Wanjiru Njendu (@wanjirunjendu on Twitter) was eight when she knew she was going to be a filmmaker. After watching ET with her dad, who shared with her his love for movies, she said, “I want to do that!” In the conversation that followed, her dad helped her articulate what that meant: a Film Director. Wanjiru started identifying directors whose work she liked and whom she wanted to emulate: initially, Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner, Chris Columbus, and Robert Zemeckis. There weren’t any big Kenyan directors at the time, but today she also admires and calls a good friend film director Wanjiru Kinyanjui, “who was making films before others were making films.”
Wanjiru talks about the journey that led her to Hollywood: an undying love for movies nurtured by her parents, an undergraduate Psychology degree in Nairobi, Kenya, a graduate Film degree at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, and then a move to Los Angeles, where she currently lives. “I am a Director, Writer and Producer, in that order. I’m a reluctant producer—I do it only to maintain creative control. One must be good at different things these days.”
Magic Works Productions, her company, is named in honor of her mother, who gave her the nickname Magic while defending her to childhood neighbors. Wanjiru had been dashing about the neighborhood, playing at being Indiana Jones, when the neighbors asked, “What is wrong with that child?” Her mother responded, “Leave her alone; she’s magic!” And the nickname stuck.
“Magic is what is inside you,” Wanjiru says, “What comes from within.” One of the ways she releases her magic is by trying to personalize her film sets by putting an African touch on the set dressing. She talks about the magical process of film making. “People don’t realize how many things have to come together to make a film possible. When all of that successfully comes together, from the right cast and crew to the filming process and an audience that gets your story, then you know you’ve translated your magic.”
Our conversation inevitably drifts to what it means to be African in her line of work. She is passionate about not being pigeon-holed. “When I give interviews, people want to label me an African filmmaker, but I always correct them and tell them that I’m a filmmaker, who happens to be African. If you’re put in a certain category, you’re expected to make certain kinds of films. I do want to tell African stories, but I don’t want them to be the only kind of stories I tell.”
Nevertheless, she makes her Africanness work to her advantage in Hollywood, instead of letting it be a challenge. “I go by Wanjiru in order to stand out,” she says, laughing at the fact that people here find it a unique name when it is one of the most ubiquitous names in Kenya. “It’s really all about how you package yourself. It’s about branding and being conversant with the industry. Most people don’t realize how smart Africans are. We’re usually bilingual, or multilingual, and very creative.” She does not let anyone’s “no” define her, and is a master at finding a way in situations that seem impossible.
The industrious filmmaker also works hard at honing her craft. She constantly attends workshops and seminars and asks questions, because things are always changing. She is currently taking Visual Effects classes. She talks about the importance of going to film markets and film festivals, and being ready to pitch your story at the drop of a hat. Of understanding the mindsets of what the people who attend those markets and festivals are looking for. Of understanding how international markets affect distribution and, as a result, how films are made. Of understanding the process of getting a film financed. “One can’t stop learning. A filmmaker who wants to be successful must learn how the system works and then work it.”
I ask what she thinks Africa has to offer the world. “We’re the cradle of life. Africa is where everything began. We have our definition of ourselves to offer the world. We need to define who we are, rather than letting Eastern or Western sources influence the stories we tell. We have so much to offer the world. Even if we start with just the myths—we have so many legends that are similar to Chinese, European and Jewish myths.”
Earnestly, she launches into a discourse on what Africans can learn from international directors who have successfully made films with worldwide appeal. “Filmmakers from Africa need to understand how to tell stories so that they translate outside of Africa. Indians, Brazilians and the French do this very well.” The process of gaining this understanding, she says, includes reading lots of scripts, understanding story acts, background, character development and structure, and figuring out what the market wants. She mentions Viva Riva! as an example of an African film that succeeded in having universal appeal. The film by Congolese Director/Producer Djo Munga was a box office success, and is still doing very well in video streaming.
Her advice for aspiring filmmakers in Africa: “Do your research. Know who’s doing what in the industry. Know the players in the different countries. There is so much available online: behind-the-scenes videos, training videos and lots of scripts. So much is possible nowadays; you can make a movie with your smart phone! Write your story and then find someone who can make it.” Wanjiru also emphasizes the benefits of filmmakers talking to each other, supporting each other with their skills, and trading services with each other.
Asked about highlights from her career, she says, “Every small achievement is a highlight. Life is a constant journey, so I have all these thankful moments, instead of just one highlight.” She does mention some moments that stand out to her: director John Amiel choosing to mentor her after she carried on a conversation with him about his sneakers; being dumbstruck and literally forgetting her name when she met Steven Spielberg; working on projects with Women in Film; casting brilliant actresses for a film; winning a Kalasha award for her short film Look Again.
Wanjiru is currently in pre-production for a music video that is a creative throwback to the 80s. She’s also collaborating with a friend, actor Owiso Odera, on a short film, as well as working on directing two sizzle reels for two TV show pilots she is trying to pitch later this year. She is most excited about a feature film that she wrote in college about Kenyan legend Lwanda Magere. The project has been 10 years in the making. She has rewritten the script every year, and is optimistic about the possibility of this feature film finally coming to life soon, with bankable actors like Djimon Hounsou and Eddie Gathegi, and with a producer like Steve Markowitz.