Interview with filmmaker Sagwa Chabeda of Serengeti Studio


Today's interview is with Kenyan filmmaker/photographer/writer, Sagwa Chabeda. The man behind the feature film, Formula X, has got a lot more up his sleeve…


What's your passion? 
My Passion revolves around the creation of art using images and words. Making a new film, writing a novel, taking a photograph or working on a screenplay requires tremendous energy and dedication. Knowing this, it only makes sense to have the fuel to take upon this work and very often this comes from experiences as an African and the insights from personal inquiry.


What inspired Serengeti Studio and your feature film, Formula X?
Serengeti Studio was created from the realization that I wanted to make films and do the photo projects (fashion, essay, documentary etc.) I felt passionate about but lacked the means or the facilities. With a camera in hand and having completed university (Fall ’98), I knew getting a job in the film industry would be an uphill task and so I put my skills in photography to work and started creating portfolios for models from Philly. Then sooner than later people started asking what the name of my company was (my card used to say Photography by Sagwa and had a model's photo and my number). It was during this time that I looked for a space off Baltimore Avenue in what had become the “African Street” and thought of the name Serengeti Studio.

The origins of the name are rooted in my experience as an immigrant who had fond memories of home and was longing to visit after many years in the US. I thought back to a time when I was about 12 and my brother and I had gone to Maasai Mara, along with some family friends. During a game drive, the driver pointed out to the other side of a dried riverbed and said ‘that side of the park was known as Serengeti and in Tanzania.’ I asked him if we could cross to that side, encouraged by my brother, and he could not understand what the point was as it was no different. Little did he know that all we wanted was to be able to say we have been to Tanzania when back home and at school. Many years later, I thought how all I had wanted was to leave Kenya and go to the US after high school and now here I was wanting to go back home … so the name Serengeti seemed apt for the experience and knowing that wherever one was, they could do whatever they needed to (albeit after inspiration or travel).

Why Formula X? … The Director, Steve, approached me with the idea since he knew that I had been to film school and he had a great desire to make films. Having seen his music videos and knowing he had a great shooting style, I looked through the story, then titled  “The Stranger,” and gave him some tips. He went on to write out more of the story and asked me to turn it into a screenplay. After about four months of work, he agreed to my being the Producer and we started casting and doing readings before starting to shoot in Dec 2006. I was inspired by the concept he had which was not a typical film about Africa. Also, the production style I wanted to use was clearly going to be different and with Steve’s music production skills, it would have all the necessary elements of a well told story.


What has been your greatest obstacle/challenge in being a filmmaker in Kenya?
The greatest challenge in being a filmmaker in Kenya, or anywhere else in the world, is that of seeking and raising finance. While many other challenges are there, I tend to enjoy them and take them as creative challenges. Writing, directing, pre- or post-production  can all be resolved with talent or negotiation. However, the line gets stretched when financial resources come into play. In Kenya this is all the more difficult with potential executive producers not having examples of films that have been profitable financially.   

How have you dealt with/overcome it?
By drawing upon my college production days as well as the experience gained from working in the photography and film business in the US. Having learnt how to prepare a product for the market and to engage the different people that would be necessary to see a project through from conception to product.

I was very fortunate to have a brother (Patrick from the Mara-Serengeti days) who was interested in filmmaking though who came from a completely different background (chemical engineering), with good financial skills and practices to boot. So he became the Executive Producer and the whip on the project that drove the film through to realization. Even when we felt stuck due to some obstacle or the other, e.g. cast or crew abandoning the project leading to us restarting or, the biggest obstacle!: having to find a real or replica gun to use on the film in the middle of post election violence! All our official efforts to the concerned bodies failed despite  the relevant letters but we came through. We were working in the middle of the chaos that engulfed Kenya by keeping our cast locked up for a week in a guest house in Ngong (plug to Shimei Guest House – a great location).

None the less, after taking 16 months to complete the movie, I practically experienced the maximum film producer's, director's, instructor's et al state. Getting the film made is not the headache … getting distribution or a deal is! So with that in mind we embarked on a festival tour, marketing promos, etc. and were able to sell the movie to a few cable channels and through local distribution in supermarkets through JITU FILMS Distribution.  The film will also soon be available to our international audience through two sites: Capital Digital Media and Pewahewa.

What has your greatest achievement been?
The achievements that I am most satisfied about are the completion of my first epic screenplay, Hearts of the Empires, registered with the Writers Guild of America (EAST) and my first feature length film, Formula X.



Where will you be in 10 years?
God-willing, doing the same as now though on a larger scale – making films and writing, while travelling around the world.

How does Africa inspire you?
Africa inspires me through its diverse historical experiences and most especially culture(s) and through its art! At present the vast quantity, prolific nature and range of the works that have been produced on this continent just over the past 1,000 years is enough to educate the entire world and create more artistic and scientific discoveries in the scale of the ancient kingdoms of Nubia in the days of Pharaoh Taharqa.

Anything we should look out for in the coming weeks/months/year? 
Currently, I am in pre-production for an epic science diction film by a Kenyan writer/director, Robbie Bresson. This will be the first feature that Serengeti Studio will undertake in 2011 and will involve a specially trained team of animators and visual FX artists from Africa, Europe and the US. 

We are currently shooting a documentary, The Return of the Man-Eaters of Tsavo, which screened in the Works in Progress section of KIFF 2010 to an enthusiastic response. This project examines the possibility and viability of the quest by the Kenya Government, as stated by the Minister of State for National Heritage and Culture, Hon William Ntimama, ‘to have the man-eaters of Tsavo returned to Kenya from the Field Museum of Chicago where they are held as ‘permanent exhibits’. It will be complete by spring 2011.

Also in predevelopment is the follow up to Formula X which is a TV series. We will also be working with a team of writers on an adaptation for TV of the novel Short Cut to Hell* in 1980s Kenya.  

Anything else you'd like to share?
I am also writing a novel that will be completed by fall 2011.

How can we get hold of Formula X?
Will send your personal copy by courier. [Editor's note: lucky me! For everybody else, the film will soon be internationally available through Capital Digital Media and Pewahewa.]


*Editor's note: Written by my father, Paul Kitololo (shameless plug, I know).
Images courtesy Sagwa Chabeda and Serengeti Studio 


1 thought on “Interview with filmmaker Sagwa Chabeda of Serengeti Studio”

  1. It was a pleasure meeting Sagwa when I was in Kenya and getting to hear his plans. Looking forward to Asilia working with him on several projects.

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