Sundance 2024: The Battle for Laikipia emerges as outstanding seminal work on intersectionalities of climate change, colonial history, land rights reform, wildlife conservation, local politics

Astute for how well it balances the voices of Indigenous herder communities, multigenerational white family ranchers and wildlife conservations, the documentary The Battle for Laikipia, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, presents a definitive case of how the intersections of climate change, politics, unresolved historical issues and resource competition are putting such pressure on all stakeholders that deadly violence has intensified.

Directed by Daphne Matziaraki and Peter Murimi, the film is centered on the fertile plains of Laikipia. Both directors, who are distinguished journalists and filmmakers, do an outstanding job in delicately delineating the complicated yet intricately nuanced map of these intersecting issues. Last year in the spring, rains finally broke a persistent drought in Kenya, the worst in more than 40 years which had caused five consecutive seasons of far below average rains. 

With the drought, Pokot, Samburu, Turkana and Maasai herders had taken their cattle to graze on lands, which led to clashes not only among Indigenous herder communities but also when herders took their cattle to private ranches, wildlife preserves and conservancies and cultivated land. As the film documents, in this particular drought, local politicians, running on a platform to highlight the inequities in land ownership and land tenure security, also sought to whip up the herders’ resolve, by urging them to take their cattle to private and protected lands. One politician ended up being charged with hate speech.

The unusually severe drought brought to a boil long-simmering grievances that have never been adequately addressed. Laikipia is home to ranches and commercial farms that are on lands where Indigenous communities were displaced by British colonial families as well as elites who came to the fore after Kenya gained its independence in 1963. Laikipia also has many conservancies which protect endangered species, including the white rhino and Grévy’s zebra.

The film’s stellar qualities are guaranteed by a superlative team, which includes award-winning Sundance alum filmmaker Roger Ross Williams as executive producer; producer Toni Kamau whose recent projects included Softie, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Sam Soko  at Sundance in 2020, and Murimi’s award-winning film I Am Samuel, one of the most widely screened films from Africa about the LGBTQ community there. And, Soko, who won a special jury prize for editing at Sundance in 2020, served as editor on The Battle For Laikipia. Emmy-Award-winning producer Geoff Martz, who co-founded One Story Up with Williams. and National Geographic Explorer Maya Craig rounded out the core creative team.

A still from The Battle for Laikipia by Daphne Matziaraki and Peter Murmi, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

In an interview with The Utah Review, Matziaraki, who is Greek and has spent many years in Kenya, talked about how the team came together. “I started 20 years ago, to work for the United Nations environment program with an internship before I went into documentary filmmaking,” she said. “I work on climate change issues and familiarized myself with the issues in northern Kenya and the issue was always on my mind, even after I left Kenya.” She pursued her graduate studies in Berkeley and her thesis short film 4.1 Miles was nominated in 2017 for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. That short documentary was about a Greek coast guard captain who sought to rescue thousands of refugees from drowning in the Aegean Sea.

Shortly afterward, she met Williams, as the conflict stirred in Laikipia. Matziaraki was drawn to the blog that Maria (who with her son, George, were running one of the ranches featured in the film) had chronicled online. Williams had traveled to the continent to help young filmmakers and that is how the connections with Kamau and Murimi, who were working on I Am Samuel at the time, were cemented. At the outset, Matziaraki and Kamau began working on the documentary and later Murimi joined as the director.

“We knew from the beginning that we needed to tell both sides of the story but we also needed to really bring out that nuance,” Matziaraki explained. “For one director, this almost felt like an impossible task to tell such a difficult nuanced story, especially for me not being from Kenya.”

Daphne Matziaraki, director of The Battle of Laikipia, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Kamau, who also joined the interview for The Utah Review, succinctly summarized the breadth and depth of history at stake in the film. “A topic that keeps coming up in Kenya is the issue of land, the issue of the colonial legacy and of British colonialism, in particular,” she said. Regarding the era of independence which has been in place for more than 60 years, she added, “But there are a number of issues that haven’t been resolved, especially in terms of indigenous populations that were dispossessed of their land in the politicization of land in Kenyan politics. It’s always used as an organizing tool during elections.”

Kamau added, “I thought that this was going to be a singular film that would be able to tell a lot and put two groups of people who don’t usually talk to each other,as much on one level in the playing field, as this happens in this film.” This is where Soko’s value as an editor came into play. “It was invaluable to have that insight from a Kenyan editor who has had international experience and we are an emerging film industry and editing is a big challenge here,” she explained.

As viewers will note, it is not just an issue of land rights but also of conservation, where both Kenyans and white landowners are dedicated to preserving these lands for future generations, according to Kamau. “As a rapidly developing country, Kenya is modernizing and the issue of land is also intertwined with the issue of population and intertwined with the fact that Africa contributes the least to carbon emissions but we also are bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change,” she explained. Kenya’s population is estimated to reach nearly 58 million by the end of the decade. 

But, land reform has never been an easy topic to reconcile in a short-term perspective, given that some landowners have been there for four or five generations. “The Kenyan Land Commission is dealing with land reform issues but it is a long and laborious process where you have to gather evidence from different people, you have to come to the table, you need to have the involvement of government,” Kamau explained, adding that while political will is evident in some sense, reforms cannot occur without considering the history. “When we first got independence, the first government [Jomo Kenyatta] was focused on development, and they didn’t want to revisit the past,” she said. 

Peter Murmi, director of The Battle of Laikipia, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

“When I went to primary school, and it was the same for Pete [Murimi], we weren’t really taught our own history around migration of populations or around the history of indigenous communities or their connection to the land and how they preserve it. We weren’t taught our history of the freedom fighters,” Kamau explained. 

The Mau Mau freedom fighter group is referenced in the beginning of the documentary and, as Kamau noted, they were listed as a terrorist organization until the early 2000s. Last year, Our Land, Our Freedom, directed by Meena Nanji and Zippy Kimundu, documented the brutalities British forces inflicted upon the participants in the Mau Mau rebellion during the 1950s. It is this surging interest in telling these stories, including The Battle for Laikipia, that Kamau believes will help “move toward a shared vision of what we call home, because at the end of the day we’re all sharing these spaces and the ecosystems and how we can work together.”

As Matziaraki noted, looking at the press dispatches from around the world regarding the Laikipia conflict, many were relayed exclusively from the perspectives of conservationists and ranchers, while the herders and pastoralists were framed as bandits and tribal gunmen. Many of the Indigenous herders were surprised when the production team reached out to them to tell their side of the story.

A still from The Battle for Laikipia by Daphne Matziaraki and Peter Murmi, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

While Matziaraki said that they have fielded many questions about the production challenges involved in navigating rough terrain and the long distances involved in the film, she noted that their most significant challenge was “keeping, retaining and cultivating these relationships and the level of trust.” Kamau added that the journalistic backgrounds of Matziaraki and Murimi were valuable in how they interrogated themselves about every decision made throughout the entire process of filming, including the editing and post-production phases.

It is that rigor which distinguishes The Battle for Laikipia as a seminal work that should guide other filmmakers, as stories with similar bundles of intersecting questions and challenges emerge amidst the potentially dramatic consequences afoot with climate change, land rights reform and focused attention on environmental sustainability and preservation. 

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