TANZANIA: A Friendship Journey
directed by Sylvia Caminer
starring Kristen Kenney & Venance Ndibalema
“Mid Afternoon. The Serengeti.” I can hear the National Geographic announcer intone it as we visit the heart of East Africa in this personal travelogue. Venance Ndibalema grew up in a rural Tanzanian village, yet made it to America with a degree in electrical engineering. His parents are dead, and in Miami he meets Kristen Kenney with her long blonde hair, perfectly capped teeth, and Barbie doll attitude toward what’s important in life. Seeking to see his grandmother before she dies, the pair fly to Africa and begin a journey that echoes The Heart of Darkness. After the mandatory views of chaotic city life, we climb Mount Kilimanjaro, visit the carnivores and herbivores of the national parks, and then head to a series of increasingly remote villages. Along the way, Kristen begins to bond with Venance’s scattered family and experience the poverty and disease that form the basis of daily life. Along the way she emits such gems as “OMG, I’m carrying poop!” and “OMG, they are TOUCHING THE POOP!” as she learns subsistence farming. By the time they reach Venance’s uncle’s village, she walks a mile or two to get a few gallons of muddy drinking water, and has a breakdown. What was once an adventure now sinks in — this is life in Africa, and it’s not going to change for her.
With gorgeous cinematography, this film shows all the classic travel channel shots — mountains, sunsets, animals doing animal things, and people in colorful costumes dancing their daily dances. We start with Venance as the focal point and Kristen as an observer; she sees this as any westerner would, but adapts by learning the “only eat with the right hand” rule and eventually picking up enough Swahili to complain about those speaking dialect. As she bonds with sick children and goes out of her way to help, the focus turns to her awakening and Venance becomes more of an observer and commentator. Eventually she admits she had no soul when she arrived, but now sees the light.
Without condescension or pontification, this is a low-budget indie with a heart. It does run two hours, and after Kristen’s epiphany we still have more crises to deal with — some shot with a painfully low-res camera. That stuff could go; it would make the movie follow Kristen’s arc more accurately and preserve the Blu-ray ready look of the film. Many of us may never climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and this film saves us the trip, but if there is one lesson here, it’s this: “travel broadens you.” There’s more out there than we can imagine in our safe little suburbs, and if you can get a native guide, you really should go see another continent. This film will show why.