Think of Kenyan filmmaker Mbithi Masya’s “Kati Kati” as a condensed version of “Lost,” in which the characters are all aware that they’re dead from the outset and it only takes one hour for the principals to face their own mortality. Maybe that’s a cheap comparison: “Kati Kati” isn’t about genre and isn’t about intrigue or puzzle box storytelling. But the film’s lithe structure and narrow scope don’t lessen its impact as narrative or its effect as allegory. In point of fact, each elevates the other. “Kati Kati” is a small movie about big ideas, where the struggle to come to terms with both life and death is confined to a single cinematic space. The film functions as a riff on Luis Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,” in which the bourgeois Möbius strip is replaced by denial of guilt.
The set-up is simple. “Kati Kati” opens on a young woman named Kaleche (Nyokabi Gethaiga) as she wakes up in deep in Kenya’s brushland; she has no idea how or why she got there, or where in hell “there” actually is. But she spies a compound close by and hoofs it on over, finding the place is populated by a small group of residents who let her know immediately that the compound is called Kati Kati, that she can’t leave Kati Kati, and that if she’s in Kati Kati, it means that she’s dead. A disbelieving Kaleche tries to escape and runs face first into an invisible boundary. The message is heard loud and clear: She’s there to stay, and so stay she does, becoming friendly with Kati Kati’s other tenants and enjoying all of its sundry recreational activities to while away her time.
If you can’t put a gun in a movie without it being fired, then you also can’t erect an imperceptible barrier around a tiny lodge located as far from civilization as possible without someone breaking it, and so “Kati Kati” slowly comes to revolve around the nature of Kati Kati itself and how a given occupant can eventually free themselves from its ephemeral borders. But freedom in “Kati Kati” isn’t about action. It’s about introspection and literal soul-searching. There’s an immediate transparency to the mechanics of the film’s drama that would qualify as obvious if not for Masya’s earnestness as a director. He doesn’t play coy with his plot or his audience’s senses; he lays “Kati Kati”s existential cards on the table early and without hesitation, leaving us to sort out the greater truths of his screenplay (which he co-wrote with Mugambi Nthiga) ourselves.
There are secrets to mine out of “Kati Kati,” but those secrets are personal on multiple levels: they’re the private shames of Masya’s characters, each of whom must labor to banish them from memory. No one quite knows why they’re trapped in Kati Kati at first, or they’re unwilling to admit to the “why” if they do. Thus they stay trapped in a kind of purgatory, stuck in a perpetual holding pattern for as long as they refuse to face their guilt. This is meaningful for Kaleche as well as Thoma (Elsaphan Njora), one of Kati Kati’s ringleaders who counsels the lodge’s new arrivals and takes a particular interest in Kaleche as she slowly begins to acclimate to her new surroundings and her new condition.
Maybe Thoma’s attraction to Kaleche, and hers to him, is one area where Masya is susceptible to charges of coyness, but that element is the overarching mystery that gives “Kati Kati” its throughline. Let Masya have his enigmas; they’re but a small component of the film’s driving thematic scheme (More puzzling are Thoma’s interactions with his doppelganger, an ashen, ghoulish figure whose presence is left unexplained for the film’s first two acts). How you engage with “Kati Kati” will depend on how you engage with the notion of death itself, whether you are comfortable with talking about your most humbling failures and disgraces, and your general feeling on spiritual matters. The film isn’t necessarily religious, but it takes place entirely in the afterlife, or perhaps an afterlife, which may be anathema for the metaphysically disinclined.
But “Kati Kati” isn’t a preachy experience, or even an especially otherworldly experience, though cinematographer Andrew Mungai bathes the picture’s frames with a softness that lends each a lilting and dreamlike sensibility. Mungai’s camera isn’t undisciplined, but it feels unmoored, as though to emphasize the story’s disembodiment from the physical realm. All the same, the film remains absent a god or a unified ideology. “Kati Kati” is divorced from sectarian identity and utterly disinterested in who its characters pray to or whether they pray at all. Instead, it’s focused on how they grieve, how they acknowledge their regrets, how they atone, and how they move on to the next life. The film speaks to the universal experience of death and dying on a purely human level.
The seventy-five minute running time suits Masya’s subject matter as well as his basic conceit, and yet one might also wish for more all the same. “Kati Kati” is the kind of movie that plays like an act of discovery (which is probably why it won the FIPRESCI Discovery Prize at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival); whatever reference points can be found in Masya’s work, the work itself still feels like an original, vibrant and exciting statement from a talented filmmaker who clearly has much more to say.