Behind the scenes of the popular Salem and Kina MNET TV shows: A Transformative Film Set Experience

By Lauryn Gitau
On Wednesday, July 26, students in Filming and Directing from the School of Communication, Cinematic and Creative Arts went for a field trip to the Maisha Magic studios on Ngong Road. The aim of the trip was to expose the students to a real film set experience and mentorship from industry players. What started as a simple excursion turned into an unforgettable experience for the students.

Courtesy of our host, veteran film and TV producer Njoki Muhoho, the 30 of us plus our lecturer herself an award winning film and TV producer, director and scriptwriter, Ms. Sheila Mulinya, were immediately welcomed by Margaret and Tecla, the Zebra Productions Producers of the ongoing Maisha Magic series, Salem. We were intrigued as we witnessed the intricate details of their pageant themed set that was the filming location of the day. The lavish backdrop was brilliant white with hints of tangerine orange and it was adorned with sparkling lights creating an enchanting ambience fit for a pageant queen. Every element of the set was crafted to perfection, capturing the essence of opulence and grandeur that defines a beauty pageant. It was like stepping into a realm of enchantment, where ordinary spaces transformed into extraordinary worlds through the magic of cinema.

Meeting the crew behind the otherworldly set up was a dream come true. The Salem set’s costume department was a treasure trove of elegance. Gowns of various styles and colors sourced from Uganda and Tanzania lined the racks, each meticulously chosen to reflect the characters’ unique personalities for the contest. Lincoln, the wardrobe stylist, animatedly explained the vision for the costumes that would ensure that every dress would be a showstopper. Their dedication to the craft was inspiring and their stories of perseverance fueled our dreams, igniting a fire within us to pursue our creative aspirations.

In a captivating encounter that left an indelible mark on us, we had the privilege of meeting the formidable and indefatigable veteran Kenyan film and TV producer, Njoki Muhoho. Despite being on the brink of leaving town for a trip, Ms. Muhoho, the CEO of Zebra Productions, generously spared an hour of her precious time to mentor us on the intricacies of Kenya's film and TV production industry, particularly shedding light on the highly anticipated TV show, Salem, which her company has been commissioned to produce for MNET.

During our brief but impactful session, Ms. Muhoho delivered a tough-love speech, sharing her invaluable experiences and the challenges she encounters while holding the reins of Zebra Productions. As the driving force behind the success of the Salem TV series, she emphasized the significance of discipline, dedication and the observance of professional processes in film production. Her words served as a guiding light, igniting a flame of determination within each of us to pursue our passion for filmmaking with unwavering focus and enthusiasm.

With the local Kenyan film and TV production industry in its nascent stages, Ms. Muhoho reassured us that despite the challenges, there are ample opportunities for those who dare to seize them. As we embark on our journeys to graduation, her words will serve as a constant reminder that success in this field lies not only in talent but also in embracing hard work, perseverance and the courage to soar with the opportunities that come our way.

As the day unfolded, fate intervened in the most unexpected way with an unexpected change of plan venue and we once again found our way on the university bus snaking our way into the “Nderi Film Village” where the main Salem set is situated. A chance encounter with the kind-hearted award winning actor Ainea Ojiambo and award winning film and TV director Victor Gatonye opened a door I had never imagined. Luckily for us, they were good friends with our lecturer Prof. Mulinya. Upon request, and through their friendship that has lasted over two decades, the two professionals immediately accepted to spare their time to chat with us about their experiences for the over 20 years that they have worked the craft in the local film and TV production industry in Kenya.

Ainea Ojiambo, known for playing villains and for his role as Snake in the Makutano Junction TV series emphasized the importance of being disciplined in the creative industry and shared insightful advice that every student took to heart. He noted that one of his most difficult roles to date was that of playing a soft guy in a film.

“I had to watch multiple movies where the character kills themselves just to get ready to play the part,” he said. He showed us that he’s not very different from us and that at the core of it all, we were all dreamers and believers in the power of imagination. His words struck a chord within us and it was as if a veil of awe was being lifted.

Film/ TV director Victor Gatonye who is currently directing the Kina TV series joined us, taking us through his personal journey as a passionate storyteller. “I just do stories,” Gatonye stated. He reminded us that filmmaking is not merely about the cameras and lights; it’s about delving into the boundless universe of imagination where dreams take flight and stories come alive.

When asked what part of production is most exciting to him, he quickly replied that apart from directing its “prepping and editing, I love colors”. He described how the creation stage was a delicate balance of structure and spontaneity. He spoke about the joys of collaborating with screenwriters and bouncing ideas back and forth since it was where the initial vision of the story came to life, fueled by passion and editing put everything into place. It was during these stages that the possibilities were limitless and he felt like the conductor guiding the orchestra of creativity with his baton of vision.

We also had a session with veteran film/TV producer John Karanja, himself native of Nderi village who also shared with us some nuggets of wisdom on navigating the fickle local film and TV production industry. The three professionals effortlessly answered our numerous questions. Sharing their experiences was testament to their kindness, generosity and desire to impart knowledge to our generation. Overwhelmed with gratitude and excitement, we eagerly hung on to every word and moment that they shared.

Afterwards, we embarked on a tour of various sets on the Salem location and discovered that each one held a story waiting to be told. Our first stop was a quaint and timeless bedroom set. Adorned with posters of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the room exuded warmth and reflected the character’s deeply religious personality. Next, we found ourselves in a classroom set brimming with potential and aspiration. The walls were adorned with colorful posters and inspirational quotes, igniting a sense of curiosity and ambition. We stepped into a Principal’s office set that was right next. The ambience was a blend of determination and resolve, where a strict professional navigated the challenges of the daily grind. As we entered the dimly lit jail set, the atmosphere grew heavy. We joked around, locking each other up and begging to be set free but the cold iron bars seemed to tell stories of mistakes and second chances. We got to experience different sets like an interrogation room, rural home and gym all in one location. Mr. Karanja even took us to see the laundry, prop, massage and lounge rooms for the cast and crew explaining how each room benefitted the entire production. The sets serve as vessels for storytelling, mirrors reflecting the human experience and the myriad of emotions we encounter in life. We were reminded that storytelling is a powerful tool to evoke empathy, understanding and connection among individuals.

Later, time seemed to standstill as we stood amidst the cameras, lights and action on the Kina set. We had the rare opportunity to watch scenes being shot in real time and the crew’s passion and dedication were palpable. The rush of adrenaline and the anticipation of being in the behind the scenes of a live TV production were indescribable. However, watching the path to movie magic wasn’t all that smooth. Witnessing the crew’s tenacity during retakes resonated with our experiences in university. It reminded us of the importance of perseverance since behind every perfect shot lay countless moments of patience and determination – a valuable lesson beyond the film set.

The class trip to the Salem and Kina film sets was so much more than a mere academic excursion; it was a transformative journey of self-discovery and friendship. We left the sets that day inspired, equipped with newfound wisdom, ready to take on the world of Kenyan film and TV production with the wind beneath our wings, just like Salem's soaring storyline.

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