Kenyan photographer's great fashion sense has made him a film star

Director Nathan Collett tells us about 'Picha Marangi', his award-winning short film which profiles unconventional fashionista Stephen Okoth

23 September 2018 - 00:00 By Jackie May
Photographer Stephen Okoth, the subject of 'Picha Marangi'.
Photographer Stephen Okoth, the subject of 'Picha Marangi'.
Image: Supplied

This year's winner of the best film award at the Bokeh SA International Fashion Film Festival is Picha Marangi. This two-minute film starts with seconds of smoky landfill imagery that's depressing, but quickly segues into a film that leaves you feeling like you've just listened to Pharrell Williams's Happy song.

Picha Marangi is about Kenyan photographer Stephen Okoth, "the most colourful, unconventional and creative man in Kibera", Nairobi's biggest informal settlement. He creates his look using bright secondhand clothes bought from the Gikomba market, which, according to the BBC, has hundreds of shops and stalls selling secondhand clothes imported from Europe and the US.

It is clear from watching Picha Marangi, which translates as "colourful picture", that Okoth's appearance will make your day.

We asked director Nathan Collett about the film and about the man:

Who is Stephen Okoth?

He's a creative guy, hardworking and at times temperamental. He takes discarded clothes and other items ... and repurposes them into fashionable clothing and film props.

Often in Kenya and East Africa there is a feeling of "lack" - of things not being good enough, of not having enough, of not being cool enough. Stephen addresses this and shows people that there is "enough", and that you can be creative despite perceived limitations.

We've worked together on a few projects in the past, since he was a trainee at a film school I helped launch in Kibera.

WATCH | The trailer for Picha Marangi 

Why did you make the movie?

I believe in the philosophy of being creative with what you have, that we're more than what people see ... that the people of Kibera are more than what we expect. I believe in not letting your environment constrain you. Although often it does.

Describe Kibera?

Kibera is amazing and yet tragic. It's both beautiful and ugly. There's a great energy, young people, excitement and movement. Yet it's a low-income area, sometimes it lacks running water and has limited electricity and poor roads. It's also a place where you never get bored, where you'll find a strong community and close-knit people.

How does the community relate to Stephen?

He's a "star" in Kibera. He still works and lives in the community, though many of his projects take him out of Kibera.

Last time I saw him, he was making props for an apocalyptic sci-fi music video. Again, he was reusing "discards" to make something truly creative. He works with a team of young people on these projects and is an inspiration to them.

Last month I shot a music video with Kenyan rapper Octopizzo who also comes from Kibera. The video draws on the ideas of used clothing being fashionable, using older styles and drawing from the past. It's inspirational. Maybe it's nostalgia, or a sense of self-reliance. Maybe it's just the look itself.

Stephen Marangi is a 'star' in Kibera.
Stephen Marangi is a 'star' in Kibera.
Image: Supplied

Describe the second-hand clothing trade in Kenya?

It's booming. It's everywhere: on the sides of the roads, on busy sidewalks, in markets. Compared to cheap imports from China, it seems people prefer the quality and the price that secondhand clothing offers. To find the right stuff, you've really got to work at it.

For Octopizzo's music video, his brother spent days combing through the used-clothing stalls in Gikomba. People have a "contact" who lets them know when new stuff arrives. There have been attempts to ban it or over-tax it, but this hasn't happened. It's a lifeline for people, especially the youth, who want to be fashionable and look unique with a limited budget. It's a chance to be an individual, to stand out, to express yourself given the limited options ... Once they earn more they are able to mix up their clothes with those from the local market.

What's Gikomba market like?

It's tight. Lots of people, lots of movement and all types of clothes and food are sold there. Farmers bring their produce direct to the stalls and sometimes sell from the back of their pick-up or car. More and more Chinese wares are being sold. Cheap phone covers, cheap phones, plastics et cetera, but the core remains used clothing. It can be messy and chaotic but it's part and parcel of life in Kibera.

What is the soundtrack of the film?

1970s funk music and an original score by Alfonso Perdomo.

About yourself?

I'm from Australia and America. Until recently I lived in Kenya - for over 10 years. My wife is Kenyan, and I feel a deep connection to the country. I've shot a lot of short films, documentaries, music videos and other projects in Kenya and all over Africa.

I've been working on a few unfinished personal projects including a medium-length film called New Eden set in a post-apocalyptic East Africa. I like the space between documentary and narrative - I'm attracted to the "real world" and "real stories" but I want to bring a visual edge using narrative storytelling.

• Bokeh SA International Fashion Film Festival celebrates creativity in fashion, film and design. The Johannesburg edition took place in September 2018. Watch the movies at Bokehfestival.co.za


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