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We all wish we could have more joy in our lives. But filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu says we already have joy, even if we don’t realize it—and if we can tap into it, we can use all our emotions to live a fulfilling life. Kahiu’s acclaimed projects include the award-winning film Rafiki, Netflix’s Look Both Ways, and the forthcoming Hulu series Washington Black. AfroBubbleGum—the genre of “fun, fierce, and frivolous” African art that Kahiu pioneered and presented at TED—proves that creating joyous art is a political and revolutionary act. “Searching for joy in a space that feels like it’s trying to suffocate or kill you is the ultimate act of resistance,” she says.
“My work is about Nairobi pop bands that want to go to space or about seven-foot-tall robots that fall in love. It’s nothing incredibly important. It’s just fun,” says filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu. And that particular, necessary attention to fun has landed her some amazing new projects—like teaming up with Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown to adapt and direct the celebrated YA novel The Thing About Jellyfish as a feature film, produced by Reese Witherspoon. She directed Look Both Ways, a Netflix romantic comedy-drama. And she’s a director for Hulu’s forthcoming series Washington Black, starring Ernest Kingsley Jr. and Black Panther’s Sterling K. Brown. Based on the award-winning book of the same name by Esi Edugyan, Washington Black is an epic fantasy and historical tale that touches on themes of perseverance, love, and freedom.
In her vibrant, optimistic talks, Kahiu explains why showing fun is a political act in African film, when happiness is so often seen as a privilege. It’s important to find this balance in representing African stories, she says. We’re so used to narratives out of Africa being about poverty, war and devastation. Kahiu asks us to rethink the value of “all that is unserious,” and to make and support art that captures the full range of human experiences.
Kahiu has also spoken about the power of imagination at Facebook and run a TED course on the same topic. She shows us how we can ignite imagination and take advantage of it for leadership and collaboration. She changes the way we look at success, challenging us to envision a version of fulfillment that doesn’t rely on a specific end-goal but on the path we take to get there.
Kahiu is the co-founder of AFROBUBBLEGUM, a media company that creates “fun, fierce and frivolous African art.” Her second feature film, Rafiki, was selected for the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it screened to acclaim. In 2019, it won both Best Achievement in Editing, and Best Film in an African Language, at the Africa Movies Academy Awards. She produced the TV documentary For Our Land about Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai for MNET, a pan-African cable station. Her science-fiction short Pumzi premiered at Sundance, and won Best Short Film at Cannes. Her first feature film, From a Whisper, based on the real events surrounding the 1998 twin bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, won five awards at the African Movie Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Screenplay. In 2019, Kahiu was named one of TIME’s “100 Next”, the magazine’s inaugural list putting a spotlight on rising stars shaping the future.