Tell us about Her Broken Shadow. What was the inspiration for it?
I made Her Broken Shadow on a whim. I had just completed a job for a Disney film, Queen of Katwe, where I was hired to do ‘the making of…’ documentary, and I had gotten a fat paycheck for it. But I returned home and one morning woke up with an intense feeling of loneliness. There’s a fear that grips you after a breakup; the fear of growing up lonely, of dying alone. I could not help comparing today’s society with that of the past, where social structures existed to mitigate loneliness. Today a semblance of these structures persist, but it is broken. There is always societal pressure to get married, to have children, to live with other people, yet the means of achieving these get thinner and more complicated. Being alone is frowned upon and wrongly associated with loneliness. There is the argument that you can’t be lonely if you are with others, and yet in the modern, urban, nuclear family, largely detached from the warmth of the extended family, may make one even more lonely.
Around that time I was walking back home one night when I met my neighbor sitting on a stool under a tree outside his compound, with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and his smart phone in another. It was late, coming to midnight; the street was dark with no street lights, no moon; the only lighting was the orange glow from a few windows. I asked him ‘What are you doing?’ and he said ‘I’m feeling lonely.’ He has a wife. He has about six children. I wanted to ask him how he could be lonely with all those people in his life, as I thought that the booze had loosened his tongue, but I don’t like prying. I instead wondered if he was on Facebook or Twitter or Tinder? I looked at his house, which I could see outlined a few metres away, and I wondered if his wife was watching TV. I didn’t ask. I sat with him and had a few sips of his whiskey and we talked about politics and football for a while, and then I went to my own house. I left him sitting out there, his phone casting a blue light on his face while a window in his home had a warm orange glow. He showed no sign of going inside even though it was now past midnight and really chilly. I think he wanted to finish that whiskey.
It got me thinking a lot about loneliness. I wanted to make a film about it. With the money left over from the Disney job, I thought of investing in a film that could compete in the festivals and hopefully launch my international career. The idea had to be simple and inexpensive. I thought of the walkie-talkie genre that many indie filmmakers opt for and I saw that I could stretch it a bit, with a single character in a single location instead of two people walking and talking. I came up with a woman struggling with loneliness in a world where technology makes it possible for an individual to live in total isolation. While making the film, I kept thinking of my neighbor, the cold blue phone light on his face and the warm orange light of the window behind him, and it gave the film a nice plot and colour scheme. There are two protagonists: one lives in a candlelit, warm world, and the other in a space city that is blueish in tone.
How is the movie industry in Uganda doing? What challenges do movie-makers in Africa face, in your experience?
I can’t say that we really have a movie industry. Competition from foreign movies have stifled it. First there was a preference for Hollywood, Bollywood, or Chinese movies. Then came Nollywood. Then people in Uganda started making movies too, but the problem was that so many people came in purely to make money. They didn’t bother to learn the craft and so, while a few of these films were good, some accidentally so, the vast majority were so bad that it put off the audience. It’s now very difficult to tell Ugandans you make movies and they take you seriously, because they expect very poor storytelling.
The hope lies in TV. Every time a decent locally produced show goes on air, it gets a lot of attention, but the problem is that people who run these TV stations want to maximise profits and costs of local productions are very high when compared to buying outside content, some of which sell for as little as $20 an episode. This outside content is mostly tele-novellas from South America, India, the Middle East, or East Asia.
I think the biggest challenge movie-makers in Africa face is a lack of access to well-paying markets. I don’t think it’s a lack of funding, as most people find because, if you can demonstrate to an investor that your film will make money, you will find a thousand people willing to fund it. One popular TV show in Uganda attracted many sponsors, for example, and for a brief period there was a strong demand for local TV shows; but then, producers thought too much about maximising profits rather than quality storytelling, and so people stopped watching and sponsors pulled out. I think maybe this is even bigger than a lack of access to markets; greedy producers who don’t learn the craft. Maybe it’s a cyclic thing, because a lack of markets mean people don’t invest in quality and, when they make a small profit, others jump in and think there is no need to focus on quality. Maybe its a holistic problem: a lack of training and a lack of access to markets.
The internet, however, has offered a new platform. I made the most from a single film off YouTube; a dark comedy called What Happened in Room 13, which has so far attracted about 6.5 million views and earned me about $6,000 over a three year period. Even as I made Her Broken Shadow, I wondered whether I should have invested in a web series instead. So, at the end of last year, I set off on a project to make one SFF film every month. Shortly after that, however, YouTube demonetised some of my films, because they had sex scenes and violence. This was after YouTube’s advertisers complained that their adverts were running on content with hate speech. Then they tweaked their algorithm in what became known as ‘the adpocalypse’ and it seems like only ‘family friendly’ content is allowed to be monetised on the channel. That set me back. I went to Patreon to encourage people to directly support my films, and I’m exploring other avenues for selling films off the internet. It’s not the same, because YouTube has the numbers and the viewership to make advert supported video-on-demand viable.
There is still a big challenge with internet based platforms, since we don’t have cheap unlimited access on the continent, which makes it hard to convince people to watch films online. I hope this will change soon, and I hope by then I will have positioned myself as a major online TV channel.
Her Broken Shadow is showing as part of the Africa In Motion festival in Glasgow. How did you get involved with it? How important are festivals like this for showcasing African talent?
Film festivals are important for publicity, and they also look good on a resume when applying for grants. Most grants are based in Europe, and often will favour filmmakers whose films have been shown in European festivals. Those like Africa in Motion are great for reaching out to potential producers and future partners because, again, many of these grants will only give you money if you have a European based co-producer. Festivals are also a great place to network and forge relationships with other filmmakers, if you can attend, but most of the time the cost of travel is too prohibitive. I try to attend as much as I can, and I wish I was there to present Her Broken Shadow at Africa in Motion, since this is the first time any of my films will be screened in the UK. I’m eager to see how it will be received, especially since most people who watch African art house films probably won’t be expecting sci-fi. Over the years, a certain stereotype has persisted about what kind of films can, or should be made by Africans. This is partly because most of those films that end up in festivals, in contrast to those, say, that are made in Nollywood and never cross the oceans, are funded and co-produced by European and other foreign entities who dictate what kind of stories are told of the continent. Often, I get rejections like ‘this story does not have a market’. One in particular said of my first feature film, The Felistas Fable, that it could only be marketed to Africans. The only kind of stories they think can sell are those that have headline topics, like AIDS, genocide, and such things; or those that enhance stereotypes, like broken governments in Congo and crime in Nairobi. In a way, I think festivals have done African filmmakers a bit of a disservice, especially in preferring films that may not be what people on the continent want to watch. Thus we get scenarios where African films and filmmakers have been very popular on the festival circuits, but hardly get an audience back home. These filmmakers may get a grant for their next film, but this model is not sustainable, as eventually the grant-givers will want to give the grants to new filmmakers, and we end up with filmmakers who can’t continue making films for local audiences, or for audiences beyond the festivals.
When did you know you wanted to make movies?
From very early on, I wanted to be a storyteller. I started writing when I was fifteen. At that time I was a bit active in my church and involved in the drama team. I remember telling one of the pastors, called Kangume, after he suggested that I come up with a story for drama, that we could try making a film as well. I can still see his face twitching as he struggled to conceal a scornful response. He gave me a chuckle and politely said we should stick to theatre. This was in the mid-90s and I hadn’t yet heard about Nollywood. No one in Uganda had, since the phenomenon was just kicking off in Nigeria. I later quit church and become a sort of agnostic when they didn’t pick me to lead the drama team at my scripture union club, and instead chose someone who had no love for storytelling whatsoever; only for preaching.
When I discovered computers in the early 2000s, I saw a program called ‘moviemaker’ and I was thrilled. I wanted to learn it, but no one had an idea how it worked. The trainer in the computer school I went to (an informal school) thought I was a little mad to want to learn a program that no one used at all. ‘It’s just for decoration,’ I remember him telling me. I think he meant it as a joke. I was in a small town in Uganda, about three hours away from the capital city, and computers were strange to everyone. Filmmaking was even stranger. I didn’t have access to any scripts or tutorials; not until the mid-2000s when the internet became more accessible and I started to learn off YouTube tutorials. At this time I was also writing and getting paid for it, small sums like $25, but since the cost of cashing such small checks was to too high, I asked them to send me books on filmmaking instead. Like Screenplay by Syd Field (I think I stole that one from someone’s house – it had Book Aid stamped on it and I don’t think the owner missed it) and Shot by Shot by Stephen D Katz. That’s how I learned and, after refining my training at the Maisha Film Lab, which started sometime in 2005, I became a full time filmmaker in 2008.
You also write literature. Do you go through phases, where you favour one form over the other?
No. It’s all a mashed up process. I mostly work on the most pressing project at that moment, or the one likely to make me cash. It feels a little strange that an artist should say this, but I decided to live off my storytelling in 2008 and I don’t have any other means of supporting myself. It’s been nearly ten years now and I’m glad I quit my day job; it pushes me to keep producing work. Some days, I work on both formats. I might start off with writing a short story in the morning, and then go into editing a film in the afternoon. Sometimes, I focus on one and ignore the other for long periods; maybe a month or more. This is especially so with film, for it is much more time-consuming and demands more physical attention than writing. When you are on a film set, it’s like working at a manual job and, by the end of the day, you feel so exhausted you can’t do anything else. With writing, if I have a deadline for a magazine or book or anthology, I’ll focus on it until it is finished, sweeping away all film jobs. But otherwise, I write fiction at a more relaxed pace, because I only need to devote a few hours a day to it, whereas with film, being a collaborative media, I have to consider many other factors and resources.
Do you know straight away, when you first get an idea, which form will best suit it?
Yes. All the time. Sometimes, the form comes before the idea. With Her Broken Shadow, I wanted a feature film to have a go at the festivals, and so I set a lot of ground rules, like strictly one location, no CGI, only one character, and this influenced the plot. Film is very expensive and I have to be very careful, right from the concept stage, how I develop an idea, so that I can make a great film with very limited resources. That’s why I give myself all these rules. Some ideas have started off as film stories, and then I realise it will be very expensive and unachievable unless I get Hollywood money, and then I think of turning this idea into a novella or a short story, but it never works out. My brain refuses to see it in another format. Only one script changed forms: Toilets Are For Something Fishy. It started life as a radio play and was longlisted for the BBC Radio Playwriting Competition in 2014. I later adapted it into a stage play, and then into a screenplay, though it is yet to be produced, but this was easy because stage, radio, and screenplays work with a certain set of rules.
With fiction, there are no rules to how I develop the story. Often I will start with an idea, sometimes only one sentence, and I won’t even know how it will end. The only rule I might set is the length; that is, I decide if it is a short story, or a novella, or a novel. This is important to force out a plot and structure. Like this novel I’m now working on, Dreams of a Yellow Balloon. I hope to publish it early next year. It is about a boy who uses a wheelchair, and he has to use his incredible brain to stay alive after his parents leave him behind when war breaks out in their town. The theme has traumatised me since childhood. I have a disability and other children used to taunt me saying, ‘When fighting starts, we’ll run and leave you behind.’ It’s haunted me all this time and then I decided to write a novel early this year. Other than the general theme, I had no character, and no plot. I just had this one line, which became the fine line, ‘They left him behind to die.’ I wrote 120k words in three months and, even before I finished, I sent it to a publisher, who liked the first few chapters, and wants to publish it.
I have started exploring multi-media ideas. There is this one I’m working on, which I call Safari Nyota, and I want to develop it into multiple kinds of stories: prose, graphic novel, a web series, a text-adventure game, maybe in virtual reality as well, about a group of astronauts on a pioneer mission outside our solar system. Things go horribly wrong and only one person remains alive on the spaceship. The story is slightly different in each format. I started to develop it as an exercise, but mostly to keep pace with the changing forms of stories because, as technology develops, it creates new platforms and new audiences, and a storyteller who does not change with the times gets left behind.
What projects do you have on the go at the minute?
I’m working on two projects, one is the book I’ve mentioned above, Dreams of a Yellow Balloon. It’s autobiographical, in that it deals with a trauma I suffered as a teen, and that still haunts me sometimes. Growing up with a disability in Africa is very difficult, as it is anywhere in the world. But growing up with a disability in an area of conflict is hell. You live with this recurrent nightmare that at any time, war will break out and then everyone will run and leave you behind. In the 80s of Uganda, though the civil war largely left my town unscratched, there was this sense that the apocalypse could be upon us at any point. We felt it whenever we heard a loud bang; the whole street would freeze just to make sure it was a car backfiring and not a gun. Now, every time I see refugee news, I search for pictures of people with disabilities. I’ve never seen any. I always see able-bodied people with luggage on their head. Is it that there were no people with disabilities in that area when fighting broke out? Not likely. This thing bugs me a lot and I just had to write the novel. It’s taken up most of my creative time this year and it just might end up in a series.
The other project is called Horror Romance, where I make short films for distribution online. As I said earlier, it is very difficult to make it as an African filmmaker, and I found that the internet is one of the best available platforms. Yet, the internet demands constant content, and I wanted to build an audience from the large success of What Happened in Room 13, so I set off to make slightly similar movies. I didn’t want an actual series, because it consumes a lot of resources. Later, after I’ve figured out online business, I’ll surely launch a web series and I’m already thinking of a story, something that might mash Dr. Who and Game of Thrones, but on a low budget level. For now, I’m making these little films in a series I call Horror Romance. I have a simple set of rules; the first is no dialogue, and then it has to be about a relationship that goes so bad it becomes a horror, and finally there has to be an element of sci-fi or fantasy. You can take a look at one of them on YouTube.
Her Broken Shadow is airing in Glasgow at 7:30pm on 1st November 2017. Entry is free. Further details can be found here.