Divided into several chapters, each named after common English idioms and traditional Kenyan sayings, the story of Kenny Mann’s family begins in Poland where her father worked as a veterinarian. The clever and, oftentimes, humorous idioms subtly set the mood of her autobiographical documentary, Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots, which seeks to examine the multi-faceted and ever-changing identity of her family.
The story begins as the growing threat of German anti-Semitism forces her father, Igor Mann, to flee Germany and settle in Bucharest, where he met her mother, Erica. As the holocaust grew in size and depth through Europe, Igor’s whole family, except his cousin, were murdered. Fearing for their lives, her parents fled Romania before the start of World War 1.
Her parents were one of the few Jewish refugees who settled in Kenya during the last years of British colonial rule. During the colonial era, there were 5 million Africans in Kenya and only 180 Jews. Her mother described how her family was discriminated against by the British colonialists who ironically referred to them as ‘bloody foreigners’. Most Kenyans cannot imagine that refugees existed during the colonial era.
Her recollections then brought her to her childhood experiences. Mann’s extensive collection of old colonial British songs and footage seamlessly mixed and edited together with photographs of the era shows a time in which Kenya was considered a colonial paradise. She remembers how she once thought of herself as a subject of the British Empire and how as a child she was naïve enough to wholeheartedly pledge allegiance to the Queen of England whom she believed Kenyans loved.
She then examined her father’s past: he was communist and a fervent supporter of Kenya’s now almost forgotten socialist independence leader: Tom Mboya. She showcased several pictures of her father standing next to Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya. Despite her father’s clear ideological stance, his role in Kenya’s independence struggle remains shrouded in mystery.
She then discusses her father’s denial of her family’s Jewish past and how he never allowed her and her siblings to ever attend a Synagogue during their childhood. Her enigmatic father’s desire to have his family abandon their Jewish past is never fully nor clearly explained.
Identity, judging by her family’s history, is not as “elusive” as she claims it is. Her family’s roots may continue to diverge as her daughter, Sophie, lives an American lifestyle in Los Angeles and her brother’s daughter Zora lives in Germany, but her identity as a Kenyan Jew is more easily defined than she is willing to admit.
She was raised in what she called a “bubble” during Kenya’s colonial era and was almost literally raised as a foreigner and had a racially and culturally segregated childhood. Once she reached adulthood she decided to learn more about Kenya’s rich history and diverse cultures, but by then it was too late – she began to see Kenya through the cultural lens of a foreigner.
Her cultural connection with Kenya seems tenuous at best. She never mentioned if she speaks Swahili and her decision to have a child with an American further distances her identity from the country she was born in. At the end of the film, her feelings about her identity are inconclusive. Watch a trailer of Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots below.