Q&A: Director Katja Berath talks about Academy Award-nominated ‘Watu Wote/ All of Us’

By Josh Muchly

Kenya is a country that has been plagued with terrorist attacks, creating tension between the Muslims and Christians living there. Correspondingly, in December 2015, the brutal terrorist faction Al-Shabaab targets a bus containing a peaceful group of both religions. Its passengers include a Muslim man, Salah Farah (Abdiwali Farrah), and a Christian woman, Jua (Adelyne Wairimu), who are both confronted with the same ultimate challenge of faith.

Watu Wote/ All of Us is the short film that tells this story; it has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. Katja Berath is the director of the film. She completed it for her graduation project at the Hamburg Media School in Germany. She took some time to sit down with the Informer Media Group to discuss the film.

Informer Media Group: I was deeply moved by Watu Wote. I found the film very layered; a secular parable on the power of religion. Does that sound about right to you?
Katja Berath: It does, and, in the same time, it doesn‘t. Most of all, it’s a story about the power of humanity. A story in which people decide to put categories aside and act from their deepest human values which might have also have roots in their religion but, maybe, the good sides of religion root in humanity.

Informer Media Group: What most attracted you to this project?
Katja Berath: The power of people who stood up for one another in a situation that couldn‘t be worse. The impact on the world and us was huge; it was days before Christmas. In our world right now, in my opinion, it is necessary to focus on a great goal or good things more or, at least, as much as on the bad side. If we don‘t know where we want to be, we will never reach it. Shining a light on events where people stand up for each other despite religious beliefs or prejudice simply because the person next to you is a human being, might give us a chance to realize what could be possible. And maybe makes us stronger and believe in the good more.

These thoughts gave us the spirit to fight for the possibility to shoot this short film where it belongs – in Kenya. But attached was a huge responsibility: we didn‘t want to go to Kenya, “colonize” a story and tell it from a European perspective. We wanted to find out if Kenyan filmmakers were already planning to make a movie about it and/or if they would team up with us [to get] all our passion and skills into this project together. Kenya has great and inspiring filmmakers, and we were able to do it all together. Lightbox Africa was our amazing partner during the project.

Informer Media Group: What in the screenplay spoke to you the most?
Katja Berath: That it was about the journey of our main character. When I read the first drafts I felt like I was inside the bus. As if I was there. And that is what we want for the audience as well. Really experience the story with all the passengers. Also the silent action of the women touched me. And, of course, the powerful words of the young terrorist and the Teacher Salah Farah.

Informer Media Group: Are you fluent in the languages spoken in the film? If not, how challenging was that on set? Was there a greater challenge in bringing the script to the screen than that?
Katja Berath: I am not fluent at all. I only speak a little Swahili. The lines in the movie are part of that little bit. Communicating was easy — because everybody speaks English in Kenya. I tried to learn as much Swahili as possible and — more importantly — I got to work with the most amazing people. The Casting Director, Lorella A. Jowi, worked side-by-side with me to check if everything was like it should be, and also checked if it was as authentic as I wanted it to be. We worked from the very first Moment together — casting, rehearsals and, finally, the shooting — so we had the same visions and trusted each other a lot.

There were way more challenging things than the language. Our camera was stolen, we didn’t have enough drinking water in the desert sometimes, one of the main actors was imprisoned because of racist reasons, the police car we rented couldn’t be there on time (because in the next village there had been an attack), and also “normal” things — like a not working generator.

Every challenge was big and it felt like we had a bigger challenger every single day, but somehow, with the help of so many great people, we managed to solve them all. Actually, I think one can feel the power of so many people who follow their uniting vision.

Informer Media Group: In the film, is there a symbolic meaning behind the police vehicle being broken down? Did that actually occur?
Katja Berath: It did. It happens a lot. So, this has not a symbolic meaning. Even though it is interesting to have a look on the structures of how police works in Kenya. There are a lot of things one could think through twice if one would be in charge and for sure a lot of things to criticize.

Informer Media Group: There is a theme of unification or, at least, harmony throughout Watu Wote. In your words, what would that harmony look like?
Katja Berath: First step would be accepting what is, and realizing that we need a way that is – maybe – different from what we were trying so far. If people really could be more accepting of people who differ from them, they could be inspired to be more progressive and willing to learn about differentiation.

I don’t expect this film to change the world, but if I can touch even one single person through Watu Wote to simply make an effort to just be more mindful of someone who is different than them and accept that this other person chooses to live their life this way, then we have succeeded with this film.

And this is also my description for harmony: being accepting and willing to learn instead of judging. That would be huge.


Informer Media Group: Who are the “passengers” mentioned in the postscript? Are “all of us” on the bus, so to speak?
Katja Berath: We meant the passengers who really were on that bus and really participated in saving their fellow passengers. But, you are right — you could also say “ALL OF US” are on one of those busses, together. Let‘s hope we are there for each other in case. But really, would you do the same? Would I? I don‘t know. But if we ask ourselves in which situations in our normal life we could stand up for another person or even for ourselves that would be the best beginning.

Informer Media Group: Some would consider Salah to be a Christ figure for making the ultimate sacrifice; do you consider him as such? (Or, is there a comparable figure in Islam?) If so, is Jua a sort of Peter?
Katja Berath: I never thought about it like that before. We didn‘t construct a story by thinking about biblical structures. Also, we didn‘t dive deep into the Qu‘ran to find a person like this. This story happened. Salah spoke up — those women were giving out Hijabs. So finding a biblical structure that a fit is interesting but wasn‘t intended.

Informer Media Group: I felt the last shot of the film (before the postscript) was extremely powerful. Why not end the film there? Why was it important to also show Jua happy at her destination?
Katja Berath: We discussed it a lot and I agree it is very powerful. In the same time, we felt it needed something uplifting in the end as well. Something that shows how this person could change — how she could widen her horizon and started being open again.

Informer Media Group: What’s next for you?
Katja Berath: Currently I am working on my first feature and also thinking about other projects for which I will have to find partners and companies. It is a crazy yet fulfilling ride. I hope we all can enjoy it.

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