2013: Film’s Annus Horribilis

2013 may turn out to be local film’s annus horribilis if seen through the prism of film festivals. The industry’s premier cinema showcase, the annual Amakula Kampala International Film Festival made an inevitable transition into oblivion. Apparently, its mzungu directors (and founders) ran the festival aground following hesitation to hand it over to locals as demanded by donors. Before its “demise”, Amakula had had a consistent nine-year run. This year’s 10th edition would have been a major milestone for the festival that had become synonymous with showcasing independent cinema – the alternative kind the commercial cinemas tend to shun.

The initial plan was to hand Amakula over to an indigenous team after the fifth edition in line with the festival’s development plan. However, drunk with “founders syndrome”, the festival’s creators – a hippie mzungu couple that found a vacuum and used their Western Europe donor partners to create a film festival – opted to literally “kill” the festival. Now in limbo, attempts to revive Amakula have taken the form of a “sabbatical” to assess its impact on local cinema over the course of its nine editions. One gripe film practitioners had about Amakula was that it rarely opened and closed with an indigenous movie as is the norm with international festivals of note elsewhere. This is often seen as the biggest endorsement to the cinematic spaces in which most festivals operate.Image

At Amakula, Ugandan productions were often clustered into a “focus” screening segment that was rarely given primetime screening. The excuse was that most Ugandan films had blunt plots and dramatic acting with a derivative Nollywood narrative. Half-hearted efforts at crash courses in rudimentary film training did little to develop a filmmaking human resource that would raise the nation’s cinematic aesthetic. Not that that was really necessary. Half of the 500 or so alumni from acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair’s Maisha Film Lab are Ugandan. It’s just that they felt alienated by a festival they saw as mostly showcasing movies from the personal collection of one of its festival directors. Amakula’s shortcomings aside, the festival made laudable efforts in engaging the region’s filmmakers albeit in a haphazard way through its underfunded Congress on East African Cinema. The effort, usually a two-day event, meant well in trying to create discourse between the cinema fraternity in the region. The rationale here was to leverage the potential market of the EAC 160 million populace for cinema. The initiative looked noble and was aimed at creating vital relevance for disillusioned filmmakers who mostly live from hand to mouth.

The void left by Amakula in 2013 saw pretentious attempts by competitor festivals (or offshoots if you like) to fill it. Their respective directors may have meant well but most ended up with cinematic egg on their faces.  Take Pearl International Film Festival (PIFF) whose programming is heavily bent towards offering almost 100% indigenous cinema. The sad reality is that the fourth edition held in May didn’t veer much away from the mediocre copy-and-paste Nollywood cinema the “downtown” filmmakers have settled for. And these are cinematic products you can hardly export. Organisers also displayed a glaring bucolic approach to festival etiquette when they bungled up copies of foreign submissions. A blu-ray disc player could not be sourced in time to screen Nairobi Half Life while an acclaimed Cameroonian film couldn’t be downloaded in time owing to Internet issues. Still PIFF can take heart in the baby steps it is making; growing pains in a vital learning curve. At least it is endearing itself to an indigenous audience never mind that most offerings at PIFF are not artistically interesting.

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September’s UCC-run Uganda Film Festival (UFF) brought a semblance of Cannes glamour to our dusty metropolis complete with a couple of continental cinematic heavyweights like Rosie Motene. She is the South African producer behind the acclaimed continental gem Man on Ground. However, an advertising blitz in mainstream media did little to bait festival-goers to the daytime screenings at Cineplex Cinema. At the end of the five-day event, there was little to report about outside a glitzy opening and closing ceremony. Some filmmakers were shut out of both events whose guest lists had more city socialites than cinematic practitioners. The biggest benefit was probably the hastily put together film market. Those that were curious about the alternative cinematic offerings beyond Mariam Ndagire and Ashraf Simwogerere’s serialised video movies were pleasantly surprised. But given UCC’s financial might and government clout, a more prudent approach would have been to set up institutions like a Film Commission and stimulate formation of cinematic guilds. That would look less of a putting the cart before the horse.

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NDIFF, the Nile Diaspora International Film Festival had a lacklustre follow-up to its inaugural edition, which sprinkled a bit of Hollywood stardust onto Kampala by way of The Young and the Restless star last year. This year’s [November] festival pretty much went unnoticed, what with poor publicity and those disagreeable daytime screenings being its Achilles Heel. The Maisha African Film Festival yet again suffered funding hiccups denying Ugandan cinephiles a chance to watch haute African cinema for the second year running. The festival is usually the toast of the annual Maisha Film Lab, which yields four student shorts that represent emerging East African cinema abroad. A funding shortfall was yet again to blame.

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December’s Manya Human Rights Festival failed to be the year’s crowning glory even with a theme around social media. Organisers may have patted themselves on the back for sneaking Call Me Kuchu, a semi-biopic film about renowned gay activist David Kato (RIP) past those hawk-eyed Bible-belt moralists. But the disappointing thing was a failure to get the one million or so Ugandans on social media platforms to stand up for their cyber rights. Closing night attempted to pick the paltry audience’s brains about how to move forward into the festival’s fifth year. But with tasteless entertainment by way of jesting acrobats and a fortune-seeking foreign magician, this was one festival where its organisers have definitely dropped the ball.

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Yet a film festival is still the optimal way and probably the most vital space in which discourse on our nascent film industry can be held. Issues like the lack of audience development, the low investment and a fear of risk taking that sees most ideas stuck in filmmakers’ heads are some of the biggest cinematic talking points. The lack of training provision and absence of standards development means that our cinema is mostly consumed at home and lacks the global aesthetic to make it exportable. There is also a need to find solution to poor representation in an industry where exploitation is rife. High costs of local productions that keep most creative persons away and the lack of intellectual property laws that bite are all issues the film industry has to tackle head-on hopefully beyond mere shop-talking.

If precedents elsewhere are anything to go by, examples of the impact in countries like Nigeria where Nollywood is the second largest employer after farming and in South Africa where multi-billion Rand film industry provides 25,000 direct jobs should offer vital food for thought and a sense of cinematic optimism. That’s if the festival fat cats think less about feathering their nests and do more for the greater cinematic industry good whatever pitfalls their respective showcases may face.

Text: MOSES SERUGO (serugo@gmail.com, kampala1ne@gmail.com)

Pix: INTERNET 

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