Kenyan documentary spotlights activist torn between family and the struggle

Kenyan social-political activist Boniface Mwangi arrives for the screening of the Kenyan documentary 'Softie' at the Prestige Cinema in Nairobi, Kenya

NAIROBI – Kenyan documentary “Softie” opens in 2013 with Njeri Mwangi standing in a doorway, light illuminating a sleepy toddler on her hip as her husband Boniface sieves buckets of clotted blood outside.

The next day, he dumps the blood and coaxes a herd of pigs to feast on it outside parliament to demonstrate against yet another pay rise for legislators, dubbed “MPigs” by protesters.

Kenya is East Africa’s richest nation, but its booming economy has an ugly underbelly. Runaway corruption traps millions in poverty, extrajudicial police killings are common and elections punctuated by deadly violence.

The government says it is investigating corruption, and several high level officials are in court, including the former finance minister. Some cases have been going on for decades.

Njeri and Boniface Mwangi are activists – they protest together and are arrested together – but as the film progresses, the focus moves from whether their crusade will succeed to whether their family will implode.

“Families of human rights defenders or activists … I want people to know we exist,” Njeri, a movie buff and avid motorcyclist, told us at the film’s Kenya premiere this week. “Our children really struggle.”

Softie – an award-winner at the Sundance and Durban film festivals – shows the evolution of Boniface from an activist outraged by the 2007-8 election violence into a political candidate promising his new Ukweli party will change the system from within, a decade later.

His family grapple with his absence, a house permanently full of people, and death threats targeting their three young children. Njeri, fearing for their lives, eventually takes the kids to the Unites States in 2016.

In one tense on-camera exchange before his family leaves, Boniface pleads with his wife: “you need to have an ideal that you live for, that’s worth dying for.”

“You think it will be better if you die?” Njeri replies sadly.

A later scene lays out the stakes. The couple’s eldest son Nate returns from his American school with something he has made for father’s day: a loving card for his mother. When filmmaker Sam Soko asks from behind the camera why there’s no message for his father, Nate shrugs.

Moments like that forced a reckoning, said Boniface, who appeared with his family at the premiere, all in matching purple outfits. Now he’s building his party, taking a rest from protests and spending time making meals for his family. He’s finally realised he can’t – and shouldn’t – try to change everything himself.

“Change is not an event… it’s not a popcorn that pops in a microwave,” he told us. “It’s a very slow painful marathon – and then the marathon doesn’t end.”

The film started out as a five-minute Youtube clip about organising a protest, said Soko, who is an activist himself. It sprawled into a seven year project.

“It’s essentially still an activist manual,” he said. “But a different kind of manual … (about) what it means to love.”

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