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Murder Mystery Meets Climate Change: Nicole Gormley Discusses Her Co-Directed Tribeca Film ‘Searching for Amani’

By Luke Y. Thompson

A teenaged boy wearing a green shirt is leaning forward and looking at the camera.

Simon in Searching for Amani. Image credit: Nicole Gormley

If you don’t already know what the Swahili word amani means, we won’t spoil it here, as Nicole Gormley and Debra Aroko’s Searching for Amani treats it as a final reveal, after their documentary has also searched for a killer, a motive, and the manner in which climate change and the descendants of colonialism have caused conflict and death in Kenya.

The American Gormley and Kenyan Aroko tell their story through the eyes of Simon, a 13-year-old whose father was murdered while working as a guide at a wildlife conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya. Simon longs to be a journalist when he grows up, and his first order of business, assisted by the filmmakers, is to try to find his dad’s killer. The answer turns out to be less important than the motive, one held by many pastoralists, who believe all Kenya’s land should be free for everyone’s livestock to graze upon, and that anyone who denies them is slowly killing not only their way of life but also their people. (A similar topic, also centering Laikipia wildlife conservancies and white pastoralists, is also trodden by the Sundance-premiered The Battle for Laikipia.)

Gormley took the time to speak to us en route to the film’s screenings at Tribeca. In our conversation, edited for length and clarity, she discusses the collaborative process, their way into the stories, and prioritizing their subject’s safety above all else. 


DOCUMENTARY: How did you and Debra Aroko come together for this?

NICOLE GORMLEY: Debra actually was our translator in the very beginning, to be honest. I got a small grant for a project in a totally different capacity: we were profiling kids all over the world, working in the Arctic, and the Pacific, and it was gonna be this networked narrative of kids from all over telling their own story. We met Simon in that process. I learned his story and we formed a connection. We also simultaneously really wanted to build out the Kenya team more robustly, because it was going to go from like a short vignette to something bigger. At that time, Debra was translating, but I found she was so immersed in the story because of listening to every single piece that came through that she became my right-hand woman, navigating all things story.

D: After you officially became co-directors, how did the different duties break down, or was there a clear division?

NG:  Our producers Peter Goetz and Mungai Kiroga also wear many different hats. We’re all working. We all have very happy documentary filmmaking backgrounds. I definitely have more experience working in the field, I’ve done a handful of other projects in different capacities and I will shoot, do audio, and wear, again, different hats. I think the field and in-person and relationship-building, all of that kind of stuff, is definitely my strength. Debra’s incredibly smart, incredibly kind, incredibly empathetic, and has a really good story sense. She was very helpful. We just had a lot of conversations about everything. 

It was obviously very sensitive subject matter, featuring a young boy who’s navigating grief and drama and a lot of different things, and so I think having Debra as a sounding board for every decision was just really critical. From the technical side of it, I probably have a fair bit more experience, but I think she also really enjoyed learning and having the opportunity to participate and get into that. Debra also brought a lot of other complementary viewpoints and backgrounds to the table.

D: When Simon as a vignette goes to Simon as a feature, was the hook there the murder mystery aspect, or did you see the climate change angle right away? What was the hook to make it a feature?

NG: We’re all impact-focused filmmakers, so for us, going back to the original iteration of the project, it was definitely coming from a perspective of climate. How do we widen the audience and tell important stories that highlight what’s happening in the world and the intersectional nature of climate change? There are wonderful climate films that are being made but I think it was important for us to rely on other narrative devices. The murder mystery aspect of it all opened up this whole world of climate in a way that I had never seen before. When we first met Simon, it was only a couple of months after his father had been killed, and I was just really struck by how little he knew about what had happened. He was, at that point in time, really asking questions, like, “Who killed my dad? Why was my father killed?” I think we were really intrigued, without necessarily knowing where it would go, that that one question, this really heartfelt and hard question, opened up a much bigger conversation about the complexities of our world. 

D: Did you work on this feature exclusively, or did you have to do other things to support yourself?

NG: This is the first feature-length film I’ve ever done. I’ve worked in a support capacity for other filmmakers, I’ve done a handful of shorts, and for a really long time, I worked as a field director on TV shows and stuff like that. Not to discredit my experience by any means, but this is the first time I’ve ever done anything in which we were doing everything from finding the money to now trying to figure out the DCP and our deliverables to Europe and all the other kinds of stuff, soup to nuts. Learning that entire process was pretty new to me, the back end from the financing side to the distribution side, so I definitely had to work! 

D: What was the toughest part to learn? 

NG: There are so many. I don’t want to rush in and say the first thing that comes to mind. When we were trying to tell a story, even though it took four or five years to do, I don’t think there could have been a world in which it took less time because Simon was really at the center of it all, going through a very genuine process of grief, and the Simon that we met when he was 12 years old to the Simon that is now 17 is a very different kid. I think he really needed to go through that actual journey to get to, not the end of his path by any means, but the end of our film. And it’s condensed down into this 80-minute film. 

It took us so long between when we would shoot something and then coming back almost a year later for Simon to process it. The greatest strength of our film is that it’s told through the perspective of a young boy and at the same time, the most difficult lesson to learn is that it’s told through the perspective of a young boy. So figuring out a real-life merging with something that you’re filming with real people, with real drama, was definitely the hardest and most evolving lesson. And I think when I first started this project I was really naive about what we were walking into from the very beginning. I think I vastly underestimated how much work it was going to be, which is probably a good thing, or else I wouldn’t have done it.

D: Did you ever feel unsafe during the making of this movie?

NG: There were dangerous parts, and I’m not a conflict journalist or a war journalist. Both the mental well-being and the physical well-being of myself and Simon and the family and all that was always the priority. When the fires were happening, I was there with Simon and the crew, awesome producers who are based in Kenya. But I was shooting alone with Ronnie [Mugambi], our audio mixer, and the fires broke out and happened while we were at the Conservancy. We just kind of quickly realized that our number one priority is to get Simon out of the situation. So we took him back home, back to school to make sure that he was safe, and I think that probably came at a cost for the footage in the conflict that we could have seen and captured. 

But again, it was really important for us to identify our boundary lines ahead of time, to make sure that when we sensed danger, we were able to back down. Simon was and is a young boy; we were accountable to keeping him safe, and we always had the consent and input from his mother, but for us, his safety and well-being always took priority.

D: Simon is such an aspiring journalist, and he wants to do some of the same stuff you guys are doing, and he’s obviously somewhat camera-aware, and some of that’s in there. Was it harder to get more natural scenes where it feels like he doesn’t recognize the camera there and could just be natural?

NG: I love your intuition on that. It was never a straight path forward. When we first started, we were giving cameras to kids all over the world, and Simon had a different relationship with the camera than anybody else that we worked with. Like, he was interviewing, and he wasn’t talking necessarily just about what happened to his father; he was talking about, at that time, COVID, thinking about the daily comings and goings, and what was really really interesting too was that after his father was killed he went quiet. After getting the camera, his mom said he started talking, so I think it was an outlet for him to be able to express himself in a way that overlapped with his desire to also be a journalist. He just started shooting a lot and so I think that was something that we were interested in, and didn’t want to lose ever in the film. 

I wish we knew from the beginning how it was going to go down, but not only are you also dealing with Simon recognizing that the camera is there and being camera-aware, you’re also following, you’re talking to Conservancy workers, you’re talking to different people that are also seeing us as well and so I think a lot of it was not actually giving a ton of direction. That meant that we felt we shot for a very long time. Also at times, we would have a translator, real-time explaining what was being talked about, but most of the time I was shooting along with a camera, just watching and looking for visual cues. So we’d no idea what they were really talking about, and what that meant is that a lot of things were spoken about a lot of things were talked about that had nothing to do with our film. But I think it was also really important for Simon to take his meandering pacing in time, to get to where he was going

Then, after everything was done and we talked about it, he would ask us for advice. I was also doing interviews with him, and Debra was also doing interviews with him. So he was also learning from us as he was doing his own interviews. It was just like a very weird, meta experience that was always changing and evolving as we went.

D: Simon is now 17—is he in journalism school now, pursuing this? Where is he now?

NG: Simon is in high school and a member of his journalism club. Next year, he’ll be looking to go to university, and he wants to study journalism there. We’re having pretty active conversations about how he and his friend Haron can leverage this opportunity for more educational opportunities, such as trying to go to school abroad to focus on journalism. Overall, he’s doing really well and focusing on school.

Luke Y. Thompson has been a professional entertainment writer, film critic, and editor since 1999, starting at New Times LA, with bylines in the LA Weekly, LA Times, Nerdist, Deadline, Village Voice, Coming Soon, and many more. He has also appeared as a talking head in the documentaries Unknown Dimension: The Story of Paranormal Activity and Fuck You All: The Uwe Boll Story. Follow him on most social media sites @lytrules.