Review: ‘Searching for Amani,’ starring Simon Ali

July 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

Simon Ali in “Searching for Amani” (Photo courtesy of Backroads Pictures and RandomGood Films)

“Searching for Amani”

Directed by Debra Aroko and Nicole Gormley

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Searching for Amani” features a predominantly black African group of people (with a few white people) discussing the 2019 unsolved murder of Kenyan nature conservancy employee Steven Ali Apetet while he was working on the job and the conflicts over land occupation that seemingly led to his murder.

Culture Clash: Steven’s middle child Simon Ali, who is an aspiring journalist, investigates his father’s murder but experiences many obstacles.

Culture Audience: “Searching for Amani” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about true crime and rural African culture.

Levis Ali and Simon Ali in “Searching for Amani” (Photo courtesy of Backroads Pictures and RandomGood Films)

“Searching for Amani” is an emotionally impactful documentary about a teenage journalist’s quest for the truth about his father’s unsolved murder in Kenya. The movie also examines conflicts between native Kenyans and wealthy white land owners. On another level, the documentary is an observation of how climate change and a severe drought in Kenya turned land occupation into a deadly crisis.

Directed by Debra Aroko and Nicole Gormley, “Searching for Amani” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival, where Aroko and Gormley won the Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director. The word “amani” means “peace” in Swahili. It’s reportedly the last word that Steven Ali Apetet said when he was shot to death on October 15, 2019. He was 41 years old. At the time he was murdered, Apetet was working at his job as a tour at the Laikipia Nature Conservancy.

No suspects or persons of interest have been named in this murder case. There were witnesses (including three tourists who were with Apetet) but they have not been able to identify the killer or killers. The most popular theory is that the killer or killers belonged to a group of pastoral herders who were in conflicts with the Laikipia Nature Conservancy owners about using the conservancy’s land to herd and feed animals.

“Searching for Amani” was filmed with Apetet’s middle son Simon Ali, an aspiring journalist, was 13 years old. The other people in Simon’s tight-knit and loving family include his widower mother Lucy and his siblings (listed in order from eldest to youngest) sister Faith, brother Ken, brother Levis and sister Charlene. Simon is the middle child and is the voiceover narrator for the documentary. At one point, Levis is tasked with doing some of the interviewing in the investigation because he’s older than Simon and is allowed to travel to certain places while Simon has to stay in school.

Apetet is described as kind, hard-working “peacemaker,” who took this job at the Laikipia Nature Conservancy (which is about 100,000 acres of land) so he could afford to send his children to good schools. Apetet has been an employee at the conservancy for about 20 years and was shot in the morning, near the beginning of his works shift that day. In voiceover narration, Simon says that people tell him that out of all of his siblings, his personality is the most like his father’s personality.

Simon comments, “Everyone in my family wants justice. Why did they want to kill him?” Simon’s investigation includes interviews with several people, including some of his father’s former co-workers and Laikipia Nature Conservancy owner Sveva Makena Gallmann, whose mother Kuki Gallmann bought the conservancy. The former co-workers interviewed include mechanic Enock Nodkia, security officer Isaac Kateiya, lodge staffer Frederick Gikandi Kamuri and botanist Thomas Olekaichu. One of the most compelling parts of the documentary is when one of the tourist witnesses is tracked down and interviewed.

Simon (who comes from a farming family) gets support from his best friend/schoolmate Haron Lenges, who comes from a pastoral herding family. During the filming of the documentary, Simon sees Lenges’ family go through hardships because of the drought. It helps Simon have a more personal understanding of pastoral herders feeling desperate to use land to keep their herds alive. Simon’s father had many responsibilities in his job. One of them was to remove trespassers.

It’s mentioned in the documentary that the journalist Simon whom admires the most is Kenyan TV journalist/talk show host Jeff Koinange, who hosts the talk show “Jeff Koinange Live” on Citizen TV. Koinange is known for his investigative work in social and political issues, especially those pertaining to Africa. A montage epilogue in “Searching for Amani” show what happens in Simon’s quest to eventually meet Koinange.

“Searching for Amani” has cinematography by Simon Ali, Campbell Brewer and co-director Gormley. Simon, who is intelligent and inquisitive, clearly had a passion for journalism and has a bright future ahead in this profession. The family’s heartbreak over not knowing the full story of what happened in this tragic murder might never go away. However, “Searching for Amani” is a testament that Simon and the rest of his family are admirably carrying out the wonderful legacy of their departed family member who was taken way too soon from them.

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