Kampala, Uganda | By Ole Tangen Jr. | Note to aspiring film-makers: Never plan the premier of your first major film for the same weekend, the same night as the most anticipated film premier of the year. In the battle between a summer blockbuster and an independent Ugandan film, Hollywood will always win.
This was the unfortunate case as Imani, a Ugandan film created by the sister team of Caroline and Agnes Kamya, went up against the iron-suited Robert Downy Jr. who managed to save the world from evil-doers once again in Iron Man 2.
Imani tracks a day in the life of three Ugandans. Mary (played beautifully by Rehema Nanfuka), a housekeeper for a wealthy Ugandan couple, must raise some cash to bail out her sister who apparently killed her abusive husband. Ex child soldier Olwenyi (played by Stephen Ocen) returns home to his family somewhere near Gulu after spending time in a rehabilitation centre. And finally break dancer Armstrong (played by Philip Buyi) must confront his ex-schoolmate who is now a gang-lord who calls himself “King” in order to stage a break dancing show in at a community centre.
The film originally premiered in February at the Berlin International Film Festival, opening the festival’s famed Forum section. A friend of mine who had seen Imani told me it was “great”. But reviewers were not all convinced. Neil Young writing for the Hollywood Reporter called the film “a disappointingly conventional choice for a Berlinale section designed to showcase innovation and risk-taking,” and “a frustratingly inert enterprise.” However, one German reviewer called it a “successful” debut film which “brings us closer to life in Africa”.
Shot in High Definition by a Canadian team, Imani is most likely the best looking and best sounding Ugandan film ever made. However the low quality of the projector at Cineplex made the film look blurry and cheap, spoiling any chance for a cinematic experience.
There has also been some controversy surrounding the section of the film that follows the return of the child soldier to his home. Judith Adong, a Ugandan screenwriter, claims this story was inspired by her film Shadow of Tinted Soul and that she had not been appropriately compensated or credited. Kamya disputes this saying that she had bought the screen-writing rights to the story.
Kamya herself calls Imani, which is the Swahili word for “faith”, a “slice of Ugandan life” which she put together for an international audience. And if my friends in Germany or the US were to ask what life was like in Uganda, I might just tell them to watch this film.
But this raises the question of what an aspiring Ugandan film-maker should do. In making a film for the international market, a film-maker can open herself up to funding, professional training and recognition. But then when bringing the film home, the audience may feel alienated and annoyed by a film which presents something that is too familiar, too banal.
But trying to make a film for and from the Ugandan market is near impossible as funding is non-existent and pirated copies of completed films flood the market soon after release. Either way, the film-maker finds herself in a difficult position.
But for the people who went to see the film last weekend, none of this was relevant. Drake Muyinza, a 19- year-old student who brought three friends to see Imani after watching its trailer on-line. After the film, he felt it necessary to apologize to his friends for making them pay shs. 12,000 to see it.
“I had high hopes for this film but nothing happened,” said Muyinza. “There is no real story, no connection between the three characters, and then it just ends. This is not a film for Ugandans.”
“We should have gone to see Iron Man,” he added.