Summer 2008
Uganda's Silver Screens 
by Dilman Dila
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My earliest memory of film is watching The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin in a proper cinema. The hall was filled with three times the number of people it could comfortably accommodate. I watched most of it on the shoulders of my elder brother David. I don’t remember much from that outing, but at one point David put me down and I couldn’t see anything. Then the crowd murmured in horror, “Amin’s eating his son’s heart!” I yanked at David’s trousers, urging him to lift me up again so I could see too, but he didn’t notice. 

I watched one or two other films in this cinema, and the scenes are still vivid in my memory. But the place fell into disuse because there weren’t any more movies coming into town, and no one could afford the price of tickets to the few that did turn up. The cinema turned into a disco hall after that, then into a church. 

A new type of cinema cropped up: video halls or kibanda. They were set up in abandoned shops, rooms as small as twenty feet long but packed with enough benches to accommodate a hundred people. An old TV set and VCR played videos. I remember going to a hall with a disemboweled VCR, the wires running naked in the system held together by rubber bands. Yet, surprisingly, it played videos as though it were brand new. The entry fee was a hundred shillings, about the price of a cigarette, and hasn’t changed much since the early 1990s.

My dad never bought a TV until 1990, and that was because he wanted to watch the world cup. We never had a VCR, so we couldn’t watch videos at home. Yet, I got to see more movies than children did from richer families with VCRs. There was a kibanda right across the street. In the darkness inside, cigarette smoke hung in a thin film and rough youth chewed the leaves of a mild drug called miraa. To me they looked like goats eating their cud. 

I loved most the viewers who cheered loudly at every stunt, clapped and whistled and jumped off their seats every time a hero overcame an impossible obstacle, every time Rambo blasted the bad guys or Black Fire chased down a plane. The cheers were no different from what you hear when Fernando Torres scores a goal. It was great fun, and it made me fall in love with film.

But our parents weren’t happy about it. They’d beat us every time they heard we had gone to the kibanda, a place they saw as a hangout for bayaye-- the spoilt and idle youth. They feared that if we frequented the videos halls we’d drop out of school or turn into thieves so that we could get the entry fee to the kibanda.

The attitude towards these miniature cinemas hasn’t changed much among the condescending ‘elite’, but they are now the main source of entertainment for countless thousands of people. Recently I paid a visit to one of the old halls and was surprised to find decent housewives and schoolgirls in the crowd. There was no cigarette smoke or anyone chewing miraa

In the days of my youth my country was just coming out of decades of civil war. There were only one or two video halls in any of the big towns, showing perhaps two films daily. Now every village trading centre has one. Yet, there is only one proper cinema in the whole country, compared to more than 2500 video halls, many still located in abandoned shops, a good number operating out of long shacks made out of papyrus, old tins or old wood, and accommodate more than five hundred people. In some cases the old cinemas turned into video halls. Many use projectors, which gives the atmosphere of a real cinema. There are also big speakers attached to the TV set so that everybody in the street hears the film. And you can follow the plot without even going inside the hall, thanks to the “translators” who do a voice-over description of the action very much like that of a football game. 

Each of these newer kibanda shows as many as ten films a day. Even in times of severe load-shedding, when the hospitals are cast into darkness and internet cafes fail to operate, these video halls run all day on hired generators. The only film festival in Uganda, Amakula, honors the kibanda by having some of its films shown there. This year thirty video halls showed Amakula films during the festival.

The video hall phenomenon is probably the best thing to happen to Ugandan filmmakers. It’s the sign of a potential market that could turn Uganda’s film industry into something even bigger than what the Nigerians enjoy. Certainly, it marks Uganda out in comparison to its neighbors. In Nigeria the biggest beneficiaries are the video sellers and the pirates, not the filmmakers. But these kibanda could easily turn into cash cows if Ugandan filmmakers could convince their fans to pay about fifty times more than what they currently pay as the price of admission. This would mean having a special show only on weekends, or once a day, because the majority of the viewers are very low-income earners. Perhaps corporations could pay the filmmaker a fee to let the movie show in the kibanda at subsidized rates, just as YouTube has done. 

The kibanda phenomenon probably stems from the love Ugandans traditionally have for local theatre. Kenya status as Hollywood’s favorite in Africa has helped it develop a good deal of cinematic expertise and has inspired many to seek a career in pictures. As a result, the quality of its films, if the entries in the Amakula festival are any indication, is clearly superior to that of Uganda. Only two Hollywood films have been shot in Uganda, Mississipi Masaala and The Last King of Scotland. Yet Kenyan’s lack what Ugandans have – an abiding passion for local theatricals. Kenyan plays are performed to mostly empty seats, while if you pop into any theatre in Uganda on a Saturday night you’ll find it full to the windows. 

Movies can easily capture this same audience. Already, many theatre producers and actors are putting a hesitant foot into film, though thus far the results are mixed: The actors tend to replicate their stage performance in front of the camera, and the filmmakers don’t know anything themselves about the difference between stage and celluloid.

Thanks to organizations like Maisha Film Lab, www.maishafilmlab.com, founded by Mira Nair, all this could change soon. Maisha organizes an annual lab for filmmakers from East Africa and South East Asia, bringing experienced people from Hollywood to mentor their East African counterparts. The 2007 lab included Jason Filardi (Writer, Bringing Down the House), Joshua Marston (Writer/Director, Maria Full of Grace), Alison Maclean (Writer/Director, Jesus’ Son), David Keating (Writer/Director, Last of the High Kings), Drew Kunin (Production Sound Mixer, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Zodiac), Kerwin DeVonish (2nd Unit DP, Inside Man), Barry Alexander Brown (Editor, Inside Man, Malcolm X), and Fellipe Barbosa (Director, Salt Kiss). Every sector of filmmaking had an experienced and well-established name from Hollywood mentoring their Ugandan counterpart. This year, Maisha plans to include a workshop for actors as well. The quality of films could soon improve enough to beat “Nollywood” standards and start to approach those of Hollywood itself.

I have participated in the Maisha labs for the last two years in a program known as ‘film school in three weeks.’ The beauty of it is that the mentors realize the difference between the two cultures and try not to impose their own biases onto the trainees. Rather, they show us how we can tell our stories our own ways. This is obviously important, because based upon what Ugandan filmgoers expect in a film, there can evolve a genre that’s unique to Uganda, just as there is a unique character to Indian cinema.

You only have to go to a video store or video hall to see the most popular kind of film on demand in Kampala: the so-called ‘translated’ films mentioned above. They have emerged because most of the people who frequented video halls did not know English or found it hard to understand American and European accents. They could follow action movies like Rambo, Terminator, Slash and Blackfire, but not Pretty Woman. Enter the ‘translator’. In another time and place his job would have been done by subtitles, but this audience wouldn’t be able to read fast enough and at the same time follow the action.

In the beginning, the translator would sit next to the TV set, microphone in hand, and explain to the audience what was happening in the film. As Jackie Chan is kicking the bad guy the commentator yells, “He has kicked him!” But the translators also tried  to make the movies funny, even if it’s a horror film, even giving the characters local nicknames. Anyone good at karate becomes “Bruce Lee’s brother”. If James Bond is chasing a terrorist, the translator makes it seem that 007 is chasing a man who has slept with his wife. Eventually, there are two parallel stories being told – the one by the filmmaker and the one by the translator, sometimes very different from each other. The only thing that unites them is the action on the screen.

But the snobs in Kampala denounce this translator business. You won’t catch any of them dead watching a translated film. They regard it as strictly something for the uneducated and the poor. But creative folk see it as an opportunity, and the Amakula film festival honors them by having a VJ Slam competition (the translators refer to themselves as VeeJays, a video version of DJ) and give an award to the best VJ, just as they give an award to the best short film.

But even as they look down their noses at it, the elite are gradually making peace with this new film form. The other day I visited a lawyer friend who wanted us to watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. When the film started, a VJ’s voice erupted. The friend dashed for the remote, cursing the friend who had lent him the DVD and apologizing that he didn’t know it was translated. We ended up watching something else. If he had been alone, my friend would have certainly watched the translated version, if only for the humor, but he was afraid I feared that I would laugh at his naiveté. When I looked through his collection I noticed many had the label “LUG”, which means "translated". 

(Dila Dilman loves penning multi-genre stories, especially those about the dark side of humanity. His short works have appeared in local newspapers and a number of online magazines and book anthologies. In 2006, he participated in Mira Nair's Maisha Film Lab, and directed his first short film later that year.)