A Love Letter to ‘Supa Modo’, Kenya’s Best Film Yet

Arguably Kenya's most successful film to date, 'Supa Modo' should be our 'Parasite.' Our 'Touki Bouki.' It genuinely deserves it.
by Kelvin Kariuki

25/August/23  •  384 Views

Film & Animation
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The first time I saw a poster for Supa Modo was at Prestige Cinema. I was there to watch Mortal Kombat as a spectator, the first time in my life I saw professional gamers in their element. I saw the poster, a smiling girl doing the Superman pose with an orange insignia on her face, and I knew it was something I’d like. Unfortunately for me, I had used up all my savings to see other people play Mortal Kombat on a big screen. Priorities.

A few months later, I’d saved enough money to go to NAICCON, a convention for nerds interested in everything from comic books to movies to video games to anime. My kind of people. As I passed through the rooms, seeing what they had in store, I discovered one room was saved specifically to screen Supa Modo.

The movie started and I found myself trying to spot the Easter eggs as one would in a Marvel movie. There is a poster of Wonder Woman and a logo of Batman, if you must know. When Supa Modo ended, I found myself in tears. I had never cried in a movie before. On my side, my friend was crying too. A lot of noses within the room had decided to also be runny at this particular moment. Damn those pesky onion-chopping ninjas. The director, Likarion Wainaina, had a Q&A session afterward, and I didn’t hear half of it. 

We’ve all been there. At the end of a good book or movie, where for a moment or two, you are not sure what to do with your life. Life can never go back to how it was. You can never go back to the person you were. You might, and probably will. But it feels impossible at the moment. I was having one of those moments. 

When I finally got to listen to Wainaina (the director), the seed of wanting to be a filmmaker was born inside me that day. 

I say all this to announce that I want to talk, briefly, about why Supa Modo is the best Kenyan film in existence, and that I’d fight for it to the death. A tad dramatic, but try saying bad things about it and find out. Spoilers ahead, so if you have never heard of Supa Modo, or you have but put it off, go watch it and then come back and continue reading. If you’ve had all these years knowing about it but are still adamant that Kenyans can’t achieve perfection and need more persuasion, I will try to do just that. 

In my time watching films, I have come to realise that they stir two basic instincts within us. Either a sense of disbelief or a sense of recognition. Over time, recognition has been the go-to reaction for a lot of films, whether it’s the recognition of a certain face, or the recognition of a formula to stir the right emotions, or the recognition of feelings we have, have had, or wish to have. It works every time. Add disbelief with world-ending stakes or photoreal projections of uncanny likeness, and you have yourself a chart-topping blockbuster. However, this recognition is in foreign films; it’s being familiar with their mannerisms, their stakes, their emotions, their way of being.

Supa Modo was the first movie that allowed me to recognise every interaction between the characters, as one I’ve either been a part of or seen in the course of my lifetime. It’s seeing suited crows on top of muddy old walls that look oddly familiar, or the joy of hearing Ha-He by Just A Band after all those years. And then they took every opportunity to string disbelief into all that, without force, without contradiction, without satire. Simply by telling a story of genuine emotion. 

The movie is short. One hour and fourteen minutes, to be exact. Where other movies, trapped in such a short runtime, trip over themselves, sectioning little spaces to lead to a final combustive moment, Supa Modo feels like the falling of dominos, where every domino piece represents a relationship, a conversation, a silent moment, a look of recognition, all taking on the emotions of the previous domino piece. But rather than lead to anything rapturous, it simply falls on us, and all those emotions become ours to bare. We become another domino, and what we do with those emotions lies squarely on us. With great power…

Supa Modo is like a live-action Pixar movie. Animation is the epitome of storytelling. Movies can never catch up with the idea of thought turned into little caricatures that stir so much emotion with such boundless possibilities, and it’s really trying. Animation is so free that you never ask yourself why Mufasa is talking; you simply go along with it. It’s literally the definition of childlikeness. And then Pixar came along and said they’d take that power and channel it into deeper emotions. Like our roles and the roles of those around us; the loss of the people we love; being found in a junkyard but not seen as trash; being compassionate with voices in our heads; the crippling realisation of how fragile our mortality is; whatever Cars 2 was about, deep, deep emotions.

What made Pixar so good, in my opinion, was that they never shied away from showing children, and in turn ourselves, the mortality in innocence. I’m not sure if Supa Modo exists in a universe without Kati Kati, a story about mortality with adult sensitivity, or if it’s all the work of Mugambi Nthiga, a writer in Kati Kati and later the lead writer for Supa Modo, but Supa Modo is the first Kenyan film I’ve seen that deals with the heavy subject of death entirely from the child’s perspective.That is, brave. 

The story of Supa Modo begins in the eyes of Jo, our little protagonist, played by Stycie Waweru – her first ever acting role. She is dying. And she knows she is dying. She is even quick to prepare the people around her for her timely demise, and that in itself, sends a ripple through her family about what exactly they should do. There is no manual for grief. Especially not for someone still alive. Everyone takes the option they think will handle it best. For some it’s withdrawal, for others it’s acceptance, and for Jo’s family, it’s pretence. “There’s no harm in a little pretence.” Jo’s mother (Marianne Nungo), in expected fashion, pretends by saving whatever is left from further decay, hoping it’s good enough. Jo’s sister, Mwix (Nyawara Ndambia), pretends by giving Jo what she thinks Jo would want.

As Supa Modo trudges on, both seem to be right and wrong in their own right. In our little battles to do what’s best for others, we sometimes forget to simply ask what those others need. The family’s reactions stir even more reactions from the community around them, with every single person’s intentions just as self-indulgent, yet all coming from a place of care in their own right. By the time they do put all their adult thoughts to the side and simply ask a dying child what she actually wants, they seem to free something inside themselves in the process. As Jo and her friend say at the beginning of the film, adults simply don’t understand, and they’ll have to be the ones to show them. They really do. 

Supa Modo also has a superhero film inside there. I remember watching the new Thor movie, where a character with cancer gets superpowers, and thinking Supa Modo did it years prior. The dancing around with the possibility of real power acts like that straw that we fear might break the camel’s back, shielding us from the idea that a child is dying right in front of our eyes, and it hovers at the back of our mind as we foolishly grow attached to the amazing personality blooming in front of us. And at some point, we let go of the idea of the worst happening, because it won’t happen. This movie is too short, and too Kenyan, and made for kids, it wouldn’t dare end with the dead of a child. Once that seed is planted, we spend the majority of the film completely engrossed by the film within the film. There is genuine laughter (shout out to the ruracio), genuine stakes, and genuine wonder. It’s all there. The recipe for a good film.

Supa Modo is a film about the love of nerdy stuff. It’s a film about family, friendship and hard conversations. It’s a film about the heavy role of elder siblings and the impossible job of parenting, especially when your child is dying. It’s a film about community, and about confronting fears, and celebrating why dreams are important to us. It’s a film about why children are important to a society. It’s a film about all those times you quote movies that no one seems to have seen. It’s a film about the power of film, and about the hardships of filmmaking and the beauty of it. It’s a film about remembering those we have lost and about celebrating those still with us.

For the Kenyan film industry, and it’s journey and history, Supa Modo is a film about the importance of DJ Afro and his colleagues in translating good films to those that enjoy them. It’s a film about nostalgia – the movie shops and those dark ghetto cinemas I grew up inside. It’s a film about our love for Jackie Chan. It’s a film that makes me proud to be Kenyan. It’s a film that makes me wonder what kind of society we would have if every future parent is to connect with it, what kind of children we would raise. It’s a film that makes me cry every single time I watch it.

No wonder Supa Modo is Kenya’s most-awarded film. The film has won over 40 international awards including Best European Film For Children, European Children’s Film Association, 2019 and Generation 14Plus: Children’s Jury Special Mention, Berlin, 2018, the Artistic Bravery Prize at the Durban International Film Festival 2018 and Best Screenplay at the Carthage Film Festival. Simply put, Supa Modo is arguably Kenya’s most successful film to date

Supa Modo should be our Parasite. Our Touki Bouki. Our (insert your favorite Disney/Pixar animated film here). It genuinely deserves it.

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