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Watching Kenyan director Mbithi Masya’s debut feature, viewers are brought into contact with a mystical sensibility that recalls the beliefs of early-20th-century filmmakers that the transformative energies of cinema were by far the medium’s most vital feature. Swahili for “in-between”, kati kati refers to the film’s strange desert purgatory where a young woman, Kaleche (Nyokabi Gethaiga), suddenly wakes with no recollection of what has happened to her. The opening sequence is uncannily hypnotic as it captures her disoriented state – zooming in on Kaleche’s lone figure to an extreme close-up of her face, suspended in a spectral glow as the whirring sounds of the desert swell on the soundtrack and tether our senses to its liminal apprehensions.

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Unaware that she is caught in a way station for troubled souls, Kaleche soon stumbles upon a nearby resort and finds a group of residents playing charades by the pool. As they turn to face her, they are not surprised to find her dazed and grasping for answers. Nor are they shocked – when they inform her that she is dead – as she bolts from the lodge and races across the desert, only to abruptly collide with an invisible wall that sends her reeling backwards onto the sand. The limbo of kati kati is sealed off by a transparent dome from which there is no evident escape.

But unlike the savage tensions that overtake other entrapment scenarios – like those in No Exit (1944) and The Exterminating Angel (1963) – there is nothing overtly torturous or condemned about kati kati. If anything, it seems the characters could stay forever at this “afterlife resort.” There is leisure, company, and physical comforts. Whatever the residents of kati kati need, they merely have to write it down on a slip of paper, and, by some mysterious mechanism, it will arrive at their doors the next day.

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It is the characters’ troubled spirits that turn this otherwise calm purgatory into a prison. In this sparse borderland, escape by the poolside is possible only for so long before the characters are wrenched back to a bare state of contemplation. Ultimately, the only way for them to leave kati kati is to arrange the pieces of their lives into honest reflections on themselves and acknowledge the guilt that overshadows each of their pasts.

As she tries to decipher the workings of kati kati’s spiritual interworld, Kaleche begins to inquire into the lives of the other inhabitants, reawakening and catalyzing their quest for self-honesty. The most shocking revelation comes from a quiet older man named King (Peter King Mwania), a former priest whose village was besieged by revenge attacks and who locked himself inside his church while his own parishioners frantically sought sanctuary, resulting in their burning to death. More withdrawn than the other residents, King is haunted by visions of his parishioners. His skin has begun to turn a ghostly white – the symptom of souls on the verge of internalizing remorse and departing from kati kati.

The other character that suffers hallucinations is Thoma (Elsaphan Njora). He is kati kati’s tacitly acknowledged leader and has been there the longest, for almost three years. As he helps Kaleche adjust to life at the desert resort, the two develop a connection that contains the uncanny echoes of something deeper. We later realize this is no coincidence. Alone in his room, Thoma unearths a pile of photos of him and Kaleche together, revealing that, in life, the two were married – before his drinking resulted in a fatal car crash, killing them both.

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For as long as possible, a guilt-stricken Thoma hides the truth from Kaleche, who is still struggling to retrieve these memories through a fog of amnesia. But in between his bouts of drinking and revelry at the resort, Thoma is visited by his doppelgänger, whose skin is tinged with the ghostly white that marks the bared souls of kati kati. In Masya’s film, hell is not other people, but oneself – for as long as one avoids introspection. The film’s resolution hinges on the question of whether Kaleche’s presence will enable Thoma to make the passage out of kati kati and move forward in his spiritual journey.

Working within cinema’s under-utilized vein of magical realism, Masya has crafted a film that is both visually arresting and allegorically rich. Kati Kati was one of several projects selected at this year’s One Fine Day Film Workshops in Kenya, organized by Tom Tykwer and his Nairobi-based partner, Ginger Ink Films. Every year, the workshop brings together around sixty filmmakers and options several scripts to develop into feature-length productions that can reach an international audience.

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As Kati Kati traveled the festival circuit, critics were unanimously struck by its dreamlike aesthetic and spiritual message. The American Film Institute’s review made particular note of cinematographer Andrew Mungai’s “unmoored camerawork”, which enhances the story’s “disembodiment from the physical realm and the forces of ideology and sectarian identity” that might have preoccupied more politically-minded directors. In an age where humans’ understanding of the world has become increasingly fragmented, Kati Kati offers a much-needed meditation on the universal experiences of grief and atonement and the enduring imperative of individual soul-searching.

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