It is 2012. I am sitting in Spree club, Eldoret recovering from some intense 100 seconds. Rudisha has just set a new world record. For most of us, the 1.40. 91 was pretty much all we got to see of Rudisha’s talent. For Jackie Lebo, it was a befitting conclusion to Gun To Tape, a documentary she had been shooting. It chronicles the journeys of Rudisha and Edna Kiplagat as they make a stab at Olympic glory, beginning at the training camps of Iten, and culminating in the city of London.
There is a sad moment when Kiplagat fails to make a podium finish due to one tactical error. Another poignant moment comes when Rudisha explains why he runs at the front from start to finish. To an uninformed eye, it seems counter-intuitive. Lurking near the front, reserving energy for a debilitating kick in the last hundred metres, is a well known, and used, Kenyan tactic.
Since then, Jackie has gone on to, among other less public works, make another poignant picture. The Last Fight is a heartbreaking narration of the fights Kenyan boxers are going through to protect the little they have.
Before filmmaking, Jackie was a writer first, and photographer. I sat down with her to talk about the two documentaries, her motivations to do them, what inspires her creativity, and her other works with Content House, a content trust she heads.
My interest is in your interest in athletes, when did it start?
I find it very obvious. Ever since you were young, one of the the first things that comes into your conscious is that Kenya is a very good country in athletics; middle and long distance. We set the standards in the world. When in Kenya, it is not the thing you are defined by, even though you are conscious of it. But when you are outside, that is the first thing anyone asks you, at least in my experience. I have been in remote villages in South East Asia and when they find out you are from Kenya, the first thing they say is marathon. So, I wondered why I have never seen any books, photography or films, done by Kenyans on the subject. The existing ones were very unsatisfactory, they were from a very outside gaze. I did a small article and shared it with Kwani and Binyavanga. He asked me do a bigger article. I did a bigger article and it morphed into, now, ten years of work.
Was hard gaining access to the athletes training camps? I tend to think foreigners find it easier to gain access, as compared to Kenyans.
That is a myth. It is not easy, and yes, the foreign corps do have institutional support. However, once they trust you and see that you are consistent, which I had done in 06 and 07, then they can allow you in. But I did not encounter any(difficulty). But I am from that region and, have had family who have been in athletics and have represented Kenya. That was an advantage. Also, it was of a particular interest for me because of that access that I had to be able to tell this story.
What was the reaction to The Last Fight, especially from the Ministry of Sports and Culture?
I am told by the boxers that the grabbers have stepped back because of the attention that the film brought to the topic. I am also told the Nairobi County Executive for Culture and Sports has also reached out to them. But I have to go back to the boxers. They were already very strong in their activism and protection of the hall before we went to tell their story. The documentary only amplified their actions. I am told there has been some rehabilitation done. But I am also told the CS is as lethargic as ever. But, there are people who have reached out to them and are trying to find out a way to have a legal status before the story completely dies down and the grabbers come back.
How did you convince them to be acquiesce to their story being told?
Once we told them the potential of the story to amplify their cause, they were a bit happy. The difference between the boxers and the constituency in our first film which was a rural set, is I think, urban people are very familiar and very comfortable with media and understand how to portray themselves in media. What reflection they would like to see back from the screen, and kind of very prepared for that. I mean those guys can be one of the most amazing group of people I have ever filmed. So unselfconscious, so willing to reveal themselves on the camera.
Television/Film teaches you about itself by watching, and I think being urban and having all sorts of media, gives you understanding of what the power of that can be. I found them very ready. They were enthusiastic from the beginning, as opposed to some of the runners you had to really draw them out.
How is the reception to all these works, on sports?
It has been quite amazing. I am really quite astounded when, for instance, I get called whenever there it is sports season, or something like that. I am on TV like three times a week. Sometimes in prime time. For me, it shows that people are listening. That they value the research you’ve done in terms of commenting on sports at a higher level. When I see athletes whom I started working with a long time ago have also taken on that role of media participation, and are forming associations to agitate for their issues, I feel like it has just opened a space. It has contributed to opening a space for people to now really express themselves, and for people to see that sports storytelling can be done in a very creative and in depth way.
You are currently working on a story about Turkana, how is the experience, and how did you decide to take on that project?
The stories that have always interested me in Kenya are runners, Northern Kenya and the Coast. When I visit them, I feel my heart moving. I feel like I must react to that as an artist.
Turkana is where access problems now come in;it is far away, nobody knows you, many people have come there with many stories, they do not know your intentions. We were lucky to partner with Friends of Lake Turkana who work very well in the grassroots. We are hoping to tell a story of change. I am very interested in change. Especially from traditional societies to modernity. That is what the overall project in Turkana is. It will have components of print and film. We are also looking to going beyond our expertise. We want to collaborate with other artists. At some point, we would like to ask for people from music and fashion to collaborate because there is a lot of beauty in that region.