Boris Nelepo checks in from Moskou to report on Judy Kibinge’s Something Necessary, a Kenyan recollection of the violence that claimed more than a thousand victims after the country’s 2007-elections.
Kill! Kill! These are the first words we hear as Judy Kibinge’s Something Necessary opens with a real-life chronicle of the 2007 election violence that claimed over a thousand lives in Kenya. The chronicle then bleeds into fiction: Anne, rape survivor, used to have a house, now burnt down by a bunch of teenagers; a husband, now murdered; a little son, now in a coma. The other main character is introduced as Joseph: a decidedly haunted look in his teenage eyes, he contributed to the pillage and now strives to mend his ways. Archenemies in the past, the politicians are now shaking hands on TV. Joseph’s hands, however, are stained with real blood.
What should one expect from a film made in the damaged Kenya? Regrettably, violence and poverty and misery are the first things that come to mind; what’s all the more regrettable is that the movie lives up to those expectations right from the outset. The official synopsis claims Something Necessary tells a true story: ‘The film primarily shows how complex things are when it’s not about the statistics of a conflict but the people behind the numbers.’ I’m sorry to say it isn’t true at all, and neither Anna nor Joseph are ever elevated out of the purely abstract, two-dimensional realm. What do we know about Anne? She is unhappy; she is suffering. What about Joseph? He has a guilty conscience; he repents. Wrapped in the crass symbolism of pain and contrition, respectively, they gravitate towards each other following a wearisome, cloying logic that earned Alejandro González Iñárritu a fair amount of goodwill in the early 2000s — the goodwill he used up so quickly. Thus, Anne has to deal with her woes alone after the family not only denies her their support, but makes a point of aggravating her situation in the most cold-blooded and least plausible fashion. Joseph, in the meantime, sneaks up incognito to her house late at night to build a fence around it. His desperate attempts to protect his victim are futile yet commendable.
As it epitomizes a very particular, unsavory kind of storytelling, Something Necessary challenges the audience ethically rather than artistically in that it flaunts its basis in actual events, stakes a claim to infallible accuracy, and invites us to sit back and watch a devastating tragedy unfold. We are, as a result, forced into empathy rather than taken on an emotional journey that leads to it. Furthermore, we are misled to believe that the alleged veracity should shield the film from aesthetic criticisms, whereas ethics and aesthetics, in fact, here go hand in hand. Failing to see human beings behind the numbers, we are left with nothing but empty shells, and have to therefore convince ourselves of how tragic the contents must have been. Should we even debate the artistic value of a message movie? Yes, we should, if it lacks the mere rudiments of cinematic flair, subjecting its characters instead to conversations captured in traditional reverse shots; if every other sequence is padded with an annoyingly cheesy tune that screams ‘empathy!’ and won’t get off your back until you lapse into it. Well, if it’s the only way for a filmmaker to evoke emotion, then maybe it is not the best way to do that. The movie strips its viewer of his right not to feel; it makes us wonder what is wrong with us if we remain unstirred. In the ironic absence of something necessary to gain some sort of credibility, the pic goes for cheap thrills with a sledgehammer and we have to sit through a poorly shot, violent and naturalistic abortion scene.
So what’s our takeaway from the film? Not much, except for a series of beautiful African landscapes the camera couldn’t help but capture. But no amount of picturesque scenery can redeem the hopelessness and grimness of the story: the final scene brings the character full circle to the origins of her horror. That’s, actually, interesting. While Irréversible and the like in the end take us back to the pre-disaster serenity, and thus trick us into believing that disaster can be averted, a flashback like that nips illusions in the bud. Make no mistake, the horror Anne lived through will stay with her forever. The next Kenyan general elections are slated for March 2013.