Kenyan director Likarion Wainaina spent five years bringing his film about a dying girl who dreams of being a superhero to the screen. On Friday, he’s bringing “Supa Modo” to Salt Lake City.

And he's hoping it will inspire audiences — not just with its story of a child facing death, but that it will prompt Utah children to make movies of their own.

“Supa Moda” is Friday’s opening-night film for the 2019 Tumbleweeds Film Festival for Children and Youth, which continues Saturday and Sunday at the Salt Lake City Library and The Leonardo. Wainaina will be in town Friday through next Thursday for post-screening Q&A sessions, along with several special screenings at area schools, where he’ll interact with students.

His movie — Kenya’s official entry for the 2019 Oscars — centers on Jo (Stycie Waweru), a bright, funny 9-year-old obsessed with movies and superheroes who is dying of cancer. Her single mother, Katheryn (Marrianne Nungo) brings Jo home to be with family, a decision that troubles Jo’s sister, Mwix (Nyawara Ndambia), who has a fraught relationship with her mother.

As her time draws short, her rural village comes together to make Jo's dream come true.

Wainaina said he’s anxious to show Utah audiences “Supa Modo” and an Africa they’ve never seen. “Here we have a chance to show our own version of a superhero and what a superhero means to us. And also show what film means to us as Africans," he said in a phone interview. "Cinema is such an important part of our culture.”

Africans are greatly influenced by American movies, he said. “But we felt it’s high time we also try to influence America and the rest of the world as well,” Wainaina added with a laugh.

The goal of Tumbleweeds is to expose moviegoers to other people and other cultures. This year’s lineup includes films from Sweden, Tibet, Spain, Denmark, Germany, Swaziland and Iran.

“One of the things that we strive to do is to share new, interesting and engaging stories,” said Utah Film Center programming director Patrick Hubley. “Films that wouldn’t otherwise be seen by young audiences here in Salt Lake. And I think that (‘Supa Modo’) really fits the bill.”

Wainaina will be visiting the United States for the first time, “so I’m really eager to see how they respond to Kenyan film,” he said.

“Our goal is to show these films so kids can connect and have some understanding or idea of what life is like in these countries,” Hubley said. “If we can introduce that to young audiences, we can create more empathy and understanding for different cultures and different experiences.

Originally, the film was based on Wainaina's life “growing up as a kid and watching movies. But the story took a sudden turn in 2017 when he and the writers visited a children's cancer ward.

“The moment we spent a day with them, the entire story changed for us. I just had to approach it from a different angle to make sure we honored these kids and what they're going through,” Wainaina said.

“Supa Modo” will bring tears to your eyes, but it's not a sad movie. Not only is it very funny in spots, but it's more inspiring than tragic.

“I can’t take credit for that because, to be honest, the idea of bringing the joy and the hope to the film came from the kids themselves,” Wainaina said. “We were expecting them to be sad and to be crying. And they were full of life. They were full of joy.

“And they know they're not going to make it. But one of the kids told me they look at life, not death. So the idea of bringing the humor and the heart to the film came from those kids.”

“Supa Modo” is not just a movie for children, it's also for their parents. And grandparents.

“Yes, it is a family film,” Wainaina said, “but it's also an opportunity for kids to not only see a positive superhero that is their age, but also see if film is an avenue for them. And we've had a lot of reports coming back after we've done school screenings of kids wanting to get into film.”

Wainaina wants children to know that it's possible. He wants to encourage them the way he wished he'd been encouraged himself.

“For me, my only healing was was film,” he said. “To be honest, I didn't have a very good childhood, growing up with a single mom with no money. I didn't know how to communicate with her. But I felt like I could communicate with her through movies, through storytelling.”

He spent “almost all my weekends at the cinema, because that was my escape. And I thought it would end as it was when I was a kid.” Instead, he started performing as an actor, joining a theater group after he dropped out of high school “for financial reasons.”

“I thought — I cannot be a filmmaker without going to film school. So I decided rather than just stay at home, I would just act and at least I'll be close to the camera. And that would be the closest I'd ever be to making a movie.”

He acted in plays, and then started directing them. “And then I got a chance to star in a short film. And while I was on set, I was, like, 'I think I can do this. … I can try this without going to film school and see how it goes.'

Wainaina made a short film with his friends, which led to more short films. And because he “needed to pay the bills,” he started directing commercials and TV series. “But it was always about making films.”

He and his friends formed a company, worked whatever jobs they could find and “saved up and then every few months we have to make a short film.”

“We always joke that we are YouTube University graduates. Everything we know about film we watched tutorials online, we read books, we go and watch film. That’s always been my process of just trying to refine it by doing it. Even in ‘Supa Modo.’”

He hopes to share not just the movie with young people in Utah, but also the joy of making it.

TAKING IN ‘TUMBLEWEEDS’
The Tumbleweeds Film Festival runs Friday through Sunday. A full listing of the festival’s movies and workshops is available at utahfilmcenter.org.
“Supa Moda” screens Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the City Library, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City.
Tickets are $7 for each film. Six-ticket packages are available for $35; 10-ticket packages for movies and workshops are available for $60 at utahfilmcenter.org.
FOR KIDS WHO WANT TO MAKE MOVIES
Children interested in learning the nuts and bolts of filmmaking can sign up for several workshops at the Tumbleweeds Film Festival. All take place this weekend at the City Library, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City. Workshops are $10 each, and open to kids age 18 and under; parents and adult chaperones may attend with a participating minor for no charge. Go to utahfilmcenter.org for details.
The Tumbleweeds workshops are:
3D platformer game design, presented by Spy Hop • Saturday, 10 a.m.
Feel the Noise: Making sound effects for film • Saturday, 12:15 p.m. (A second session, Saturday at 4:45 p.m., is sold out.)
Movie monsters, presented by Spy Hop • Saturday, 2:15 p.m., and sold out.
Special effects makeup • Sunday, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Virtual reality storytelling • Sunday, noon.
For teens, 13 to 19, Spy Hop offers classes and apprenticeships year-round in film, music, audio and digital design. For information, go to spyhop.org.

This coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. The Salt Lake Tribune makes all editorial decisions.