast at moving forward. Soko seeks to determine why.
Unassuming in his stance, but not his conviction — Mwangi doesn't outwardly present like a political leader. He's sweet and soften spoken with his children, and tender with his wife in the rare moments when he's emotionally present. However, his convictions and the rage that brews within him propels him forward at all costs. Instead of judging his subject, Soko captures everything that is said in Mgwani's silences. The camera lingers as he stuffs down his fears and emotions — his mind churning and changing despite the calm physical state of his body.
In contrast, as it is with most women who are forced to step in when their male partners drop the ball, it's up to Njeri to take drastic measures to ensure her safety and the safety of their offspring. She is the one with the voice of reason. She is the calming presence in her children's lives as the chaotic election cycle presses on.
Softie is a grim assessment of both the cost of revolution and modern-day manhood. Women are often told that they can't have it all when it comes to their professional and personal lives, and Softie suggests that it's the same for men.
Despite his nickname, "Softie," Mwangi is unyielding in his positions. In one of the most pivotal moments of the film, Njeri says, "I've given my children my life, but you've given your country your life." We all make sacrifices for our dreams and ambitions, but it seems with Softie that some costs are too high to pay.
Softie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2020.
Photos: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide
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