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TIFF 2022 Review: ‘SHIMONI (The Pit)’ Surviving Freedom Can Be the Most Difficult Challenge

TIFF 2022 Review: ‘SHIMONI (The Pit)’ Surviving Freedom Can Be the Most Difficult Challenge

Shimoni (The Pit) is a gripping tale of when a community fails, impressively written and directed by Angela Wamai. This film drew me in immediately, and the tension held my attention for the entire movie and the ending broke my heart. I loved this film. 

Wamai’s background is in film editing, and her ability to tell the story through showing is magnificent. The editing in this film is flawless; coupled with beautiful cinematography, lighting, sound design, efficient dialogue, costume design, and a compelling score, Shimoni (The Pit) is storytelling at its best.

The film is set in Kenya and opens with Geoffrey (Justin Mirichii) being released from prison. A  pastor drives Geoffrey from Nairobi to a small town. As they arrive in the middle of the night, Geoffrey is horrified when he realizes he’s been taken to his childhood home to work as a farmhand for the local church. Estranged from his family and without resources, Geoffrey has no choice but to stay and work at the pleasure of Father Jacob (Sam Psenjen), the prominent pastor. 

Geoffrey is assigned to work under Martha (Muthoni Gathecha) milking cows, and it’s quickly apparent that this man has never done a day of farmwork. Geoffrey is extremely reserved and wants just to do his job, but Martha is a busybody who tries to figure out his story. Beatrice(Vivian Wambui), an outgoing local 19-year-old girl who literally loves to play with fire, becomes enamored with the shy newcomer and is annoyingly persistent with her curiosity. 

At the same time, Father Jacob wants Geoffrey to repent for his sins and pressures him to nightly Bible study to prepare to meet with the family member of his victim to seek forgiveness and reconcile. The plot thickens when Geoffrey bumps into someone from his childhood after Sunday service, which triggers a past trauma.

Shimoni is an impressive investigation of the phrase “hurt people hurt people” with a deep dive into the why. From the moment Geoffrey gets out of prison, it’s obvious he’s dealing with some severe trauma. The pastor who picks him up tries to comfort him by saying, “You survived seven years of prison; you will survive freedom.” But the look on Geoffrey’s face tells a different outcome. 

Angela Wamai’s writing is clean and efficient. So much of the story is told without words, which gave me an immediate knowledge of Geoffrey’s pain as an audience member. As Geoffrey, Justin Mirichii is just heartbreaking. From his first moment on screen, the audience can tell that this is a regular person who has experienced extraordinary circumstances that made him take actions that landed him in prison. Geoffrey was a teacher, but now he’s not allowed to teach. The only jobs available are manual labor; he’s a fish out of water. 

The culture of this church-based community is authentic. Father Jacob takes in this ex-con without telling the majority single female congregation anything about this young man, which creates gossip. Martha is the ringleader. The scenes between Martha and Geoffrey are fantastic. Their chemistry is sometimes tense and hilarious in all the right places. 

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I absolutely loved Muthoni Gathecha’s embodiment of Martha. Anybody who has been a part of a religious community can understand the elder woman whose greatest power is to know everything, everyone, and to be the grand initiator of everything that’s going on in the congregation. Martha is an unapologetic busybody who will twist the “word of God” to suit her needs. 

Angela Wamai’s script cleverly uses humor and suspense to allow a delicious slow burn as the conflict builds between Martha and Geoffrey. I have to admit I loved Martha. Her high cheekbones, precocious smile, no-nonsense nature, and annoying ability to get all up into everybody’s business by the authority of her God reminded me of the churchgoing Southern aunts on my mom’s side and my churchgoing West Indian aunties on my dad’s side who have all passed over to the other side. 

Geoffrey seems like someone who is barely holding it together and will unhinge at any moment, but no one notices because they all have their own agenda. It’s unnerving how real the culture felt. Beatrice, the 19-year-old, keeps coming around this grown man, flirting when it’s obvious this guy is dealing with some serious issues. The man knows this girl is trouble, yet she keeps coming around. Oh, my good life, I wanted to shake Beatrice and tell her just to find somebody her own age to mess around with. When you see a troubled man like Geoffrey, you can’t fix him. Just run! 

At the same time, the film is so well written I felt protective of Geoffrey and wanted him to get away from these selfish church people as soon as possible. But he couldn’t because he had no resources, was an ex-con, and was dependent on the church for his survival. The best he could do was just get through moment to moment while in this impossible situation. 

Everyone around Geoffrey could say they were “good Christians” and were helping Geoffrey, yet everyone in the film only helped Geoffrey because they had their own agenda and wanted to take something from him for their own benefit. This man was dealing with serious trauma, but no one in this community could look past their own agenda to see his pain and offer authentic support. So often, we don’t see the signs of people who are in pain. Shimoni (The Pit) made me wonder if we don’t see the suffering of others because we are so wrapped up in performing at being good people while in reality, we are just wrapped up in our own agendas. 

I love it when films make me think.

Shimoni (The Pit), written and directed by Angela Wamai, premiered at the 2022 Toronto Film Festival.

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