We’ve seen mockumentaries that poke fun at small-town office life, local government, the excesses of late ’70s rock and roll, and countless other topics. Given the ubiquity of the format, you could be forgiven for thinking that the well of fake-reality as a way to highlight the absurdity of a given topic had run dry.
But after looking at Hussein Kurji’s online series, The Samaritans, it clear that the world of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international nonprofits, which can involve a lot of westerners trying to help people in Africa without a nuanced understanding of the challenges involved, is a more-than-ripe target for the Office-style treatment.
Kurji, who lives and produces the show in Kenya, had his share of concerns about the way his country is perceived by people with good intentions, but not a lot of deep understanding. But rather than issue a polemic or a lecture, he wanted to raise those concerns with a few well-placed jokes.
“The concept was born because the world we were tackling had never been attempted as comedy within Kenya before,” he tells us. “Seeing other examples of the genre, and the kind of humor we were aiming for, it lent itself well to the mockumentary format.” There aren’t a lot of comedies of this nature being produced in Kenya, which Kurji says helped him recruit his large, diverse cast.
“Everyone was drawn to the script, and to the mockumentary concept,” he says. “The fact that this genre of comedy had not been tried before [in Kenya] and that we were focusing on the NGO world were two big ticks for everyone.” The cast–which in the first season includes 21 actors–features talent from Canada, South Africa, the U.K., the U.S., Senegal, Nigeria, the Netherlands, and, of course, Kenya. The production team recruited through social media, open casting calls, and via expat groups.
To raise money for production, Kurji started a Kickstarter campaign (raising $10,000 in the process) that–perhaps ironically–also led him to an NGO that saw the eight-minute demo he’d shot. “While we were crowdfunding, an NGO happened upon it and wanted to help us further,” he says. Now that the first two episodes have been completed and made available, Kurji is using a unique distribution model to continue funding the show.
“At our site, the first two episodes are available for rent–and people can pledge to future episodes,” he says. “Yes, we are raising funds just like an NGO–the irony is not lost on us.” For viewers who aren’t sure if they’ll like the show, there are two-minute clips from each episode available for free. Afterward, viewers can pledge any amount they like, starting with $5, to receive a password to access a Vimeo page with the full episodes.
Those episodes are funny, pointed pieces of comedy that pull few punches. There are white westerners with savior complexes working in an office with people who don’t seem to need their leadership, and the characters deal with fundraising campaigns that highlight the absurdity of this world. The organization in The Samaritans is called “Aid For Aid,” a name that typifies the redundancy at the heart of the sort of organizations in Kurji’s sights.
Kurji co-writes the episodes with Jim Longmore, a British native who lives in Texas. “He brought out humor that related both to Britain and America, and that seems to resonate with the audience,” Kurji says. Together, they developed character bibles and outlines, then went back and forth with character arcs and jokes.
The Samaritans is funny, but the world it mocks is a serious one–which means that Kurji faces some responsibilities that he takes seriously, as well. “Over the course of many years, we’ve heard a lot about the NGO world in Kenya. It’s a big business here,” he says. “The stories have been absurd, and it got me thinking–the NGO world and all its absurd stories seem like a perfect fit. There’s no better way to talk about serious issues than via comedy. It makes it more approachable.”
Approachability is important to Kurji, too: “The stories within the world we are depicting have to come from the characters, since the world is very specific in its language and its manners,” he says. “But new worlds are introduced to viewers all the time–and this one is rather fun.”
That may be the first time anyone’s described NGOs in Kenya as “fun,” but Kurji and The Samaritans are busy challenging all sorts of preconceptions with the series.