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Are Ugandan actors really better than Nigerians?

By Priscilla Namanya

Internationally renowned cinema director thinks so

Michael Wawuyo knows something about the Uganda film scene that you possibly don’t.

“I believe Ugandans are far better actors than the Nigerians,” he told The Independent in a recent interview.

Wawuyo would know. He has performed with some of the best African actors and actresses in some of the greatest award-winning Ugandan movies including ` The last king of Scotland’ and `Mississipi Masala’.

But even if Wawuyo was just another local movie buff, the audacity in asking whether Ugandan actors can best Nigerians is the latest sign that something hot is going on in the local movie scene. That sense has become a frenzy ever since renowned Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o arrived in the Ugandan capital, Kampala for the filming of what promises to be another blockbuster;  “The Queen of Katwe”.

The 32-year old Lupita is a Mexican-Kenyan, but Ugandans appear determined to claim a bit of her. The ephemeral link is based on Lupita’s connection to the Ugandan-based international film hub, Maisha Film Lab, which was founded by renowned Hollywood movie director, Mira Nair, who is directing `Queen’. Lupita is cast beside David Oyelowe, the British actor of Nigerian descent. Once again, Ugandan actors feel locked out yet some believe they have matured enough for some of these roles.

In reality, Uganda’s movie industry is young.   It is most traced to 2005 when Ashraf Ssemwogerere produced the first locally made movie, `Feelings Struggle’.  Many enthusiasts immediately tagged on it as the would-be answer to the Nigerian films which had by then proliferated on the Uganda market.

The plot of `Feelings Struggle’ revolves around a Ugandan family whose daughter is kidnapped to be used in child sacrifice.  Fortunately, the baby girl’s kidnappers find her unsuitable and dump her in a forest from where she is rescued by a farmer who adopts her and raises her as his own daughter. The girl grows up, studies hard, and becomes a successful lawyer.

In a twist of events, the girl’s biological parents eventually find out that she is alive and try to claim her. The film captures the torture both families endure.

`Feelings Struggle’ was never, however, considered a hit according to some local film critics. It had poor cinematography.

Since then, however, Uganda’s local movie industry – also known as Ugawood or simply kinna-Uganda- has grown.

One of the top players on the local movie scene, Christopher Buyondo, says after Ssemwogerere’s `Feelings Struggle’ and `Murder in the City’, four more movies enhanced interest in the local industry. These included Mariam Ndagire’s `Down this road I walk’, Husain Kagolo’s `What do Women Want’, `Roses in the Rain’ and `Omukazi muka Ssebo’.’

The 29-year old Buyondo is a script writing and film major from the University of Sydney in Australia. He has been working with the Uganda Federation of Movie Industry (UFMI) since his return from Australia. He says the relative success of some of the early movies induced more would be producers, directors, and actors to invest energy, time, and money in the industry.

Local films win fans

Two years ago, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC); the government agency which oversees the sector, introduced the Uganda Film Festival which is a sort of sieving platform for local industry products. Some of the winners at the festival have gone on to feature in international festivals like Cannes.

Film makers are invited to submit their works and take part in workshops and seminars that teach them how to make the most of limited budgets and big ideas.

The aim of the festival, however, is to generate interest in the Ugandan film industry both locally and internationally. It also gives industry players a prize to focus on.  Recently, these local initiatives have also got support from international players.

The Maisha Film Lab, for example, has introduced better training. Under Mira Nair’s guidance, it has been training young movie industry enthusiasts from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. There is a claim that its most successful product is the Oscar award winner, Lupita Nyong’o for her role in the Hollywood movie, Twelve Years a Slave.

Film festivals have also played a crucial role in Uganda.  The Amakula Kampala International Fi lm which runs from November-December every year since 2004 with particular emphasis on local creativity.

Such initiatives give participants exposure, confidence, determination and creative ideas. As a result, there has been a proliferation of local movie production companies such as HK Movie Industry, Mariam Ngadire’s School of Performing Arts which produces the popular Tendo Sisters, as well as Equatorial Pictures and Kigezi Universal Drama Actors led by Cyril Baryabawe.

These production companies have also bred some of the finest home-grown movie directors, including Mariam Ndagire, Mutebi Farouk, Matt Bish, and Buyondo.

Kinna-Uganda or Ugawood may not be as prolific as Nollywood yet or even as big as neighbouring Kenya’s Riverwood—where between 20-30 Kenyan movies are produced every week—but its creativity is slowly winning fans over. Local movies are a favourite across all local TV channels and are making inroads onto major channels on the extra-terrestrial platform, DSTV.

Tina Wamala, the publicist for Uganda’s biggest pay-TV franchise; Multichoice, says 52 different productions of films, series and shows were shown on the channel, Africa Magic, over the last two years.

“Uganda’s content is very good and unique,” says Wamala, “We are able to come up with content that cuts across and is relevant not only in Uganda but to other countries. For example Deception and The Hostel on NTV.”

Multichoice Uganda has already held workshops where film makers, actors, writers and producers have learnt techniques on how to up-skill their talent to be able to reach the standards of Africa Magic for their material to be shown on a daily. It has introduced an exclusive channel called Africa Magic Kiswahili which is the platform for East African content, Uganda inclusive.  Tracy Kirabo says she finds local movies very funny, especially the “action-packed movies.”

“The way the bullets are shot, their facial expressions, and the humour in the language is very hilarious,” she say.

Kirabo says she finds locally shot feature movies captivating.

“Their plot and setting is quite attractive,” she says.   For Grace Timanywa, it is the way the kinna-Uganda romances capture the local tastes and sensibilities, that got her hooked.

Sometimes the attraction is paradoxical. Esther Butamanya, for example, says she is excited when actors use her local language. At the same time, however, she hopes Ugandan actors can “also concentrate on learning the English language”.

“It will surely take the movie industry to a great level,” she says.

Challenges remain

Despite these efforts from many quarters, Ugawood movies are still criticised for the overall poor quality.

The local movies tend to have strong single line stories – with one overriding problem or goal for the hero or heroines. The producers clutch on this to give the story the drive, momentum, and a sense of priority, or in the extreme, a sense of the first cause.  Most times, the attempt fails.

Great movies show great ambition. They ask the key question: what makes a good life and also help the audience reflect upon their lives because of the message that is being sent to them. They give various answers, some of which may not be valid, but they force the audience to see their own lives in this kind of grand way. And that is the only way that meaningful change is possible. In Uganda we see that the film Industry is taking on this norm most especially in its latest release; Escape from Luzira. This movie though, does not qualify as a truly home-grown movie. It was directed by Rajesh Nair.

But Conrad Nkutu, the CEO of Fast Track Production which produces the TV Series, The Hostel, says such Ugandan movies are successful because they tend to present a world that works no matter what. In his view these films do not say that nothing exists, nothing is true, nothing is good, or nothing is right.

“They explore in detail the way of meaning, truth, good, and right,” he says, “these films say, a human being either creates value from what is available or dies.”

For instance, the local series “Deception” which airs on NTV revolves around a common conundrum; a young family is tortured when a no nonsense mother-in-law moves into her son’s house to ensure that her son gives her a grandchild.

Although at the beginning it had powerful, condensed scenes, and presented good patterns, it slowly brought the usual patterns to the surface. So where does this leave the industry?

Bill Koske, the Manager of the Great lakes Film Production says despite the growth of the local film industry Uganda remains “fifty times behind as compared to Kenya and other countries”.

Great Lakes mainly supports international crews with local know-how, manpower, and equipment. But Bill has recently released a short film that aims to show youth and parents the value of education.

But Wawuyo belief in the greatness of Ugandans remains unshaken.

“I believe Ugandans are far better actors than the Nigerians; the only difference is that Nigeria and Kenya have a population of about 200 million people and out of that; half of them watch the movies,” he says.

In fact, Wawuyo says he does not want to use Nigerian movies as a benchmark upon which to judge Ugandan movies. Now, he says, Uganda’s movie industry is producing more movies and they are of better quality. He says Nollywood has an advantage in that they are able to produce and consume their movies locally. Wawuyo thinks Ugandan movie makers can get around this challenge if regional counterparts federate to create one common market for Ugawood movies.

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