The Rise of Ugandan Cinema: Stories and Challenges with Michael Wawuyo Jr.

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“Tell the stories to be a part of the process of either changing the narrative and society through our stories or being vocal about the issue pertaining to our society”

– Michael Wawuyo Jr. 

Cinema in Uganda, a growing sector that reflects the country’s cultural richness and resilience, is gaining international attention. Through a combination of tradition and innovation, Ugandan filmmakers are creating works that address social, historical and personal issues, offering a unique perspective on their world. In this article, I would like to show the evolution and current state of Ugandan cinema, tracing its origins and highlighting the challenges and opportunities that characterize this vibrant artistic landscape. 

To learn more about the situation of the film industry in this country, I had the honor of interviewing Michael Wawuyo Jr., a renowned Ugandan actor and director, whose insights and experiences will help us better understand the dynamics and future of this fascinating industry.

Michael Wawuyo Jr. image from https://www.instagram.com/p/CYCZ3ZMLEHv/ 07/06/24, 15.50

In 2021, UNESCO published the dossier The African film industry: trends, challenges and opportunities for growth. For the first time, a comprehensive mapping of the film and audiovisual industry of all fifty-four states on the African continent was released. In general, film and audiovisual production and distribution is growing rapidly thanks to the spread of the technologies in recent years, but there are still a lot of challenges. An emblematic case is certainly Nollywood, the film capital of Nigeria, which is now able to produce 2,500 films every year. On the other hand, international organizations, such as UNESCO itself, have for years been committed to fostering the development and dissemination of African cinema through special projects. For example, the series of short films African Folktales Reimagined in collaboration with Netflix, which you can explore further here

Michael Wawuyo Jr. also participated in African Folktales Reimagined: he was one of the protagonists in the short film Katera on the Punishment Island by Ugandan director Loukman Ali, with whom he collaborated several times. This short film was inspired by the story of Mauda Kitaragabirwe, a survivor of “Punishment Island”. This was a place where communities put girls who became pregnant out of wedlock to punish them by leaving them to die. Wawoju Jr. plays a man who helps the protagonist, mourning the loss of her child, to get her revenge towards the men that caused her a miscarriage.

From Past to Present: The Evolution of Cinema in Uganda

The history of cinema in Uganda is closely linked to its political history. Its birth can be traced back to the colonial period when Uganda was under the governmental control of England, which lasted from 1894 to 1962. Cinema has spread in the early 20th century mainly as a tool of education through the Bantu Education Kinema Experiment under the Colonial Film Unit, a propaganda and film production organization of the British government. 

From the 1960s onwards, UNESCO played a central role in supporting the creation of the country’s own industry taking over the remnants of the Colonial Film Unit, shut down in 1955. It founded the Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance, a project that for the first time offered training in film to Ugandans. However, this first attempt was blocked by the civil war that took place in the country from 1966 to 1986, shortly after the country became independent.

Director Hajj Ashraf Ssemwogerere’s Feelings Struggle from 2005 is considered to be the first film from Kinna-Uganda or Ugawood, the names given to local production in the country. We can say that the history of Uganda’s film industry is recent, and has faced quite a few difficulties in its nineteen years of existence, the most recent of which is undoubtedly the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One feature to be attributed to Uganda’s productions is the constant lack of funds, both public and private. This leads local filmmakers to find innovative ways to produce films with very small budgets but Uganda’s film industry is still quite productive with more than 40 low-budget action films over the last ten years. One of the most expensive films so far was the 2010 Who killed Captain Alex? by Isaac Nabwana. He founded Wakaliwood, also known as Ramon Film Production, in 2005 and it’s now the largest film production company based in Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, and with the aforementioned film it has gained international fame.

In addition to UNESCO’s ongoing efforts from the outside, the Uganda Communications Commissions (UCC) is also making its own efforts to change the situation. In 2020, it created a local film funding scheme, the Content Development Support Programme. The UCC also organize the Uganda Film Festival to promote the film industry in the country, whose 11th edition take place on 7 June 2024. 

A few training schools have been established since the 2000s, but due to the very high costs and their limited number, most film workers in Uganda are self-taught. Michael Wawuyo Jr. is also self-taught: “When I started with cinema, film schools were very expensive so I thought that it would be better to learn from the internet, where pretty much everything is available. I taught myself a lot of what I know today, that’s been through a lot of research (…) What pushed me is the love for this business but also the aim to be as prolific as my father, who is a highly respected filmmaker in this country”. When I asked him what he thought of the training opportunities he replied: “First of all I would be grateful with what we have so far and also hopeful that many more opportunities can come on board (…) right now we have the UCC that was designed to help filmmakers to reach fundings and it helped a lot”.

Several films from Uganda have been awarded at international festivals. The first one was Divizionz by Donald Mugisha, which featured in the Berlin Film Festival in 2007. Also worth mentioning is the debut film of director Caroline Kamya, Imani, which was nominated for Best First Feature at the Berlin Film Festival in 2010. Speaking of participation in international festivals, it is impossible not to mention the director and social activist Dilman Dila, whose films have attended numerous festivals and won numerous awards.  

Unfortunately, due to the lack of adequate film facilities, Uganda continues to this day to lose large amounts of revenue. The filmmakers themselves often do not earn what was planned because of disruptive piracy and the absence of clear negotiation and payment methods. 

Michael Wawuyo Jr: A Protagonist of Ugandan Cinema

Michael Wawuyo Jr. is an actor, director, film producer but also a philanthropist and businessman born in 1986 in Kampala, Uganda. He has always breathed the air of cinema in his family. In fact, he is the son of the actor and director Michael Wawuyo: “I watched my dad’s movies and then I went to get the neighborhood friends and start acting games, acting out 90s series such as Power Ranger (…) all of this bust something in me and the desire to do films and it never burned out. So in 2007 I expressed to my father that I wanted to join the film industry and – he added laughing – at the start he wasn’t very supportive but eventually we got on the same page”. Soon after came his first role in the series The Hostel, which aired on the NTV Uganda television network. He added that his career as an actor also helps him to progress as a filmmaker thanks to the prolific intellectual exchange he has with some of the directors he collaborates with: “The more you keep asking about filmmaking the better your experience becomes both behind and in front of the camera”. When I asked him what being a son of a director meant for his awareness of what he wanted to do and subsequently entering the film industry, he replied: “Being the child of a filmmaker exposed me to film at a very young age (..) everyday after school or even before school he was running to do something and I saw him onset – offset and this kept fueling my desire to do what I’m doing today”. 

I also asked Wawuyo Jr. how he would describe the current state of the film industry in Uganda: “It’s growing and stories are getting better and better. Also we’re having more schooled filmmakers coming out from different film training entities and doing more quality production. Films are getting better in terms of cinematography and video-editing and this is being noticed across and beyond the African continent. Also key streaming platforms are starting to pay attention to our very small industry like Netflix or Showmax”.

Wawuyo Jr. participated in the first Ugandan production to appear in the Netflix catalog, in 2021. It is The Girl in the Yellow Jumper, a mystery-thriller film directed by Loukman Ali, previously mentioned because of the frequent collaboration between the two artists: “First of all, for me (Loukman Ali) is a creative genius (…) between me and him it’s always a creative explosion and it’s always also a very fun experience because not only I have the room as a performer to suggest and share my thoughts and my opinion but also he has room to share his vision in a way that it’s not dictatorial, it’s an amazing creative synergy”. I then asked him how they had met and how this wonderful professional relationship had been created: “We met shortly before the shoot of The Girl in the Yellow Jumper in 2018. He expressed his desire to work with me on a production because he saw my work and he was just a fan (…) as soon as I read the script of the film I loved it and I told him immediately that I would work with him. We began this journey together until eventually made it to Netflix”. 

The girl in the Yellow Jumper poster, image from https://www.instagram.com/p/CX6ev1aLbO1/ 07/06/24, 15.50

About being in Uganda’s first film on Netflix Wawuyo Jr. added: “I was so happy, words really can’t express how I felt. I was working on a different production and I was out of town and (Loukman Ali) called me saying that we made it to Netflix. I almost dropped my jaw. I felt that in that moment I was making history and I’m so proud to have shared this journey with an artist that I admire as much as Loukman”.

In conclusion, I asked Wawuyo Jr. if he was working on anything new at the moment and he confirmed that he is working with Loukman Ali again, further consolidating this prolific collaboration. He could not add more as it would be too early to reveal any further details: ‘“You will learn more about it when it comes out, but we are definitely cooking”. So, all that remains for us is to look forward to this new project from Uganda, hoping that this article has stimulated interest in learning more about the cinema of this fascinating country, as unknown as interesting.

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