3 May 2008

Uganda: Ugawood, the Way Forward for Film Makers

Kampala — Film Club director Esther Jacum disparaged budding moviemaker Henry Ssali at the Europe-Uganda Film Forum last week saying he was a mediocre the Ugandan film industry should flush out.

The symposium gathered local filmmakers at the National Theatre to discuss why it was outsiders telling Ugandan stories through films, the challenges and opportunities for the Ugandan film industry and the way forward.

Jacum took issue with the technical goofs in Ssali's debut picture Kiwani: The Movie film especially the camera shots and said they were the kind no filming professional would tolerate. Ssali's movie may be wanting on many fronts that include a vacuous script that thrives on jocular one-liners but there is no denying he is a resolute moviemaker set to turn the industry on its head.

Apart from bringing requisite glamour to his movie premiere by gathering Kampala's high society to his picture's first screening at the Commonwealth Resort in Munyonyo last month, Ssali got local sponsors for his movie which helped him offset production expenses. He also gained a fair amount of street cred in paying his cast and crew, where some so-called professional filmmakers have reneged on the promises they made to the people that star in their films.

Ssali can offer invaluable insights into how enthusiastic but stone-broke filmmakers can go about getting endorsements from local companies for the story ideas they are so desperate to retell by way of the silver screen.

Most filmmakers at the symposium were jittery about foreign funding which often comes with strings attached and a distortion of Ugandan stories. The Last King of Scotland (LKOS) was blacklisted as an example of a Ugandan story told through an alien's prism. Never mind that the makers of the Oscar winning film were walking the tight rope of weaving fact with the fiction in Giles Foden's novel of the same name.

The lack of cohesion among industry players to galvanise themselves into an association to negotiate better fees for Ugandan actors and extras starring in foreign features also came to the fore. There were complaints about exploitation of extras on LKOS who earned Shs40,000 per shoot. Although the film's principal cast (Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy and Kerry Washington) all took pay cuts, the movie was a box office hit whose extra earnings should have gotten every local that starred in it a bonus.

It is the fractured state of our film industry that is hindering it from making the big leap that merits the Ugawood coinage which closely rhymes with other film industries beyond Uganda's borders like Kenya's Riverwood, Nigeria's Nollywood, India's Bollywood and the USA's Hollywood. That may explain why the bulk of today's Ugandan filmmaker restrict themselves to making one-minute films while they wait for a financial shot in the arm that will justify making a full length feature film.

The filmmakers at last weekend's meeting may have bickered most of the time but they agreed to work together by way of a collective skill contribution to a single story at a time.

Through this initiative, good camera personnel, lighting technicians, actors, actresses and professionals in sound will come together to execute a particular story and script mostly as a labour of love. It will also make access to the conditionality-free foreign funds Uganda German Cultural Society Director Roberta Wagner-Friedrichsen revealed were only available to organised entities.

The warts in the Ugandan film aside, Ugawood has taken some strides in the recent past. Roger Mugisha and Matt Bish premiered their picture Battle of the Souls in the US early this year, Cindy Magara's film Fate aired on the Nollywood-centric DStv Africa Magic channel while Donald Mugisha's Divizionz received plaudits at this year's Berlin Film Festival and also took two trophies for Best Edit in a Film and the Special Jury Award at this year's Africa Academy Movie Awards held last month in Nigeria.

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