In 2017, Pulitzer Center grantee Daphne Matziaraki traveled to a county in northern Kenya called Laikipia. She had worked in Kenya before and knew the toll climate change was taking on the region—droughts were intensifying. This time, she teamed up with fellow filmmaker Peter Murimi to make a documentary about how drought conditions were fueling conflict in the region.
What began as a short film idea turned into a seven-year-long project, culminating in a feature-length documentary called The Battle for Laikipia, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Cutting between Indigenous Samburu pastoralists trying to keep their cattle alive and white ranchers wanting to protect their property, The Battle for Laikipia illustrates the risks of climate change-related conflict, especially amid unresolved historical injustices rooted in colonial legacies.
The Battle for Laikipia is faithful to its name: Tensions flare throughout the film into violent confrontations, and Samburu lives are lost. The ranchers arm their guards with guns and patrol the perimeter fences. One rancher decides to shoot pastoralists’ cattle as they graze on his side of the fence, in search of grass to eat. The pastoralists, desperate to preserve their way of life, ransack a ranch house. Matziaraki and Murimi capture a climate conflict zone.
At the same time, The Battle for Laikipia doesn’t sensationalize these confrontations. Each side is driven by opposing ideologies—Western conservationism versus Indigenous stewardship—who both feel they are caring for the land. Bubbling underneath, however, are colonial power dynamics driven by global economic forces, including agriculture and tourism. Audiences are invited to contemplate what this conflict means for the future of traditional lifestyles, national politics, land ownership, and the true well-being of the region’s ecosystem.
Pulitzer Center Editorial Intern Alexandra Byrne asked Matziaraki about how the team handled long days in the field, overcame challenges in the editing room, and managed to capture the issue’s nuance on film.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alexandra Byrne: I want to ask about the origins of this project. How did you know you wanted to make this film?
Daphne Matziaraki: Twenty years ago, I moved to Kenya for my first internship at the United Nations Environment Program. That was way before I got into journalism or documentary filmmaking. I got a real job right after the internship at the UNEP, and I worked on climate change issues and got to meet people and understand the issues in northern Kenya. Back then, climate change was a conversation. Many people had not even heard about climate change. But the issue existed, and it really triggered my interest.
For various reasons, I decided that the United Nations was not the career path for me. I wanted to get into documentary filmmaking. I did a little bit of a detour and I spent almost seven years in journalism in between, which was amazing. I went to UC Berkeley and did my second master's degree in documentary filmmaking at the Graduate School of Journalism there. This story somehow was always in the back of my head. But I did not know how to approach it.
After I finished my first film, which was nominated for an Academy Award, 4.1 Miles, I met up with Roger Ross Williams, who is now our executive producer. I knew he knew Kenya, and we started talking about it. Around that time, my friends in Kenya pointed me to a blog by Maria, one of our characters. She had started writing about this conflict that had started. I was like, wow, this is the way to make this film that I've always wanted to make. I talked to Roger about it. He said to me, talk to Toni [Kamau] and talk to Pete, my co-director. So I did, and that's how the film originated.
I had worked with The New York Times for 4.1 Miles. The initial idea was that we were going to do a short with The New York Times, and through them we got our first seed funding from the Pulitzer Center. This is what enabled us to go to Kenya on time, as the conflict was happening. We didn't have any time to lose. We really wanted to do an observational film, in the moment. It was through the funding of the Pulitzer Center that we were able to do that.
AB: You said that support helped you spend time in the field. What did a day of filming look like? Are there any moments that stick out to you?
DM: It started from, we are going there and we're doing a short, but it ended up being seven years in the making. Imagine that. I'm so happy to talk about the days there because it was seven years on and off, five years of shooting in Kenya in very difficult conditions and two years of editing. It's a very, very harsh terrain in terms of roads and infrastructure. We were filming places where there is no network reception, there are no roads, there is no water, and there is conflict. To travel from one place to the next, even traveling from one of these ranches to the other, was a massive distance. Sometimes we would have a flat tire twice, so we wouldn't have enough spare tires for the journey. Sometimes the car would break down and we wouldn't have network reception and there was conflict.
We had to be extremely cautious and safe and constantly were trying to let our film production team know our whereabouts and make sure that we had every possible safety measure in place. Still, it was really difficult, in practical terms and security terms. It was not an easy shoot.
The hardest thing to navigate was the access and the relationships that we tried to cultivate and develop with our characters. A typical day depended on which side we would be shooting. If we were shooting with Simeon [one of the Samburu pastoralists], it usually was a really hard day where we would have to wake up before the sun came out and travel for very long distances to get where we wanted to get. We would shoot all day to get the moment that we wanted. Sometimes, we would miss something because of difficult communication and network. We would go to some action, and because we would hear that something was happening, we would go to find Simeon, and we wouldn't be able to find him. When we were successful, it was really great.
Usually, we would go back to our base late at night and rise again in the morning. It was long days of shooting—our camera was always put together and we were always ready to go. Our gear was in the car the entire time; we were kind of living in the car. Sometimes for long periods of time, it was just me, or Pete on his end. We never were together filming the same thing. At any time, it would either be me or him on the ground or we would be in different locations.
AB: What was it like working with Peter? You mentioned you weren’t often together. If you were seeing different sides of the story, how did that affect the choices you made later on?
DM: Both Peter and I are journalists and good friends. We knew each other before the project. Pete did not come from day one of the project, because he was finishing his other film, but he was always consulting and we were always talking about it. As soon as he finished, he jumped on.
It's a very multi-layered, nuanced film. And these nuances are what makes this film special, we think, and we want to bring these nuances to the surface. Having a diverse team, having two directors, and especially with me not being Kenyan, it was absolutely necessary that it was two of us and that we feel we covered as much as possible. Because it was an enormous task for just one person. But also, it would be an even more enormous undertaking for one person to have this conversation with oneself. So it was really important that Pete and I, as well as the rest of the team, discussed and constantly challenged each other.
Every one of us came to this film with our own baggage. It was really important that we constantly challenged each other and exchanged narratives and perspectives to help each other see situations through different lenses, to really hear each other. I think it worked really well. It's a very difficult film to make—films are very difficult to make. But Pete and I and the entire team come from the same set of principles and ethics. We never argued or majorly disagreed about something, but it was enriching and important to have each other.
AB: How did you choose when to cut between the two sides? How did you use these moments to mark time in the film?
DM: We had more than 300 hours of footage, so the editing choices were very hard. The editing process took more than two or three years because these decisions were very hard to make. We tried to make a film that was nuanced, but also a film that was balanced and fair. Because of the reality and the humanity of the film, we didn't want to make a film that would spoon-feed our audiences. We would let our audiences decide on their own at the end of the film, what does the future look like? What kind of world do we want to live in?
We had many scenes that we loved, but we had to take out because they were destroying the balance of the film. That was a very surgical edit that we did. It was really important that we stayed true to the facts that we used—that the scenes would not insinuate something that was not real and would not sensationalize. That they would be balanced and sensitive and emotional and human enough.
AB: Was there a scene that was particularly difficult to cut?
DM: Yeah, there were scenes that, for example, we had to go through lawyers. We had to show the film to lawyers in Kenya and the U.S. because our concern was that we didn't jeopardize anyone's safety and security. There were many, many things that we did leave out so that we didn’t jeopardize anyone's safety.
AB: In the film, the election happening in Kenya serves as a thread that seems to connect your characters to something bigger. How did you decide to focus on the election in that way?
DM: This film was filmed over five years, and over the course of two elections. We, on purpose, did not choose to use dates and years, but rather drought cycles, because [this conflict] is a story that is repeated if not addressed. In one scene, there is this group meeting of the ranchers. One scientist there says that when there is drought and a contentious election, things really become terrible.
Elections in Kenya generally have been contentious, and in Laikipia especially, because of this unresolved land issue. Because of the extended droughts and the limited access to resources, elections can be really contentious. Both elections with the same candidate were contentious, and both sides were looking to this election for their future. So we thought it was a very useful tool for our narrative arc structure and telling of the situation.
AB: This film touches upon big themes, from colonialism to climate change. What’s next for you? Are you hoping to further explore these themes in the future?
DM: These are themes that are very important, topical, and universal right now, and I want to continue to make films about very important and universal topics. I cannot tell you specifically that this is going to be my genre, but those are really important topics that one way or another, I'm going to keep exploring. Most importantly, how do these very urgent themes touch upon our human condition? That's how I always try to explore films.