Searching for Amani

Source: Autlook

‘Searching for Amani’

Kenya-set feature doc Searching For Amani, screening at Raindance after an emotional world premiere at Tribeca, follows a boy’s search for his father’s killers.

Aspiring journalist Simon Ali, 12 when the filmmakers first met him, is devastated after his father, a very well respected nature guide in Laikipia’s largest wildlife conservancy, is shot dead. Simon’s investigations into the crime reveal some uncomfortable home truths about land ownership, grazing rights and climate change. “Amani in Swahili” means peace - and that was the last word the dying father uttered.

The film is directed by Nicole Gormley and Debra Aroko. The producers are Gormley, Peter Goetz and Mungai Kiroga. Advisors to the directors included Judy Kibinge of Docubox and Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu. The doc Wes made through Backroads Pictures and Nicole Gormley Films.

Vienna-based doc sales outfit Autlook came on board to handle world sales on the project last year. Jason Resnick is Autlook’s US contact.

The film has a small army of exec producers - a reflection of how dramatically the project has changed since US director Gormley first began work on it. This is her debut feature although she has made several award-winning shorts. Aroko is a filmmaker and producer - and currently also Manager, Africa Communities, at global nonprofit media organisation The Video Community.

Gormley and Aroko “moved mountains” to get Simon and his family to New York for the Tribeca premiere. “Everyone was in tears,” Gormley says of the screening. “People got it. It resonated. It opened up these conversations about climate and conversation that wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t have such an emotional and intimate story. We are still riding a high.”

Nicole Gormley and Debra Aroko

Source: Autlook

Nicole Gormley and Debra Aroko

What ethical challenges did you face in filming Simon so soon after his father’s death, when his grief was obviously so raw?

Gormley: For us, from the get-go, it has always been important to protect Simon and his family’s mental and physical well-being. We started this project not necessarily knowing what we were going to get into. I had received a small grant [through the Seattle Foundation] to give cameras and training to kids living on the front line of climate change. We were working all over the world. We were working in the Pacific, in the Arctic. These were pre-pandemic times. During that process, we met Simon. The project has just evolved so much over time. In the beginning, it wasn’t intended to be a feature following Simon. [But] we recognised there was a different story, one which could achieve the same goals in terms of highlighting what is going on [with climate change] but doing it in a much more emotional and meaningful way.

Aroko: We would bring in a mental health professional to come and speak to them [Simon’s family] and to see how they were coping. One interesting finding that one of the therapists came back to us with was that Simon was the most well-adjusted of the entire family because he had the camera, he was conducting interviews and he was taking ownership of his grief.

How did you come together as co-directors?

Gormley: Debra [who is Kenyan] began the project as a translator. She was watching and seeing everything we did. Through that process, she became a critical part of the filmmaking team. Our experiences are quite different. My background is that I’ve filmed in over 50 countries. I can shoot, edit, report, do all those things but with story, Debra has a tremendous background in writing. We had complementing skillsets.

You have many exec producers and funders ranging from LA-based Museum & Crane to RandomGood Foundation 

Gormley: We couldn’t have done this film without their support. They were really kind to let us pivot, find the right people and change the story essentially.

What were the biggest challenges for you both in tackling this project?

Aroko: It was the weight of the story we were trying to tell, working with Simon, working with Haron (Simon’s best friend) and working with the family; thinking about this really traumatic thing that happened to them, having them experience it and watch it again. You never know if you’re doing right by them [after] they’ve entrusted us with such an intimate part of their lives and given us permission to share that with the world.

Gormley: There are a lot of EPs on this project and from the outside it looks like a big team. It’s a very, very small team. We are all working three or four jobs to help us pay the bills. We are all balancing a lot of other stuff on the side… I would do it all over again but I think I was pretty naive as a first time feature filmmaker [not] to recognise this is the toll it takes!

Do you believe that climate change caused the death of Simon’s father given his job as a guide and the fight over grazing and water?

Aroko: The way we describe our film is ‘intersectional.’ There is no one singular cause for anything in the world. Of course, there is a lot of nuance to the conflict in Laikipia and why it happened. We do touch on that… we want everyone involved from the conservancies to the pastoralists and the politicians to come to the table, have proper discussions and to map a way to live together - and for the land to be beneficial to everyone.

What are your distribution plans?

Gormley: We are very much in the middle of figuring that out. We have just done our world premiere. It’s critically important for us for there to be access to this film in Kenya and for us to be able to show it there and in Africa. We are very passionate about impact. We’ve been working on an education campaign.

Debra, can you say something about your new mountaineering feature?

Aroko: It is called Chasing The Lion. We are in post-production. It’s about this young mixed race athlete who is trying to free solo Mount Kenya. Through that, he gets to decolonise the climbing space connected to his ancestry and form a new community around climbing. We are hoping that this film will open up the space for Africans and Kenyans specifically to enjoy the beautiful mountains and hills that litter the country but which they’ve never been encouraged to explore.