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August 31, 2007

If We Don't Tell Our Stories

A NYC director and his colleagues become filmmaking mentors in Uganda

(L-R) Director James Gayo and George Michuki Karugu on the Uganda set of The Trip, one of the short films produced in this year's Maisha Film Lab (Photos: Ami Boghani)

I arrived in Uganda three weeks ago knowing little about the country beyond the Hollywood version of Idi Amin. I was invited to participate as an editing mentor in the Maisha Film Lab, which director Mira Nair founded in 2004. I received a phone call a few weeks before I came -- really last minute -- but life takes interesting turns and I tend to simply take them, without giving it too much thought. I had no doubt this was going to be incredibly important.

Maisha’s mission is clear: “If we don’t tell our stories, nobody else will.” Nair and program coordinators Ami Boghani and Musarait Kashmiri selected a group of young Eastern African filmmakers and divided the camp into a screenwriting and a director’s lab. This year’s artistic directors were Maria Full of Grace filmmaker Josh Marston (screenwriting) and the great Barry Brown -- editor of most of Spike Lee’s films (directing). Nine participants from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania came in as screenwriters, and three out of these nine scripts were later chosen to be produced. At that point, additional screenwriting mentors like Jason Filardi (Bringing Down the House), Alison Maclean (Jesus’ Son) and David Keating (The Last of High Kings) stepped out, as technical mentors including myself, acting coach Verane Pick, camera operator Kerwin DeVonish and veteran New York sound mixer Drew Kunin entered.

I admit I was expecting to encounter very green filmmakers to whom I’d be teaching the basics of film grammar -- 180 degree-rules and the like. Very soon, I realized there would be little of that involved, mostly because cinema’s language is very much embedded in these filmmakers. That’s where my first prejudices fell to the ground, and my Final Cut Pro tutorials proved to be quite useless. Instead, I used scenes that I shot during my Columbia University years and had the participants cut them as exercises.

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Then production came, and the writers/directors -- one from Uganda, one from Kenya and one from Tanzania -- made three very different films, all shot near our hotel in the rural outskirts of Kampala. They assembled crews from the six remaining writers (working as assistant directors and unit production managers) plus the technical participants, mixing nationalities as much as possible. The intention was to help construct an East African collective, or at least the feeling that such collective is possible. At the outset, our function was pretty much to ignite the fire, give the wheel its first spin. After that they were on their own.

Ugandan filmmaker Dilman Dila’a project, What Happened in Room 13, was particularly interesting to me: a very ambitious six-page script whose first cut was around 25 minutes -- not really too long. No dialogue on the page, 50-plus scenes and a lot of tension permeate this story of a married man and a married woman meeting in disguise at the room 13 of a guest house. A mosquito net falls onto the couple during sex, producing a dead body that the man has to deal with. Meanwhile, the woman’s husband is looking for her in the small village, and the viewer slowly realizes the husband is the other man’s best friend.

The material is absolutely fantastic. They shot it in the three days, and they had a cut in another two. It is Dilman’s first film, and he’s had the great courage of having his actors move through space and work. What we see is labor-- people making an effort on screen, moving, in action. It is pure cinema, coming from a filmmaker who didn’t have the opportunity to see 1/100th of the films that are available to us in New York.

In James Gayo’s equally challenging The Trip, brothers Pembe and Kaniki’s trip to a new job is interrupted by a flat tire. But when the two wander off to look for some food, Kaniki’s lust puts their project in jeopardy. What is so great about this Tanzanian short is James’ ability to effortlessly digress from the main storyline as the two brothers encounter some new characters off the road. Finally, in Kenyan filmmaker Wanjiru Kairu’s Must Be a God-Fearing Christian Girl, the main character struggles to leave the shadow of his overpowering mother by refusing the date she arranged for him, instead arranging one for himself. His dinner plans go slapstick when he realizes that she is not the Christian girl that his online ad required.

(L-R) Veronica Tindi and Victor Dimo Okello in Kenyan filmmaker Wanjiru Kairu's Must be a God-Fearing Christian Girl

What's fascinating about these three shorts is how they all go against the Western trend of making headline films like The Last King of Scotland or The Blood Diamond in Africa. They are simple and personal stories. In The Trip, for instance, it is not the plot itself that makes the film Tanzanian -- this is not about the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria (also an important story, but it cannot be the only type of story being told in Africa). Rather, it's the behavior and the range of details that the filmmaker is able to evoke once his characters veer off the road and the story digresses; it's the father of a village bride challenging her suitor in a Bao game over the illegal moonshine, or Kaniki lustfully following the bride’s sister as she fetches water and, on their way, plagued by ants literally in his pants. It’s him running towards a bathhouse, where he surprises the bride, who hasn’t seen a man in six months in preparation for her suitor. It is the immediate cancellation of the wedding and the father of the bride losing his promised dowry. Moreover, it is the digression itself -- a formal digression from our ways of telling stories (both ours and theirs). Even the flat tire itself is unmistakably Tanzanian.

In the end, if anything, we showed these filmmakers that this moviemaking thing is actually not that hard. Digital technologies allow films to be made cheaper and much easier than the big scary film apparatus once made us believe it is, and as long as you facilitate community -- people united for a common goal and because of a common passion -- everything else becomes cake. Sharing is what’s cool right now, not only because we want to pass along and give back what we’ve learned (and that’s the feeling I got from all the tireless mentors here) but also because sharing is the only way to actually learn.

Moreover, I’m sure that these filmmakers will go on and tell their stories, which cannot be found in newspaper clippings, history books or the Lonely Planet guide. They will be -- must be --Tanzanian or Rwandan simply because that’s where these filmmakers come from. Otherwise, all the world will see of a magnificent country like Uganda is a Scottish king through a white man’s gaze.

Fellipe Gamrano Barbosa is the New York-based writer director of Salt Kiss, La Muerte es Pequeña and other films. His work has appeared at the Sundance, New York and Seattle film festivals.


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