Veteran filmmaker Bob Njanja – the director of ‘Malloned’, hilarious TV shows ‘Churchill Live’ and ‘Redykyulass’ – has unleashed what is easily the boldest production in Kenya’s nascent movie industry. ‘The Rugged Priest’ is the story of the unresolved murder of the American Catholic missionary Fr Anthony Kaiser on August 24, 2000.
With astonishing pictures, the film implicates powerful personalities in the death of Fr Kaiser whose defence of the poor and demands for better governance irritated certain figures in the government of former President Daniel arap Moi.
A powerful minister for internal security at the time is directly blamed for the elderly missionary’s death while the film also indicts US security agencies as well as a senior clergyman and Fr Kaiser’s superior for complicity.
“There are things that must be said just as they are and nothing should ever stop us from pursuing justice,” said Nyanja at the premiere. Nyanja disclosed that it took him three years to put the story together.
The movie stars Collins Simpson as Fr John Kaiser who manages to bring out the passion of a committed priest working in a daunting political environment.
Ainea Ojiambo acts as Internal Security Minister. He effortlessly brings to fore meanness and insensitivity.
The minister abuses underage girls whom he picks up from various points, including students performing traditional dances at fundraisers and needy school girls seeking financial help at his office.
Fr Kaiser irks the minister when the priest attempts to help the abused children get justice. But what breaks the camel’s back is the priest’s evidence to a public inquiry where he implicates the all-powerful minister as an instigator of ethnic clashes.
The minister follows proceedings of the commission of inquiry appointed by the government through a secret radio system manned by security agents planted in the hearings.
“This commission is a public relations gimmick to cover up the true culprits behind these clashes,” says Fr Kaiser. Commission Chair Sulumeni (Francis Imbuga) sends off the priest and stops the hearings.
Upon hearing this, the minister slams his radio set against the wall, curses and declares the end of Fr Kaiser. Using the dreaded secret police, the minister attempts three times to murder the priest but to no avail.
On one occasion, a restless Fr Kaiser seeks refuge in a convent with the help of his assistant Fr Ian (Lwanda Jawar). But eventually the poltician’s hit men catch up with him while going to check on his parishioners. They shoot him dead at a point blank range.
The directors use rain and thunderstorm situations to make the situation really tense and urgent. Their choice of a rugged rural (Kona Baridi in Kajiado) depicts the difficult conditions missionaries often work in. The social teachings of the church and social services provided are highlighted in terms of the schools set up by Fr Kaiser and his colleagues.
But the film does not shy from picking out certain challenges facing the church today. Fr Kaiser’s assistant Fr Ian (Lwanda) is involved in a love affair with a female teacher Alice (Sarah Ndanu) at a local school where they teach together. In the process she begets his child.
Veteran actor Oliver Litondo makes appears in ‘The Rugged Priest’ as the bishop who abetted Fr Kaiser’s murder. Also in the film is seasoned actor John Sibi Okumu as the politician’s lawyer (Kisuli). Regina Re acts as an uncompromising civil rights lawyer. Together they put up a credible performance.
“I initially was apprehensive in the way my character was going to portray the Church but I said may be this will help heal the world,” said Lwanda who is also the reigning Mr. Kenya.
Regina said she was glad she played a role that pushed for integrity in the way public affairs are managed in Kenya. The film brings to fore many issues bedevilling the country: abuse of power, poverty, political violence, hardships of the girl-child, etc.
Sarah Ndanu (Alice) carries the baggage of being raped by a member of the feared secret police. A teacher, she ironically cuts short the career of Fr Kaiser’s assistant, the young priest Fr Ian by getting into an intimate relationship with him.
“It was not easy at the start, especially the love scenes,” says Ndanu who began her screen career in the TV court drama ‘Nairobi Law’. “I was disturbed by just how my parents and my boyfriend would react to the scenes,” she recalls. But the director assured her the scenes she was uncomfortable with would be done professionally. With that assurance, she took on the role with the passion.
The movie also brings out Nyanja’s awesome talent and is a compelling plea for truth, justice and reconciliation in a country with a murky past of high handedness and state corruption.