Cinema Escapist

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Uganda

A Closer Look at Ugandan Cinema

Timothy Niwamanya details the history of Ugandan cinema's difficult birth and its flourishing present.

By , 8 Aug 18
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(Courtesy of Bent Marble)

In 2005, professional-dentist-turned-theatre-practitioner Hajji Ashraf Ssemwogerere wrote and directed a drama film titled Feelings Struggle. The production is widely regarded as the first authentic “Kinna-Uganda” — a locally-coined term that refers to films made in Uganda, for Ugandan audiences, by Ugandan filmmakers.

Considering that this film was made only thirteen years ago, it would be fair to say that Uganda is home to one of the youngest film-making cultures in the world. This very recent cultural phenomenon is the closest thing Uganda has to a national cinema, in the classical sense. Ugandan cinema has had a difficult birth, experiencing many stumbling blocks along the way, but the future is bright as it finds its cinematic identity.

British Oppression

To understand why film-making took so long to flourish in Uganda, we have to go all the way back to Uganda’s colonial period. The area occupied by present-day Uganda was made up of a number of sovereign kingdoms and chiefdoms at war with each other in the heart of Africa’s Great Lakes region. But following the partition of Africa, the area was declared a British protectorate in 1894. The British imperialists, and other foreign missionaries and explorers, were not met with much resistance — and the kings and chiefs brokered deals that ensured the status quo of their cultural institutions would remain firmly intact.

Uganda’s status as protectorate ensured the sovereignty of the native rulers, but also limited Uganda’s integration into the British Empire. Because of this, Ugandan arts did not benefit from cultural exchange in the same ways as other colonies like Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana.

(Courtesy of Tumblr)

The British interest in Uganda was an economic one, and Uganda was administrated through indirect rule. Winston Churchill dubbed Uganda as “the pearl of Africa”, with its fertile soils and equatorial climate — it was considered a largely agricultural society. This colonial policy ensured that the artisan practice of film-making was never entrenched in the art and culture of the country during the early 20th century.

The population’s interaction with film was limited to “educational” films, such as those showcased in the Bantu Education Kinema Experiment. Theatre that had existed in the local courts of kings and chiefs prior to British rule was the only visual art form that was widely practiced in the country during the colonial period. With the local elites possessing little knowledge from outside Uganda, it was not possible for cinema as an art form to get the patronage it needed.

“The pearl of Africa” (courtesy of Passport Health)

Obote’s Anglican-leaning Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and the political wing of the strategically-located Buganda Kingdom, Kabaka Yekka (KY), merged to defeat Uganda’s Catholic-leaning Democratic Party (DP), led by Benedicto Kiwanuka, in elections to Uganda’s Legislative Council in 1961. This effectively set Uganda on the path to independence.

The British were met with little resistance during the colonization process, and the Ugandan people attained independence through a bloodless handover of power from the British on 9 October, 1962 with Kabaka (King) Muteesa II of the Buganda Kingdom becoming the first president — a mostly ceremonial role — and Milton Obote named as Prime Minister.

Whereas most African countries attained independence following years of rebellion based on the popular Marxist and Pan-African ideology of the time, Uganda’s independence contrasts significantly with that of other African countries because it was not attained on the heels of any sort of popular uprising that was based on national ideals. Therefore it had no ideals that could be transformed into a national identity and channeled by the artists of the time. With the population of the country sharply divided along ethnic, tribal and religious lines at the time of independence, and with no real national identity to speak of, the next couple of decades would prove even more troublesome for those involved in the arts.

Milton Obote (Courtesy of geography.name)

The Cinema of Independence

In spite of Uganda’s relatively peaceful transition into independence, the country was not excluded from the political turmoil that spread over the continent in the early post-colonial period. Four years after independence, Obote suspended the constitution and in 1967 declared Uganda a Republic, instating himself as president after sending his predecessor, Kabaka Muteesa II, into exile. This effectively set Uganda on the path of internal strife and repression that would last two decades. 

The repression of civilians led to a number of members of the young nation’s intellectual class fleeing the country, with many of them never returning. Author Okot P’Bitek, arguably Uganda’s greatest literary export, fled the country in 1969 following a stint as the Director of the Uganda National Cultural Centre.

Obote was soon overthrown in 1971 by one of his army generals, Idi Amin Dada, whose regime continued the repressive nature of Uganda’s governance with a spate of high profile extrajudicial killings. This ensured there was no freedom of speech or political discourse in the media and the arts. One example of the Amin government’s approach towards the artists of the time was the murder of a popular playwright and actor Byron Kawadwa, shortly after he showcased a Luganda-language play titled “Oluyimba lwa Wankoko”, perceived to be a political satire of Uganda, at the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos in 1977.

Uganda National Cultural Centre (Courtesy of madandcrazy)

Amin had also previously expelled Uganda’s Indian population from the country on the grounds of an “economic war.” The Indian community constituted a considerable chunk of Uganda’s entrepreneurial class, with some of the early Ugandan cinemas among their business interests. Amin claimed the move was “giving back Uganda to Ugandans.” Like many of the other businesses handed out by Amin to his cronies and associates, the cinemas were run into the ground, and the poor audience numbers, owing to low incomes and insecurity in the country, did not help.

Tanzanian forces helped depose Amin in 1979. In the country’s first post-Amin election held the following year, Obote won a second term in power. But the results of the election were rejected by his opponents. sending Uganda into a five-year protracted civil war in which almost all economic activity and development came to a halt. Commonly referred to as the Ugandan Bush War, the conflict ended in 1986 when Yoweri Museveni, currently serving his 32nd year in office as the president, came into power with his National Resistance Army (NRA), now operating as a state-party called the National Resistance Movement (NRM).

President Yoweri Museveni (courtesy of International Business Times)

In spite of a number of constitutional amendments by the ruling government that have hindered the maturation of democracy in Uganda, the country has enjoyed its longest spell of relative stability and economic growth during Museveni’s tenure as president. This has helped reduce poverty and illiteracy levels, and Uganda has seen a growing middle class with more disposable income. This in turn, has increased investment in mass media and information technology, resulting in an influx of foreign professionals and organizations that have helped diversify the economy.

These conditions have, for the first time in Uganda’s history, presented the Ugandan masses with an opportunity: they are now able to utilize the arts, including film, for recreation and creative expression.

Facing Limitations

By the late 80s and early 90s, the country was already on a path towards economic rejuvenation. But the scourge of HIV/AIDS became a crisis in Ugandan society. The country embarked on an ambitious sensitization program that involved a multi-sectoral approach to control the spread of the disease, and the arts were dead-center in this drive. By the turn of the millennium, Uganda was considered the most successful country in sub-Saharan Africa in eradicating HIV / AIDS. Crucially, the crisis played a key role in many of Uganda’s theatre practitioners transitioning into film.

Uganda had a limited infrastructure for mass media. It consisted of one state-owned television station, Uganda Television (UTV), and a handful of radio stations. During Uganda’s economic revival, the theatre that had predated colonization was used as a tool for communication with the masses.

With increased funding and sponsorship from the Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) of partner countries, a multitude of legendary groups like the Bakayimbira Drama Actors promoted the preventive approaches of monogamy, abstinence and condom use. These productions were recorded on video to bring them to mass audiences. Whilst the messages conveyed by the actors took priority over any kind of cinematic flair, these early productions eased Uganda away from the proscenium arch and into the era of Film and Television.

The Ebonies (Courtesy of Facebook)

Foreign Interference

Although the country was presented with was an influx of Hollywood and Chinese cinema between the 90s and early 2000s, due to home video technology a local drama group called The Ebonies led the Ugandan charge into film and television with prime time TV shows like That’s Life, Mwattu! and Bibawo! (“These Things Happen!”) through their studio based in Kampala. These shows became iconic in the country for their humorous dissection of Ugandan family life and contemporary culture.

The increased demand for local content led to the rapid expansion of Uganda’s media space in the early 2000s, with more local TV stations being introduced, like the now-defunct Wavah Broadcasting Services (WBS). This caused a wave of contemporary international entertainment and pop culture to permeate the fiber of Ugandan culture.

The entertainment business became more lucrative at this point and gave more incentive to Uganda’s youth to further develop the arts sector. With theatre providing a seasoned batch of writers and actors, the television sector was awash with a youthful and energetic group of film and television technicians. The availability of relatively cheaper 21st century film equipment also greatly democratized the film-making process. These conditions led to the birth of Ugandan cinema, or “Kinna-Uganda“.

There was also a desire to offset the cultural imperialism of Hollywood, which dominated the urban cinemas and the local bibandas (film shacks) in the slums and villages.  The 2006 drama film The Last King of Scotland, based on Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada, was partly shot in Uganda in 2005 and was well received by Ugandan audiences. It was this film, and the increasing popularity of Hollywood films within the country, that perhaps lit a fire for Ugandan filmmakers to tell their own history and stories.

Still from 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland” (Courtesy of Sky)

Kinna-Uganda

Hajj Ashraf Ssemwogerere was a qualified dentist who returned to school to study drama. In 2005 he wrote, directed and produced Feelings Struggle under his Pearl Afric Production company.  The film — widely regarded as the first “Kinna-Uganda” — tells the story of a girl stolen from her parents as an infant for a ritual sacrifice in modern-day Uganda. The girl, whose life is spared, grows up to be an influential attorney after being raised by a barren couple. However, she is soon discovered by her biological parents, sending the lives of everyone involved into a spiral.

Starring household names of the time, like Sheila Nvannungi and Patriko Mujuuka, the film was neither a critical or commercial success due to limited marketing and distribution resources, and low production value in comparison with the foreign films that flooded the cinemas. However, Ssemwogerere was praised by Ugandan publications for his trailblazing role in Ugandan cinema.

The following year, he produced his second feature Murder in the City — a dramatization of what many enthusiasts of Ugandan cinema believe was the case of the purported murder of Robinah Kiyingi by her husband Dr. Aggrey Kiyingi, a prominent surgeon who was acquitted of the crime. Ssemwogerere reported being kidnapped by masked men who advised him against releasing the film before being set free. He went on to release the film, and despite the buzz surrounding its release, it was not a commercial success.

His most recent film, Mukajanga: Passion of the Uganda Martyrs, was released in 2009. Ssemwogerere made the creative leap from drama to a historical epic in his retelling of the execution of the internationally-venerated Uganda Martyrs, a group of 45 Christian converts sentenced to death by Kabaka Mwanga II of the Buganda kingdom in the late 1880s. It has proved to be his most popular film.

Hajj Ashraf Ssemwogerere, pioneer of “Kinna-Uganda” (Courtesy of Sunrise)

The Second Wave

Other key names in the early years of Kinna-Uganda are Cindy Magara, Donald Mugisha, and Matthew Bishanga (also known as Matt Bish).

Cindy Magara is believed to be the first woman to direct a film in Uganda, which she did as a student at the prestigious Makerere University. Her film, Fate, which premiered in 2006, has since slipped into obscurity.

Donald Mugisha, who started out as a music video director, released his first film Divizionz in 2007. The film starred popular musician and self-proclaimed “ghetto president” turned politician and activist Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu more famously known as Bobi Wine. Although it was made on a minuscule budget and with self-described “guerilla” methods, the film earned the distinction of the first “Kinna-Uganda” to be showcased at a major international festival when it was shown at the Berlin film festival. The film was a moderate success on the festival circuit but received a very limited audience in Uganda.

Matt Bish, following his film studies in Amsterdam, returned to the country in 2005 and set up the production company Bish Films. He primarily worked on music videos before writing and directing his 2007 feature, Battle of the Souls, loosely based on the dramatic spiritual redemption of his brother Roger Mugisha, a popular radio personality whose controversial lifestyle brought him fame and infamy in equal measure. The film received 10 nominations at the 5th African Movie Academy Awards, but again was let down on home soil by limited promotion and distribution.

Other prominent titles from this early period of Ugandan cinema include Mariam Ndagire’s 2007 Down This Road I Walk and Henry Ssali’s 2008 film Kiwani, which spawned a popular Ugandan single of the same name performed by Bobi Wine.

Movie star and Musician Bobi Wine (courtesy of ChimpReports)

What can be categorized as the second wave of Ugandan cinema started between in the late 2000s, when the internet became widely accessible all over the country. Filmmakers found new avenues of distribution and access to funding through cultural endowments or foreign film funds. There was also an increase in a training opportunities, provided by programs such as Queen of Katwe director Mira Nair’s Maisha Film Labs, that mentored many young aspiring filmmakers in the country.

Although better education and funding greatly improved the film industry’s output, it also brought about a divide in film-making ideology in the country.

The film-making community is divided into “uptown” and “downtown” – the “uptown” contingent consisting of mainly middle-class Ugandans whose film-making ideology rotated firmly around formalism, maximum production value, and catering to middle-class and international film audiences. Their “downtown” counterparts, due to limited training and resources, preferred to take on a more experimental and proletariat-based approach to film-making.

Examples of uptown films include Caroline Kamya’s triptych of narratives Imani (2010), Matt Bish’s State Research Bureau (2011), Dilman Dila’s Felistas Fable (2014), Donald Mugisha’s Boda Boda Thieves (2015) an adaptation of Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, Bala Bala Sese (2015) written by Usama Mukwaya and directed by Lukyamuzi Bashir, and House Arrest (2016) by Joseph Ken Ssebagala.

Wakaliwood, Uganda’s most famous cinematic export. (Courtesy of Al Jazeera).

Wakaliwood

The most prominent downtown filmmaker is Isaac Nabwana, founder of Uganda’s most famous film export, Wakaliwood. Based in Wakaliga, a Kampala suburb, Nabwana’s 2010 film Who Killed Captain Alex?, an action film narrated by a Ugandan video joker – unique to the local film viewing culture – catapulted him to international fame with its humor, gratuitous violence and overtly ambitious use of visual effects.

Using locals in the area as the cast, DIY film equipment, and an estimated budget of no more than US$200, the film’s trailer went viral on YouTube and attracted glocal attention to Ugandan cinema like no film had before. While international fans compare him to Quentin Tarantino, with his films heavily influenced by Chinese martial arts films and Hollywood action films, local opinions remain divided.

(Courtesy of YouTube)

What the future holds

Recently, there has been an increase in the number of exciting short films being made in the country by young filmmakers trying to figure their way around the craft and the film industry. These include A Dog Story and Nectar by Doreen Mirembe, The Test by Rogers Matelja Mugabirwe, Jinxed by Gary Mugisha, The Last Breath by Jordan Ndawula, Jethro X Jethro and Mawe! by Malcolm Bigyemano, Bad Mexican by Loukman Ali, a 3D animation A Kalabanda Ate My Homework that screened at the 2018 Cannes film festival by the Uganda-based Creatures animation company, and Kyenvu by Kemiyondo Coutinho which earlier this year won Best Short film at the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF).

In spite of the glaring disparity in development between Uganda and some of the other more established national film cultures on the continent, Ugandans are more impassioned to tell their stories through cinema and local audiences are taking note of the quality of the output over the last decade. With a rich history to fall back on and bright future ahead of one of the world’s youngest populations, hopefully Ugandan cinema or Kinna-Uganda can develop into one of the most prominent national cinemas on the continent.

An audience in Wakaliwood. Courtesy of Al Jazeera.

A Personal Perspective

As a filmmaker living and working within Uganda’s film landscape, I can testify that the desire of the current crop of Ugandan filmmakers to tell a plethora of stories, borrowing from the country’s rich cultural heritage and socio-political history, far exceeds the economic and cultural limitations they face. Unlike the film industries in Nigeria and Ghana, and a number of Francophone countries in West Africa, upon independence our governments did not take an interest in fostering a film culture that was focused on decolonized indigenous cinema that would project our country’s culture across the globe. “Kinna-Uganda” is not supported by the state.

There are no real production incentives for filmmakers here, and an apathy towards enforcing laws and proposed regulations to protect intellectual property. This latter point, if conducted properly, would help to regulate the foreign content in the cinemas and television, in favor of local output instead. As things stand, one senses that it might be many more years before “Kinna-Uganda “grows out of its stunted infancy to become a viable alternative to Hollywood for the vast majority of Ugandan film audiences.

The upside is that even in the absence of a recognized film guild, filmmakers in the country remain optimistic about the prospects of the film industry, and continue to build a number of professional networks in and outside the country.

The indie nature of “Kinna-Uganda” offers complete freedom of creative expression. It offers brave and innovative filmmakers the chance to become pioneers of a medium through Ugandans can actively explore their history and culture. Film offers us the chance to expose the world at large to the richness of Ugandan narratives. There is an untapped reservoir of stories that have been kept secret by decades of social and artistic repression. It’s time to open the floodgates.


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