Premiering in the Generation section at the Berlinale, the Kenyan film Supa Modo from Likarion Wainaina was one of the very best at the festival, and deserves to become a classic.
The Generation section at Berlinale often features a few gems unfairly ignored by most critics, most likely because these films are marketed to children and teenagers.
For example, this year’s selection featured The Seen and Unseen, which I saw and loved at TIFF ’17. There however, it was programmed in the Platform section, a sidebar positioned as a real showcase for auteurist cinema, which ensured the film received the attention it deserved. This film about a pair of twins dealing with grief works in a peculiar and dreamlike magical realist aesthetic, which can appeal both to adults and children without necessarily going over the heads of the latter.
Like most of the best films about (and, often, targeted at) children, Supa Modo touches on very dark realities. Early on, we learn that Jo (the incredible Stycie Waweru), a nine year-old girl living in a Kenyan village, is suffering from a grave illness. Although she seems to be handling it well, her mother’s anxiety and anger suggest that her condition might be more serious than the young girl realises.
In the way Supa Modo brings children to consider painful and potentially traumatic life experiences, the film immediately recalls Pixar — though the animation studio goes for a much broader approach. The growing pains that Pixar’s films address — the loss of a parent in Coco; teenage disillusionment or even depression in Inside Out; growing out of your favourite toys in Toy Story — have an undeniable universal appeal, because they affect us all eventually.
But the strive for relatability in those films often ends up flattening their main children characters, turning them into little more than blank canvas. In Inside Out, the personality of Riley — whatever would make her unique — remains utterly unknown, but we learn all about her emotions, literally following a personified version of Joy as it tries to put an order back in the mind of the depressive girl. Depression does not qualify as a personality trait, and neither does a passion for music: all we know of Miguel in Coco is that he wants to meet his father and to play music. Beside this, he functions, moves, and reacts in the same way as any other lead Pixar character.'The strive for relatability in Pixar films often ends up flattening their main children characters, turning them into little more than blank canvas.'Click To Tweet
By contrast, Supa Modo’s approach to hope, grief and loss is much more touching because of its adherence to the specificity of Kenyan culture and to Jo’s personality. Indeed, we do not feel for Jo and her friends because their life is similar to ours, or because they have no personality that marks them as unique, but because as the film goes on, we get to know and care for them.
Waweru’s idiosyncratic performance and her incredibly expressive, beaming face go a long way toward making Jo a unique, fully-fledged, lived-in character. But what makes the film feel so real and direct — and thus so moving — is the down-to-earth story. While many American coming-of-age films extrapolate big truths about life from the (not so) specific experiences they depict, here, the situation and its specificity take precedence over its abstract “meaning” and pieces of wisdom. It isn’t a thesis film, it is just the story of Jo — and that is enough.'While many American coming-of-age films extrapolate big truths about life from the (not so) specific experiences they depict, here, the situation and its specificity take precedence over its abstract “meaning” and pieces of wisdom.'Click To Tweet
From the start, Jo is presented as someone who doesn’t squarely fit into neat categories. In her first scene, it isn’t clear whether she is a boy or a girl: bald — as we later learn, because of her illness — she wears a beanie hat, and with a pair of trousers, her look is quite similar to that of the boy she hangs out with at the hospital. She doesn’t act shy or awkward around him, perhaps because of her young age, but it is still refreshing to see a friendship between a boy and a girl without them having to become a couple.
Even more original and quietly progressive is Jo’s passion for superheroes. The walls in her hospital bedroom are covered with posters of Superman, Iron Man, and the rest. The film opens on her talking with her male friend about which hero is the best.
This passion isn’t positioned as odd or exceptional for a girl at any moment during the film, but simply as the kind of thing that children this age might be obsessed with for a time. And yet, as trivial as it might seem to an adult, Jo’s passion is respected by all, even encouraged by her older sister. This spirit of freedom and enthusiasm permeates the entire film: when she returns to the village, the affection and joy of all the villagers is genuine and contagious.
This sense of openness is multiplied when Jo starts to have superpowers of her own. Whenever she moves objects with the sheer force of her mind, or floats above the ground, the film becomes eerily quiet and mysterious: the jovial racket of the town fades out. These are the only times we see her alone, giving us a sense of who she is in private.'Jo's passion for superheroes isn’t positioned as odd or exceptional for a girl at any moment, but simply as the kind of thing that children this age might be obsessed with for a time.'Click To Tweet
For this reason alone, these suspended moments feel precious and beautiful, a window into another dimension of Jo’s identity. More than just a sick girl, she also seems to be a superhero. These instances of magical realism are increasingly engrossing as they keep piling up, yet remain completely unexplained for an extensive period of time. Through these disorienting sequences, Supa Modo maintains a reassuring confidence in its style and rhythm that allows us to revel in the mystery and its endless possibilities. After several of these incidents, we do ask ourselves: could Jo really be a superhero? Is this film very different from what it first seemed to be?
This brilliant, enigmatic structural device is only the first of many instances in which the film plays with our expectations. The rather predictable first twist fits neatly into the structure of the typical children’s movie: in the third act of the film, something or someone — often, as it is the case here, a disapproving adult — interrupts the adventure of our main hero and brings them back to reality. This reveal also supports the patronising idea that children need fantasy to live, or are too naive to handle the harshness of reality.'SUPA MODO maintains a reassuring confidence in its style and rhythm that allows us to revel in the mystery and its endless possibilities: could Jo really be a superhero?'Click To Tweet
Supa Modo then pulls the rug right from under us with a second, completely unexpected twist. This revelation — so beautiful that I will not spoil it here — immediately forces both the viewer and the adults in the film to realise just how condescending and patronising the underlying assumptions of that first twist had been. Viewers and villagers alike suddenly realise they had cruelly failed to see just how special and strong Jo was. They had began to perceive her as the cliche of the little girl sick with cancer. Unlike Pixar films, and contrary to our expectations, Jo is not the one who has to learn and grow up; it is the adults who must.
This bittersweet turn of events marks a sharp, unsettling break with what came before it: both the audience and the villagers on screen are at a loss for what to do next. The final act of the film after this moment of indecision is writer-director Likarion Wainaina’s greatest achievement, guiding the breathless viewer through every step of grief. When Jo decides to make her own movie of the adventures of Supa Modo, the superhero she’d already been playing in the past few weeks, everyone in the village cheerfully chimes in and helps. The montage of all the villagers sewing their own costumes, building sets from scratch and creating inventive practical effects, is rousing and very moving — we just wish we could join them in this beautiful adventure. But the film is not animated by the same enthusiasm as before. Guided by Jo’s own imagination and hope, the sorrow of all the adults who betrayed her trust, the pain of all the people who will miss her — everyone’s love for her — are sublimated into a film that will last long after the little girl is gone.'Unlike Pixar films, and contrary to our expectations, Jo is not the one who has to learn and grow up; it is the adults who must.'Click To Tweet
Wainaina’s film never cuts narrative corners or cheaply pulls on our heartstrings; rather, it lets the spirit of its lead character permeate it and structure it in every way. Jo’s unique personality, her inventivity, and her unending optimism make her a superhero for children and adults to admire. Supa Modo’s absolute commitment to and faith in her make it nothing short of a classic.
We have written about quite a few films focused on children, and many of them address the topic of grief — perhaps because, as Toy Story showed so well, grieving is a part of growing up. The Seen and Unseen centres on a little girl who says goodbye to her twin brother via her dreams, in which the pair is reunited. In Summer 1993, a little girl has difficulty processing the deaths of her parents, and expresses her sadness and confusion in contradictory ways. I wrote an essay about how Lynne Ramsay’s films are studies on trauma and grief: in Ratcatcher, a young boy who failed to save his neighbour from drowning escapes the horror of his reality by taking refuge in physical sensations.