Doc Stars of the Month: Boniface and Njeri Mwangi, 'Softie'
By Tom White
Premiering at Sundance, going on to open Hot Docs, and now set to air on POV October 12, Nairobi-based director Sam Soko’s Softie is both inspirational character study and unnerving cautionary tale (at least for those of us here in the West who’ve long taken our democracy for granted and may now be paying a costly price). The film follows Boniface “Softie” Mwangi, a grassroots activist-turned-politician, as he faces down his country’s entrenched corruption—paying for votes, power-brokering behind closed doors, and police blithely gunning down protestors is all just business as usual in Kenya—by doing the unthinkable: Running a clean campaign.
And by Mwangi’s side is his wife, Njeri, who likewise does the unthinkable—allows herself (and their three young children) to be out in public and in front of Soko’s lens. She proudly supports the unlikely candidate for regional office as he battles to overcome overwhelming skepticism and outright hostility with unbridled optimism and heartfelt idealism, all while knowing exactly where the nonstop threats to her husband’s life might very well lead.
Which is why Documentary is honored to feature this heroic, change-making couple—who are also the co-founders of Kenya’s artist-activist hub Pawa254—as our October Doc Stars of the Month.
DOCUMENTARY: I read that this doc developed from what was supposed to be a 20-minute manual for activists, and that you all became friends with Sam over years of him filming the family. So how important was the friendship to the process? At what point did you become aware that this was turning into a feature-length film?
BONIFACE MWANGI: That all happened very fast. The activism manual was time-bound, and we had initially planned to have it ready within a year. But as Sam documented what was going on, there was a realization that there was a deeper story than just a how-to-protest manual.
NJERI MWANGI: Our family lives a very private life. There is a public side, but family is very private. Sam had to gain our trust over time because his camera was in our private spaces. With time he became like a part of our family.
BM: Without Sam gaining our trust and developing individual friendships with every single family member, he wouldn’t have captured the authenticity that you see in the film. Our kids got to love him and they stayed true to themselves, even with a camera in their faces.
D: As an internationally acclaimed photojournalist, Boniface, what was it like being in front of someone else’s lens?
BM: It’s uncomfortable. I felt observed too much. I never really got used to having a camera around me. I am sure Sam is still mad at me because l had them switch off the camera many times, and caused them to miss some incredible moments that might have made it into the film. I didn’t want the world to see my vulnerability.
D: So were you involved behind the scenes at all?
BM: I watched the film for the first time a month before its premiere at Sundance. I was never involved nor consulted on the scenes.
NM: The only thing Sam requested was archival family footage of our wedding and our kids being born.
D: The decision to let Sam film not just Boniface but the whole family struck me as a potentially dangerous choice. So what precautions or rules were in place to ensure everyone’s safety during production?
BM: There is nothing beautiful that can be made without taking risks. There was even a feeling l would die before they had finished filming. I had received a couple of death threats that Kenya police had refused to investigate. I almost got stabbed at a protest. We took precautions, but no matter how careful you are, you will still find yourself in a dangerous situation.
We had a gun pulled on us by a motorist during my campaign. l was pissed because the crew were too scared to film that incident. During the campaign we also got a phone call about some slums houses being demolished illegally by the government. When we got there they had just been served with an eviction notice. Before we could find our way out, though, we were surrounded by people whose intention was to rob us. We had to negotiate our way out. From that day on we made a decision that we can’t go to informal settlements late in the night.
D: Does having fame or visibility afford any sort of protection at all in Kenya?
BM: I was given two pieces of advice by the activists who survived Moi’s regime, a dictator who ruled Kenya for 24 years with an iron fist. One, evil lurks in the dark, so l should make an effort not to be out at night. Political assassinations mostly happen then, and l had to really minimize night movements. And two, every time l received death threats to make them public. I made sure that if something was to happen to me, the government should be held responsible.
D: So Njeri, did you at any point question—or even regret—letting Sam’s camera into your family’s lives?
NM: Actually no. Sam Soko's presence around what we did as a family was very instrumental. He was documenting what we could and would use, showing what we did to fight and to advance human rights. He was always welcome for that main reason.
He was also the one person who saw me, like really saw me, and made me feel validated—like I too mattered, and had made real sacrifices. His making of this film was a real honor.
D: Boniface, I also read that your work documenting so much violence over the years led to PTSD. So what has allowed you to heal—or to at least cope with all of the psychological fallout? Is it you and your family’s deep religious faith?
BM: Becoming an activist was my way of dealing with PTSD. Sharing the images l took, as part of a traveling exhibition that stimulated reflection and created dialogue on peace, helped me heal. I still get flashbacks and moments that haunt me, but it’s not as bad. I am also a deeply spiritual person, and that has played a very big role in giving my life balance and meaning.
D: So Njeri, how has participating in the production, and the film’s growing international recognition, affected you personally?
NM: It has been difficult and humbling all at once. Difficult because it exposes my most vulnerable, private and precious self. Yet it has also given me a voice and platform to speak for women—for them to see themselves and count their contributions to the family. They matter just as much to the betterment of the family and the country.
It is one thing to be seen, even better to be heard, and this has afforded me both. To all the women out there, this film is for you and your families. We too matter!
D: And Boniface, has the doc helped or hindered your political career at all? Do you foresee the film having any impact on politics in Kenya—or perhaps globally?
BM: I think the film is very important. It will definitely give people a glimpse of the price activists, and idealistic political candidates, pay to get change. I hope it will inspire someone, somewhere to join the struggle to make the world more equal, just and humane.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.