More than a decade ago, Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement to give Black women and girls in particular a platform to speak out against sexual violence and rape culture. The movement hit the mainstream and Hollywood last year and Black artists continue to create work that reflects this powerful historical moment. The #MeToo movement is meant to be a rallying call heard across the globe for women whose voices have been stamped out, silenced and ignored throughout time. This movement is supposed to shine a light on rape culture, misogyny, harassment and the dangers that women encounter on a daily basis as they go about their lives. And yet, despite its promise, #MeToo has not quite opened its doors to Black and brown women and their particular perspectives.
Ugandan filmmaker Kemiyondo Coutinho is one of those artists. She’s speaking her truth through her explosive short film Kyenvu. done waiting for permission to speak her truth.
Instead, the playwright, actress and director decided it was time to share her viewpoint through her impactful and explosive film, Kyenvu.
Winner of the Pan African Film Festival’s Grand Jury Best Short Film Award and a finalist in NBCU Short Film Festival 2018, Kyenvu is a raw and breathless account of a fearless Ugandan woman’s determination to assert herself in a world where she’s constantly being preyed upon. Coutinho stars in the film as the young woman who encounters street harassment daily. When she woman finally lets her guard down, she’s attacked in the worst possible way.
Kyenvu’s narrative has been something the Los Angeles-based director, playwright and actress has been considering for years. It just happened to come to fruition when the world was finally ready to listen and elevate stories of sexual harassment and violence against women.
“A film usually becomes less and less relevant after you’ve made it,” Coutinho told Shadow and Act just after her Oscar-qualifying win. “It saddens me that Kyenvu has only become more and more relevant.”
Just after her Oscar-qualifying win, at the Pan African Film Festival, Shadow and Act sat down and spoke with Coutinho about why she was compelled to make Kyenvu, feeling “othered” and why cinema is such a powerful medium.
Kyenvu’s narrative has been something the Los Angeles-based director has been considering for years. It just happened to come to fruition when the world was finally shining a spotlight on sexual harassment and violence against women. “A film usually becomes less and less relevant after you’ve made it,” Coutinho reflected. “It saddens me that Kyenvu has only become more and more relevant.
The continued relevance of the subject matter only increases the viewer’s discomfort while watching the film. But discomfort, she says, is important.
“Being an ally means getting uncomfortable. If you want to see change, we’ve got to get uncomfortable — all of us,” she says. “Feminism is not just for women. This fight is not just about women. Men need to speak up. In fact, I think that’s who really needs to speak up.”
It’s why she highlights the actions (or, non-actions) of bystanders in the film. “I wanted to tell the story that didn’t, so much focus on, ‘Oh what are women doing?’” she says.
“I told this story because for me, it’s less about acts, and it’s more around the people surrounding the protagonist. I wanted to investigate the allies — the good guys. I wanted to see what happens when you are seeing these things happen at the hands of your fellow man. An ally does not ask, ‘What were you wearing?’ I’m sorry, that’s not an ally.”
Though she currently calls the West Coast her home, Coutinho was born in Uganda. She felt that it was essential to set Kyenvu in her homeland where she feels both at home and othered because of her accent and her appearance.
“I knew that I was going to play the role, so when I wrote it I wanted to present the truth,” she explained. “If I’m in a taxi, [harassment] is going to happen. I think that you should always be open to truth in every form. For me, knowing how I sound, and knowing how I look, I know the truth of that situation. It really forced me as a writer to confront a lot of issues I deal with being the ‘other.’ You might feel Ugandan, but other people are telling that you’re not Ugandan. What does that do to you? How does that alienate you?”
She’s also exploring some universal issues within Blackness.
“I also wanted to confront issues of colorism in Uganda, so we see the taxi conductor bring it up. I didn’t want it to be a heavy message, but to show that it is something that is also dealt with back home. I think we often think that what is going on in America is singular or what’s going on in Africa is singular. I think that when we are open to telling other forms of truth, you start to see that we are actually the same. We have the same issues.”
The decision to also star in Kyenvu was something that came to Coutinho after countless rejections in the entertainment industry. The actress has done a lot of stage work but had never been cast in a film before she wrote her own part.
“I’m going to be very honest with you,” she explained. “I don’t get to act a lot. In order to act, I’ve had to write myself into films or shows or plays. For one thing as the “other,” a lot of people are not telling your story. People are not writing things the way you saw them growing up. A lot of people are not writing for your paradigm. This has always been a passion of mine. If I want to act, I have to write it.”
Getting to the truth of her character was one thing, but Coutinho’s co-lead, the man that would play her character’s love interest and ally was essential to making sure that the story came together in a way that elevated the narrative. It was not an easy task.
“We recast that role three days before we started shooting,” she revealed. “I went into a rehearsal, and I just knew that the original actor wasn’t the right actor for it. This character needed a quiet strength. The film needed someone who could stand next to the woman without saying much or doing much, but have a strong presence. Michael [Wawuyo Jr.] has had to deal with a lot — his mother has sickle cell, so he’s done a lot of standing by women. I think that he brought that so beautifully to this role. You don’t have to do much, you don’t have to say much, just be there.”
Coutinho said she knew Wawuyo Jr. was the right actor for the part the moment he walked into the audition room.
“He had a very soft, kind nature, but also when he eventually did the audition, he was very assertive in a non-threatening manner, and that was important for me,” she said.
“Then, even how he interacted with me as a woman when I wanted to go and chat with him, there was no feeling of being objectified which was very important to me. If we see how his character views my character, it has nothing to do with how she looks. He mentions, ‘Oh, you like yellow.’ He never says, ‘Oh, you’re beautiful.’ I think he brought his personal experience so beautifully to the role, and I just thank God that I made that choice.”
Photo Credit: Kyenvu
Though the film is told over the course of several months with countless costumes and locations, Coutinho filmed Kyenvu in just three days. “I would say that this was the joy of shooting back home because there are fewer rules about a lot of things,” she chuckled. “You can start at whatever time you want. There are no permits needed. There are no time constraints.”
She also got a crash course in filmmaking because of the project.
“I would also say ignorance is bliss. As a director, your first film makes you so ambitious. I thought, ‘Oh I can do it. I can do it. I can do it.’ And indeed I could, but when I look back, I’m like ‘Oh that was really gutsy to try and do that in three days.’”
Still, she couldn’t have made the film she wanted outside of her home. “It was very much an African film,” she said. “It was also important to me to have a full Ugandan cast and a full Ugandan crew, and artists all from Uganda because I wanted this film to be of Uganda.”
Now that she’s gotten her feet wet as a director, the Laugh Out Loud Filmmaking Fellow is understanding the impact that her work is making.
“Last weekend Kyenvu showed in Nairobi, it showed in South Africa and it showed in London, and I was in LA driving for Lyft, and for me that is powerful,” she revealed. “I felt so blessed and grateful because on the stage, I cannot do that. The film has its life beyond me, and it’s bigger than me, and it’s more important than me, and it can do its work without me being there.”
It frees her up to continue creating.
“I’m actually working on a number of scripts,” she said. “One is a satire horror about colonization, which I think is very important as Africans so that we understand the remnants of colonization and how they still are affecting us today. It is a comedy, believe it or not. Then I’m developing a feature about a trans-man in Uganda. It’s a biopic.”
The Forbes Africa 30 Under 30 recipient wants to continue to use her platform and her art to deal with the issues that are plaguing women of color in particular.
“All of my life I’ve been watching how people are misunderstood, and watching how certain messages are replayed over and over,” she said. “What happens is people interpret these messages as real and then it becomes true. I want to disrupt that pattern. Whether it’s my stage work, or my scripts or my film, I want people to say that I disrupt the narrative. I want to disrupt the African narrative, the female narrative, and the Black narrative.”
Find out where you can see Kyenvu here.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. 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 tweet her @wordwitharamide.