By Gregory Crofton
Kisilu and Christina Mutya feed their family by cultivating a variety of crops on land in Southern Kenya. It can be a brutal existence, one hinged to the weather.
It helps that Kisilu is a patient and determined man, and that Christina is a loving and resilient woman. But daily life for them is a struggle, even terrifying because of global warming and its effect on the climate.
Kisilu and Christina now face extensive flooding in place of needed rains, and periods of drought that never seem to end. Kisilu has determined that the planting of trees is the way to fight global warming and help farms like his. He shares this information with whomever he can.
“THANK YOU FOR THE RAIN” is the story of Kisilu, Christina and Julia Dahr, a Norwegian filmmaker who, along with Kisilu, spent the last seven years working to bring this documentary to the screen.
Dahr said she knew of global warming and its “potential” impacts on the planet, but it was only when she realized that those impacts had already landed that she decided to tackle a film project on the subject.
After Dahr and Kisilu finally crossed paths — she met with many farmers while on a research trip in Kenya — he agreed to tell the story of his family but only if Dahr would lend him a camera so he could document things himself. Dahr said she was happy to be able to do that. The result is a powerful, resonant film that’s co-directed by the two of them.
We recently had a chance to interview Dahr about her film.
CN: How was your recent screening in Nairobi, Kenya?
Julia Dahr: It was was amazing. It was so inspiring. We had so many people it was just too crowded so we had to open up two venues for the screening and have two screenings at the same time. Kisilu and Christina were there so they got the standing applause when they came up to the stage. It was really powerful, really great. It’s just so nice to see how it’s also being received in Kenya.
CN: Where is Kisilu from?
JD: He is from Kitui, which is between Nairobi and Mombasa (both in Kenya). That’s why it was just so powerful being in their own country, getting this reaction from people. It’s was just amazing.
CN: How long did you work on the film and has it been released yet?
JD: I worked on the film for seven years now. I guess you could say it took six years making it, but then after it’s finished we still have to work on getting it out. So we launched it in March at CPH: DOX at Copenhagen in Denmark. Since then it’s been to almost 30 countries for different festivals and screenings.
CH: How many of those screenings have you attended?
JD: Not that many, maybe like seven or something. That’s the good thing about the film, that it can kind of stand by itself. It doesn’t necessarily need me or Kisilu.
CN: What was some of the results of your screening in Kenya, other than people loving it and Kisilu being a hero?
JD: So a lot of people pledged ways that they can team up with Kisilu, and team up on how they can use the film in Kenya as a tool. Because what we’ve been doing — screenings with farmers, local governments and NGOs — bringing them together to discuss both the challenges of climate change and solutions.
It’s become this tool that brings new partnerships. People that have never met before suddenly meet, watch the film, and then they start finding solutions together. So after the screening in Nairobi as well people also pledged places we can screen it, new ways of collaborating, new partners. That’s really good.
CN: How can people watch your film if they can’t make it to a screening?
JD: We update our website all the time where there are screenings, so that’s one way if there is a screening close by. People can also organize their own local screenings of the film. And then later on, not yet — first it will go to more festivals — it will also be video on demand on the website. It’s already sold to broadcasters in 11 countries, but we’re still pushing for more countries and in the U.S. we’re pushing and we don’t have a broadcast deal yet.
CN: Have you made your money back yet on the film?
JD: No. No we’ve not.
CN: Is this your first documentary?
JD: First feature.
CN: What else have you worked on?
JD: So I worked on some short things but not anything that really had a wide distribution. When we went to Kenya the first time in 2011 we were only supposed to film for one month or one rainy season. We never knew it was going to turn into a whole feature. So from that first month we made a short film that was 40 minutes following Kisilu and his family. That was called to “Wind of Change.” That did good at festivals but didn’t have any broadcast or go any wider.
CN: What made you stretch it out into a feature and what did you add to it?
JD: From that film, Kisilu got invited to Norway to speak at the conference because some people saw some of the footage from that film. Then Kisilu was invited to Cop 21 in Paris. So it was like OK now the story can hold the length of a feature now with all of this content. And it’s both on the local level and the global level, so it kind of makes sense to tell the whole scope of it.
CN: How did you meet Kisilu?
JD: So I guess when I was 21 or 22 that’s when I learned that climate change is one of the biggest injustices of the day. That it is the people who have contributed the least to climate change that are the first and hardest hit, but also those people are the furthest removed from power to actually influence the positions.
I also learned that climate change is happening now! And it’s happening to people. Because before that what I knew was how it affected polar bears or statistics, not really how it’s affecting people. Then I tried to see if there are any films on it and I couldn’t find any films on like how it’s affecting people, really the people who are living so close to nature like farmers are. That’s when I decided OK this story is untold. This story is missing.
Then I knew Kenya from before because I’d been there on an exchange program with the Peace Corps. So that’s why I decided to go to Kenya and teamed up with a local organization. They took me around and I went to visit many different farmers and Kisilu was one of them. When we met, Kisilu was actually the last day of the research, and we just connected immediately because he had all this vision of what he wanted to do and this charisma and determination. Then I asked him and I asked Christina if they would be fine with us hanging around for a month filming everything they would do. And he said yes, just the one condition with the camera.
CN: Did you have a camera to give him?
JD: Yes, we had a camera that was good for use. That worked out well.
CN: Kislu is a real star, you obviously noticed that. Is Kisilu after attention or is he after making a real change, where is his heart?
JD: He’s after making a real change but if that means he has to get attention to make that happen, then he’s up for that. I think he’s quite brave in the way he’s lending his story to a bigger topic in a way and becoming a spokesperson on this topic. So yeah it’s very much because he wants change. He a very good public speaker and he’s up for using his skills.
CN: So you talked about getting permission to film his family for a month. How did they make that leap? Did they have to adjust to you?
JD: Yes of course some they have to adjust to be a bit patient because we’re a bit slower. When we join Kislu we have to carry all this equipment. So sometimes he has to move slower around. And sometimes you wanted to film morning activities and they started before we had the camera ready and we had to say “just wait a little bit.” And then of course they had to get to know us in the beginning and trust us for it to feel natural. I remember in the beginning especially Christina was very shy in the beginning. She was saying that her English was kind of not good enough, even though she spoke better English than what I did at that moment. After a while we managed to build that trust together.
“You kind of realize that it’s something constantly that is kind of hunting you. You’re fighting back something abstract.”
CN: So both of you had different languages. When did they learn English and how did they learn English?
JD: So in Kenya, I think it’s been like that when they were young as well, at least now from third grade all topics are taught in English, even like Natural Science and Mathematics. So they start very early because it’s the official language of Kenya. So the national language is Swahili and then the official language is English and then everyone also has their own mother tongue, their own tribe language. So if you have gone to school for five, six, seven, eight years then you will know all those three languages.
CN: What are you most proud about the film?
JD: I think it must be that we managed to tell — through Kisilu and how he uses the media diary, and how he’s so brave in what he’s sharing — I think we managed to tell the psychological aspects of climate change. Of course climate change is about life and death, but it’s also everything in between. It’s about when your children when you can’t send them to school and how you do think about that, and when you can’t plant. You kind of realize that it’s something that is constantly kind of hunting you.
You’re fighting back something abstract. Climate change is an abstract thing that you can’t really touch and it’s something that everyone has to come together to fight back. It’s the psychological challenges of fighting something abstract and something that changes. It can be flood or it can be drought the next second. I think especially through the ant scene that Kisilu filmed with his video diary, you really get to feel. I think that’s my favorite part of the film, and how Kisilu really manages to — because he’s so brave in sharing everything he thinks and all of his challenges — you realize how deep climate change is affecting.
CN: What was the most difficult thing you had to do for this film?
JD: The most difficult thing was actually to put my voice into the film. That was one of the last decisions we made and it was very late in the edit process. I really didn’t want to be in the film at all because I wanted it to be Kisilu and Christina’s story and I find that when the director put themselves into it they kind of take over and change the focus of the film. But we screened the film to a lot of people and we had a lot of test screenings and the feedback we we’re getting — because we had no way of explaining how he went to Norway and how he got invited to Paris these things just happened very randomly — so for the film to be as truthful as possible and for people to believe in it of course I’m a part of it so I needed to be part of it.
In the end it worked out well because then we could also tell the friendship layer and how it developed between me and Kisilu and we could jump time also in the film more easily. In the end I’m happy about it. Also the feedback I’m getting is that they still believe it’s Kisilu and Christina’s film and that I’m just a small part in it, which I’m very happy about it. That was definitely the most challenging decision. When we made that decision then I was extremely sad for a while.
CN: How have the climate conditions in Kenya been recently?
JD: I think now it’s been two years or one and a half where it’s been extremely dry. But right now it’s rainy season and this rainy season is working the one that’s on right now. So when I met Christina and Kisilu just yesterday and they are very happy about how it’s looking now. But it’s constantly happening and it’s this constant battle about trying to be ahead of it, trying to find ways to adapt.
CN: Do you think that planting trees is a way of really dealing with it?
JD: I think it’s different for different local areas. For instance in Norway we have lots of trees so it’s not maybe the way to fight back. But in Kisilu’s community, when they plant the trees, the roots they hold on to the water more easily and they also stop soil erosion and can also have leaves that gives nutrition to the soil and give shade. Kisilu knows of course more about all of the positive effects of the trees, but there are so many ways it kind of contributes direct to your plants. So of course it’s reducing the climate change issue, or the CO2 gases, the mitigation is just one part of it. Of course you can grow fruit trees as well and they can go deeper with their roots to get water that’s further down so it definitely has an effect.
CN: A lot of the CO2 problem has been because of deforestation in the Amazon, so I guess it does make sense that planting trees could be the answer. It seems so simple. I hope that’s the answer because it’s something people can do. But there is a problem of having them money to buy the trees to put them in the ground. How does Kisilu afford to plant trees?
JD: For him, he knows exactly what seeds to look for. So he goes around and finds the seeds himself and he does the whole process from the seed to the tree nursery. But then that also needs a lot of water especially when they are small, you need to water them, to take care of them. So when it’s very dry it’s very hard to take care of them. But they are doing the very best they can to try, and now they are pushing, trying to get an irrigation system. Trying to get more access to water because when it rains, it rains a lot, so if they could build earth dams they could contain the water. Then they could have an irrigation system and then they could actually harvest three times a year instead of like today.
CN: Currently Kisilu has a farm? What does he raise?
JD: Yup. He has maize, casaba, mango, papaya, sweet potato, chickpeas, some goats. One way of adapting is to have a lot of different enterprises so that if one fails because of the weather then another one hopefully survives.
CN: How many acres do they have?
JD: I don’t know how to measure it in acres. A wild guess for me would be like three soccer fields, but I wouldn’t take that as a fact. It’s not like a flat farm. It goes up and down and then there is a small portion over here. So I think the tree planting is a good way to adapt and it’s also a good way to get some of the carbon also kind of into the trees, but I definitely think we also need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. We can’t taking up all of that and then just plant trees. I don’t think that would help enough.
CN: Do they grow coffee where Kisilu lives?
JD: No. They don’t grow any cash crops. Actually there is one farmer, he grows chiles. He sells that at the local market. And there might local farmers who grow more things than what I see.
CN: Where does Kisilu get his optimism from?
JD: So he has his goals that he’s always kind of working towards and then he’s making the best out of everything on the way and doing everything he can to make his family to feel safe. He also says that he has two faces. One face he tries to laugh and stay funny, then of course inside of him he’s worried. But he needs to have that face to keep up the spirit of the family and the community. He’s been facing so many challenges and he always managed to use whatever challenge in a way for him to grow. He has a saying, “Necessity is the mother of all inventions,” that’s something Kisilu often says. He says that whenever you’re [presented] with a challenge, it’s to challenge you to find a solution, and you should be happy that someone is challenging you to find a solution.
CN: There is a scene in the film where Kisilu’s loan application is rejected. Was that difficult to film?
JD: For us I think it was maybe the first time we filmed Kisilu facing any major challenges. So I think for us we felt it was difficult to film because we didn’t know each other that well at that time. So I think it was more OK for Kisilu than how we … we were still trying to figure what is OK and what is not OK, how much we are trusting each other. It was very early on.
CN: If Kisilu is patient and resilient, what is Christine?
JD: She is full of love and she has the best laughter in the world. She is very funny. She has a lot of jokes. She sees people — if someone is outside in the crowd, or someone is not speaking or someone feels left out — she sees them and she pulls them in, in a good way.
CN: What film would you have made without Kisilu? I guess you’ve answered that question. You made a shorter film (Wind of Change).
JD: But that was with Kisilu. For the research we did we were searching for someone who was challenged by climate change but also was proactive, someone with a vision. It was very important that the person was proactive because I think there is so many films, so much media from Africa saying that people are sitting and waiting for help by not doing anything. And from what I know that’s just not true.
People are doing so many things to change the situation. So that was very key. So of course without Kisilu it would have to be another farmer that was proactive but I can’t imagine finding anyone that would be, that would carry the story as Kisilu has done and he’s been so brave in everything he’s been sharing and opening up and been so supportive in the process as well. You know whenever we’ve been having challenges, it’s hard to make a documentary, and he’s been very supportive the whole way as well.
CN: You said he met him on the final day of our research tour? Can you describe that for me?
JD: So we rented a car from Nairobi and drove to this area, it takes eight hours drive. Five hours, and then three hours on a bumpy road. Then after the bumpy road you get to a small city-village called Mutomo, from there it’s 30 minutes drive on a very narrow bumpy road where you have to even sometimes cut branches on the side. Then it’s like 15 minutes walk from where you have to park the car and then you come to Kisilu and Christina’s house. We had this really good local organization helping out.
CN: Anything I haven’t asked you about you’d like to mention?
JD: Just maybe mention that we have a lot of information on our website about what’s going on, and also on Facebook. It’s a continuing story, you know? That’s why we’re updating as much as we can so that people can continue following what’s happening.
CN: What are some of your favorite documentaries?