Supa Modo, an acclaimed Kenyan film starring a 10-year-old potential counterpart to Lupita Nyong’o, was screened on Saturday before a receptive audience in New York.
Director Likarion Wainaina’s 74-minute feature made its eastern United States debut at the New York International Children’s Film Festival.
In a question-and-answer session with a New York Times journalist following the showing, Mr Wainaina revealed that he had collapsed from exhaustion on the set of Supa Modo while shooting its climactic scene.
“I forget to eat and sleep and don’t treat my body right” when engaged in moviemaking, he said. “I had to have a paramedic with me the whole day, and I was carried around by three people.”
The filming had to go on despite his condition, Mr Wainaina explained, because the cliff-side location was available for only that particular day.
Some of the young actors in the film also became physically distressed as they watched the concluding scene take shape, the director added. “Kids were fainting on the set because the scene was so emotional,” he said.
Supa Modo tells the story of a village girl named Jo (played by Stycie Waweru) who imagines becoming a superhero. Local residents band together to help Jo achieve her dreams as her health is stolen by a terminal illness.
Stycie became a candidate for the starring role after the auditioning process was well advanced, Mr Wainaina recounted. “We had auditioned 500 kids when we found her by chance,” he said, adding that the part of Jo was originally intended to be played by a boy.
Stycie’s appeal and talent gave the filmmakers “an opportunity to show a different world where gender is not an issue,” Mr Wainaina said.
The producer of Supa Modo had feared that the film would not find an audience because its plot centred on the death of a child, the director noted. “But we decided not to hold back because we knew kids could handle it,” Mr Wainaina said.
The story, he added, was a “mash-up” of two themes.
One derived from the director’s own uneasy childhood relationship with his mother. Only later, he said, did he come to appreciate that she had been trying to give her family a better life.
In the film, Jo’s mother seeks to prevent the girl from embarking on adventures with her older sister out of concern for her deteriorating health.
The other theme — about a child facing death — was taken up by Mr Wainaina and his associates after a visit to a ward in a Nairobi hospital reserved for children with terminal illnesses.
After that encounter, “I realised how selfish I was being,” Mr Wainaina said. He decided to incorporate into the film “an angle we hadn’t been seeing.”
Supa Modo has been shown widely in Europe since its premier at the Berlinale film festival last year. The movie has scooped up more than 20 international awards.
It could soon win another.
Supa Modo is among 125 films in contention for audience- and jury-based awards at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which concludes on March 17.
Winning recognition in New York would advance Mr Wainaina’s stated aspiration for wide theatrical release of Supa Modo in the US.