In early 2017, 10 Kenyan screenwriters with different experiences in visual storytelling, led by filmmaker and producer Kamau wa Ndung’u, came together in a room in Nairobi to develop a telenovela.
The team had no budget. had no source of funds but were enthusiastic, hopeful and ambitious. This marked the birth of Country Queen, the first Kenyan series to be commissioned by American streaming service Netflix.
For the first time since its completion in April, the six episodes of the first season, The Nation has exclusively experienced costs Sh152 million. The series will officially start on Netflix on July 15.
“The initial idea was to develop our own telenovela. It was originally from Germany by executive producers Peter Obrist, Waltraud Ehrhardt and Ravi Karmalker. We started looking for writers and brought in Chao Mkamze, Florence Onyango, Annete Shadeya, Waweru Kimani, Ian Kithinji, Wanjeri Gakuru, Lydia Matata, Oprah Oyugi, Shirleen Wangari and myself,” says Ndung’u.
< p >These were the first writers, but others followed later.
“We then ran a 10-week preparatory creative workshop and during that brainstorming phase the idea of the telenovela turned into a series. adds Ndung’u.
They decided against the telenovela for several reasons. “First, raising funds for a telenovela isn’t easy, second, it’s a daily show, and third, there was the budget issue,” he adds.
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By the end of the 10-week workshop, they had developed a character manual and a rough third draft of the pilot episode.
The camp became fired but reunited nine months later to revise and refine the third draft to develop a screenplay. This exercise took two months to complete.
An extensive casting process was conducted with auditions held at the Nairobi National Theater in October 2018, which attracted over 150 well-known and aspiring actors.
Lead actress Melissa Kiplagat, who plays Akisa, a graduate of Mountview Academy of Theater Arts in London, prevailed.
“Akisa, our leading lady, was called back twice to reassure us that our gut feeling was right. At that time she had only acted in web series. She was phenomenal,” recalls executive producer Karmaller.
The star-studded cast also includes Nini Wacera, who burst into the spotlight with her role on the 2005 soap opera Wingu la Moto, the former Big Brother contestants Melvin Alusa, Segen Lung’aho and Sheila Munyiva.
Once they got Country Queen together, a two-week camera acting workshop followed to add some intensity to the filming.
The pilot was filmed in late January 2019, with 25 actors, 52 crew and 160 extras, mostly Kenyans.
“The pilot was designed to help us raise funding. It wasn’t an easy process, it took us two years to get the funding. Most of the pitches were made in Germany by our executive producers. The Deutsche Welle Academy was the largest sponsor of this project. Netflix has also contributed a certain percentage,” Ndung’u said. market.
Ndung’u, who has been in the film industry for over 20 years, can now breathe a sigh of relief with Netflix’s launch of the series.
“To be the first Kenyan series to being commissioned by Netflix is a big deal. It’s a good start, but our market still has a long way to go. Convincing Netflix wasn’t easy, it took years. It’s been a long wait, but now I can relax after six years. This project has taken us so much with a budget of $1.3 million to complete. I sincerely hope that Kenyans will love it when it premieres. We gave everything we could.”
But how much did they make from the Netflix deal? “Look, what has failed us in securing a much bigger deal from Netflix than we would have liked is our market. Netflix is in business, they really loved our product and were intrigued by our level of production, but our Kenyan subscription numbers are really low. Netflix’s allocation budget for the Kenyan market is really small compared to what is allocated for Nigeria and South Africa which are huge. Nonetheless, it’s a good start for us.”
Country Queen explores the fast-paced and dangerous world of the city and the slower-paced country life highlighted by the Tsilanga community. There is deceit, rural-urban conflict, inter-family relationships, love, betrayal, and intersections of tradition, leadership, culture, and capitalism. When Eco-Rock, a well-known mining company, sets foot in the quiet village of Tsilanga to exploit its vast gold reserves it has discovered, the move faces a community rebellion.
Hardhearted despite Tsilanga’s resistance Mining mogul Vivienne, portrayed by Wacera, is determined to get what she wants.
Vivienne has the support of her charming husband Max, a former gangster who now runs the shady side of the mining company Eco-Rock. Max is played by Lung’aho, known for his roles in Mother-In-Law and the recent Showmax drama series Igiza.
Unknowing and unprepared for what is to come, Vivienne and Max meet their counterpart when Little-known IT expert Akisa leaves Nairobi for her village of Tsilanga to take care of her ailing father. Faced with Vivienne’s ruthlessness, she decides to take the fight to her doorstep to protect the village’s resources and her life.
Alusa, who starred in the first Kenyan military action film, Mission to Rescue”, which was nominated for the 2021 Oscars, plays the reluctant hero Kyalo, while Rafiki leading lady Sheila Munyiva portrays the village doctor, Anna von Tslinga, who is also Kyalo’s love life.
The cast also features Raymond Ofula, known for his roles in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Mumbi Maina (Matrix Resurrection), Nice Githinji (Rafiki), Charlie Karumi (Watu Wote) and Eddy Kimani (Nairobi Half Life).