When word about Nile's Diaspora International Film festival (NDIFF) first came out a few months back, many critics were quick to write it off as all-hype.
For starters, the ongoing rejuvenation of the Ugandan film industry, which started about two years back, has seen many film festivals spring up, but only a few have left an impression. Film lovers were sceptical NDIFF would live up to its billing.
The fest's brains, a Ugandan couple resident in Canada, promised a glamorous opening ceremony.
Phad Mutumba and his Xena Bantariza pledged to fly in two of Nollywood's hottest names, Jim Iyke and Nadia Buari and Hollywood superstar Tonya Lee Williams of The Young and the Restless fame.
The couple had their work cut out before the long-awaited eight-day festival finally premiered last Friday at the Sheraton hotel in Kampala.
At first, it looked like the opening night had flopped. By 8pm, there was hardly any activity at the scene, save for the sharply-dressed ushers who stood idle since no guests were showing up. But the red-carpet alley, expensive wines and a playing band kept the tiny audience hopeful.
Their Hollywood-like walk-of-fame with stars for Iyke, Buari, Williams, Mutumba and our very own Abbey Mukiibi, also gave the impatient audience confidence.
It was not long until the long-awaited moment came. At about 9:30pm, while the bored guests enjoyed an extravagant cocktail, Williams made a grand entry, causing a frenzy. Dressed in a long, tight black dress, Williams, 54, looked more stunning than most youth at the event.
"I feel so happy to be here. Uganda is great," a smiling Williams announced amid wild excitement from the audience. "I am going to be with you for over six days."
Williams, a Canadian actress based in Hollywood, went on to make a brief speech, and had photo opportunities with her fans.
"Great movies are made of great stories which Uganda has in abundance. Africans are natural-born storytellers and this gives us an advantage," she said, explaining she had to postpone a movie shoot back in Hollywood to come and support her friends.
Williams, who had just arrived in the country a few hours back, said she had not watched any Ugandan film but was looking forward to a great festival where she is going to act as judge and facilitator. Clearly, the audience was star-struck. Even our top celebs including several cast members of the hit mini-series The Hostel struggled for photo opportunities with the Canadian beauty. Other fans simply hugged her while others fought for autographs.
Mutumba was grateful to the audience who had to part with Shs75,000 (ordinary tickets) and Shs120,000 for VIPs as entry fees. He promised to make the event annual and much bigger next year.
"This festival is designed to create careers. Tonya and the other actors are going to equip Ugandan filmmaker with hands-on knowledge," Mutumba said, adding that a total of 62 Ugandan and foreign movies will screen.
The fest will end with an equally glamorous closing ceremony to be held at the same venue where over ten awards will be given. Other activities of the festival include workshops and screenings, and will take place at the National Water and Sewerage Corporation offices in Bugolobi where entrance will be free.
The disappointment of the night was that Nigerian actors Buari and Iyke were a no-show but Mutumba said the duo would arrive later that night to catch up with the festival's other programmes. It did not seem to bother the organizers that the turnout was fairly low, perhaps due to the high entrance fees. NDIFF's big budget was bankrolled by such moneybags as Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), and Pepsi, among others.
"We [UCC] are keen on boosting the local film industry because it has the potential to solve the perennial unemployment problem in Uganda," UCC Broadcasting director, Jonath Banturaki, said.
Other top guests including the fest's patron, former UIA boss Maggie Kigozi, UIA's Investment Executive, Hope Waira, government officials and foreign expatriates hailed NDIFF and pledged to continue supporting film initiatives. Songbird Iryn Namubiru provided a breather before hot-selling Nigerian movie Last Flight to Abuja wound off the day. And the film's director, Obi Emelonye, showed interest in working with Ugandan filmmakers. Could we be seeing another Roses in the Rain soon?