Film business: When he ventured into film in 2009, Joseph Sebaggala, aka SK Zenken, just wanted to make films. Little did he know film business would win him awards, let alone see him travel the world. Now his movies House Arrest and Call 112 are nominated in the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA) due in Lagos, Nigeria in March. He spoke to Douglas D. Sebamala.
How do you feel about your nomination at the AMVC Awards?
It gives me a position among African film makers. My film House Arrest is nominated for overall African film with six other films but there are more film makers therein, so at least I stand somewhere. The fact that both House Arrest and Call 112 are recognised at international level is overwhelming!
Did you ever think you would get this far?
When we started making films in 2015, we were basically producing commercial films for sale. We never thought about festivals and competitions. Fortunately, the two films came in time for UFF submissions. After winning UFF, people encouraged us to submit for other international festivals. 2015 was full of surprises for us. Now people are looking out for my next production, which wasn’t the case when I started.
So are we! What movies are in the pipeline?
I cannot tell which will come first, but I have three titles, Not Just A Boy, The Way Out and The Editor. Whichever we release first will depend on production costs, funds and locations.
I have seen the script of Not Just A Boy and it seems more like an erotic movie. How do you plan to execute this movie?
At the time I wrote Not Just A Boy, I had just returned from a festival in the Netherlands in 2012 and majority of the films I had watched were erotic. When I returned, I sat with other script writers and we revised the script. They kept saying: “Man you can’t produce this in Uganda.” So right now, it has less (about five) nude scenes and a better story. There will be a cut for the festivals and a cut for TV.
What inspired the award-winning House Arrest?
I was inspired by a radio show. One day, I was driving and a woman called in on a radio sow. She claimed she had lost her husband and her co-wife was bewitching her. She was running mad on the streets and evil spirits were haunting her inside the house. It was a true story but I tweaked it a lot to come up with House Arrest.
You used single locations for both Call 112 and House Arrest. How did that add to the films?
Last year, I was working on the theme of one location. Call 112 had the kidnapped brother and sister and a surgeon in one location. For House Arrest I was driven by how to keep a character inside the house and yet create an interesting story. It was also about quality, camera movement and beauty of the house. We had initially shot House Arrest but lost out on the location so we reshot in a muzungu’s house; a place an audience would wonder if it was worth a woman risking her life by staying put.
How do you rate these two movies?
House Arrest is a class apart; it has a certain level of professionalism. If you watched Call 112 and House Arrest, one after the other, the latter has better production. You learn something new from every production.
Which do you think stands a better chance of winning?
House Arrest may win an award because it is nominated in the overall Africa, Best Light Design and the Best Movie East Africa category. It might win East Africa because that is what Ugandans might relate to and I encourage Ugandans to vote for it because it came out as the big film of 2015.
When did you start filming and what was your vision?
I started in 2009. Then, I was a fresh graduate of Art and Industrial Design at Kyambogo University. I was practising more on painting and sculptures for hotels, and as I was looking for a painting style, I visited the national theatre. Here, I watched people dance and I started fusing dance motives into my paintings. Then I met film makers who gathered every Tuesday for the Film Club. It had been my dream at university to venture into film and that is how I was exposed to film.
What goes through your mind at the start of a production?
I want to be an artist when doing films. At the back of my mind, I am a professional artist. House Arrest has a scene that won’t go on TV but I knew a scene like that might portray my style; I am not just a film maker, I am an artist. It is not easy to shoot romantic scenes of Africans kissing or getting intimate because it may not look appealing, but it is how you place the cameras and the subjects. The same goes for Not Just A Boy. I believe I will pull it off.
Are you inspired by any film makers?
Ang Lee, the American film maker born in China. When you watch his films, the way he handles sex scenes, the way he treats the lighting and camera movements is exceptional! I also look up to David Fincher and Steven Spielberg for the way he moves his camera and how it communicates.
What are your goals?
By 2017, I should start producing TV series. I have pending productions but I may not release any of them this year. I received a lot of criticism for my film, so I want to give space for people to calm themselves down and give opportunity to other film makers. I know if I produce The Editor right now, no other production can compete with it. It is a superb script. Among my scripts, none compares to The Editor. If I produce and it competes for UFF, it might be in the judges’ favour (laughs). I also plan to venture into distribution.
Previous UFF winning directors Matt Bish and Dilman Dilla have not released major productions since. Won’t you ‘disappear’ like them?
When you travel much, your production schedule is disorganised. I believe it is the same for them. I had to plan that around May I should be in production. However, going to the Cannes means I cancel the production in May, so I chose to go to the Festival in Germany in February.
Are you afraid of how things may turn out at AMVCA?
Well, I am counting on scooping best film in East Africa. I have watched trailers for some films competing in this category and they are good films. But I know the magic in House Arrest and why it was nominated. It stands alone. No African has produced a film like it. For a screen play, no film beats it, maybe production. But I am not afraid.
Any tips for upcoming film makers?
If you want to be a film maker and you can find your start, do it. If you want to produce films, do until you find your success. Produce, make reasonable savings, then keep investing in film, doing one thing at a time.
Where do we see Zenken in 10 years?
Zenken might be a billionaire because I see a lot of potential in the film industry and I am going to be an investor, doing even more superb productions.
If you were not doing film, what else would you be doing?
I would go back to art, doing sculptures. I have done sculpture at Paragon hospitals in Bugolobi, Buddo SS and Boom Hotel.
Do you think Uganda stands a chance of taking over the African film industry?
That depends on the competition. The coming of UFF has inspired local competition and that later grows into international level. If we continue producing high quality films then we shall be better than Nigerians because we are good at it. And with Multichoice creating channels such as Maisha Magic that is strictly for East African film, it gives us space to earn audiences.
Why should Ugandans vote for you in the AMVCA?
We need Uganda to be recognised. Africa needs to recognise that we can make exceptional films and then they can always look forward to what we produce next.
I started in 2009, working on people’s projects as a runner. I did the boom, the slate, lighting set up and a lot of set design. I started writing because I realised even with my small resources I needed to come up with good stories. My first production was Master On Duty which I produced with no budget. My sister Susan Muwonge (motor rally champion) got me a free school and meals. We hired equipment and the cast were vacists who volunteered and enjoyed the two weeks’ vacation on set.
I followed this with Akataka (The Land Wrangle) inspired by tales from Ntila, a local witch doctor in our younger days who when the magic expired started working at my grandma’s farm. He shared with me a story of how he used make families fight each other through his charms, causing land wrangles, and I fused that with the love story from Rosemary to make Akataka. My materials and craft were improving.
My sister has been supportive and she is excited about House Arrest.
This former student of Buddo SS, Kitante Hill and Kyambogo University says he is still the normal guy living an ordinary life. “I have not yet achieved you know – not gone to the Oscars…for Best Foreign Language Film” he says, with a glow on his face. He looks forward to collaborations with other film makers in Hollywood.
Visit Africamagic.dstv.com, go to AMVCA vote, login to vote, register and follow the process. You will be given a code to vote with up to 100 votes. Zenken advises you use 80 votes for House Arrest and 20 for Call 112, especially in the East Africa category.