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100 episodes later, the small screen saves Ugandan cinema

Local film: With the way Ugandans shun their own productions, the pandemic was expected to act as the funeral for the film industry, but we have seen shockers as Andrew Kaggwa writes.

When Covid-19 altered life as we knew it with various lockdowns around the world, many businesses, especially those that thrived when people convened, suffered.

The transport system was shaken – planes had to carry half the number of people they ordinarily carried, concerts and festivals were postponed and later cancelled altogether.

What the film industry – in Hollywood – was afraid of, happened. Over the years, film and studio executives had taken turns attacking content streaming giant Netflix for killing the film industry as it has always been known.

For them, film was all about the big screen, the cinema screen. They believed when a film is released, people watch it at the cinema together. In fact, this part of culture is even embedded in the criteria one has to fulfill to be considered for an Academy nomination – screening at the cinema for at least seven consecutive days.

With Covid-19, cinemas took a hit, films were postponed until the studios couldn’t postpone anymore. The academy awards changed the rules for 2020 to allow films to be submitted without a seven-day cinematic run, which gave way to many exclusive Netflix releases.

It was about that same time that major studios too jumped onto the bandwagon of releasing could-be blockbusters on their streaming platforms. So far, Warner Bros. has done such a job by simultaneously releasing films such as Wonder Woman, Judas and the Black Messiah, In the Heights and Godzilla Vs Kong, among others.

No Covid-19 losses

In Uganda, there is very little claim of what Covid-19 robbed the industry – true, a few high profile films were yet to premiere such as The Girl in the Yellow Jumper and Kafa Coh.

Loukman Ali’s The Girl in the Yellow Jumper was originally meant to premiere on April 18, less than a month before the lockdown was announced on March 10, 2020. The film stars Michael Wawuyo Jnr, Maurice Kirya, Michael Wawuyo Snr, Rehema Nanfuka, Gladys Oyenbot and Patrick Nkakalukanyi, among others.

The film tells a story of a man who escapes captivity and returns with a story to tell.

Kafa Coh, on the other hand, stars Nigerian actor Kalu Ikeagwu, Michael Wawuyo Snr, Abby Mukiibi, Mariam Ndagire, Peter Odeke and Diana Kahunde, among others.

Produced by actress Doreen Mirembe and directed by Kenyan director Gilbert Lukalia, the legal drama follows a naïve lawyer who gets mixed up in a fight between two political heavyweights.

Kafa Coh had started its marketing campaign on Valentine’s Day, premiering a trailer at Rema Namakula’s concert and Patrick ‘Salvado’ Idringi’s Africa Laughs simultaneously. However, when the lockdown was effected, the October 9 scheduled premiere was halted too.

But these are the only two known films that had invested heavily in their making and thus, it is hard to count losses of the entire industry basing on just the two.

For the bigger part of the industry, with or without Covid-19, it is hard to claim there were known expectations to justify that they lost a thing or two. For instance, most films that were expected to come out in 2020 had not yet been made, considering that many are made with a sole purpose of receiving nominations at the Uganda Film Festival.

Industry rebirth

However, before the lockdown had been announced, MultiChoice Africa courtesy of DSTV, had been working on improving both the quality and quantity of local content on their platforms. There had been a call for content acquisition and a number of filmmakers had submitted their pitches.

The result of the pitches was Sanyu, Prestige, Mama and Me and Story Yange – these also gave birth to Pearl Magic Prime, a local content channel for the pay TV.

Since the channel was launched on February 5, Sanyu, a drama termed as Uganda’s first telenovela, and Prestige, a family drama, have captured the attention of Ugandans.

Sanyu follows a naïve girl, who leaves the village to come and work for a rich Kirunda family in a bid to help foot her ailing father’s medical bills; one thing leads to the other, she ends up in a love triangle with the younger son of the house and lands in more trouble while at it.

Prestige, on the other hand, follows two sisters; Jasmine and Eunice; they are both in the same business of advertising, running two companies, Prestige – a family company their father left behind and Innovative – a company Eunice started to avoid further confrontations with her sister.

The story digs deep into their business rivalry to their unknown competition of affection for the same man as well as outsiders that want to take the two of them down.

The two shows last week screened their 100th episode, a landmark for any local drama but the number was never the big deal but a fact that Ugandans are still glued and more than ever, looking forward to more.

It is a full-time job

Since February, TV shows such as Sanyu and Prestige have kept the industry that had almost been declared dead before Covid-19. With the way Ugandans shun their own productions both on the TV small screen and the cinema, the pandemic was expected to act as the funeral of an industry.

Yet from the look of things, it just came to life. For instance, while visiting the set of Sanyu in Mutungo, actor Houlsen Mushema, who plays the role of Patrick, one of the Kirunda sons, says working on Sanyu is one of the few times he has been fully occupied in his career as an actor.

Houlsen started out as a model, before breaking out as an actor in the revamped The Hostel TV series, he took on the role of Sokke. He seemed to struggle with the character, probably because acting was still a new thing for him.

He later took on the memorable character of Balikowa in Balikowa Mu City and this time, he acted alongside Marion Asilo, who now portrays Linda, Patrick’s mother.

In the same vein, Mathew Nabwiso, the producer and director of the drama too says that being commissioned to produce Sanyu is one of the few times as a producer that he has been assured of work for at least two years.

“We have been making films but at times you will get the funds to do it while other times, you will not and you will end up compromising many things during production,” he says.

Sanyu and Prestige are, however, not the first TV shows to grab the attention of Ugandans. Back in the day, there was That’s Life Mwattu and Bibawo: These Things Happen, both productions of The Ebonies, Kigenya Agenya by the Bakayimbira and Ensitano by The Afri-Talents. In mid 2000s, however, local dramas went extinct only to be revived by the energetic teen drama, The Hostel.

Nathan Magoola, the producer of Prestige, says these shows came at the right time. He says at the time the calls were made, many of the filmmakers were home and TV shows became a blessing for them as filmmakers, the broadcaster and the audience.

“Shows such as Prestige and Sanyu made filmmakers fulltime workers, as you can see, we are into a second lockdown and unlike before, actors can’t be kept home, they have to continue working,” he says.

A new culture?

Today, with the success of the two shows, a culture of paying for local content may be re-awakened. Comedian Hannington Bugingo, for instance, once lamented that if local TVs continue shunning local content, a foreign competitor may show up and eventually steal an audience from them.

Bugingo, also a producer of Fun Factory’s Muzigo Express, had previously tried to sell content to local channels in vain. Like many filmmakers before him, the reason these TVs gave was lack of a budget.

However, of late, there seems to be a shift. For instance, Christian television, Top TV, has of late decided to go hyper local by investing in local dramas such as Baguma, Gutujja, Preacher’s Wife, Bloodline, The Office and Akabatte, among others.

According to Aaron Alone Zziwa, a film director and one of the producers of The Office, TV has given Ugandans a chance to see what the industry can offer. He says with many watching local productions on a daily basis, they are aware of the industry’s existence.

“The shows have been well received by the public, which I believe will force other TVs to go the same direction,” Zziwa says.

This success has also been a vehicle for new faces, for instance, Sanyu, Prestige, Mama and Me and Buguma are all driven by relatively new faces on screen. Above it all, though, the unsung heroes of film production such as cinematographers, writers, make-up artists and boom swingers all have jobs at a time they were expected to be idle.

At the moment, like never before, you have many people who are proudly fulltime filmmakers, these consist of crews and actors. For instance, Nabwiso says they employ about 60 people on Sanyu. With Prestige, Mama and Me and more than 10 Top TV dramas in the mix, the small screen could be keeping more than 700 youth in employment.

Will the success of local film on the small screen interpret into numbers on cinema seats? That’s a question both the pandemic and the lockdown cannot let you answer.

“We only have to wait and see how things play out,” Zziwa says.

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