Making films: One Ugandan sector that has grown over the years is the movie industry. From screening movies in black and white to having slots on Oscar nomination lists to getting global recognition, the industry is definitely moving in the right direction. Isaac Ssejjombwe spoke to writer and filmmaker Dilman Dila about the industry and the future.
It would be fair to say you are not a household name. So, who is Dilman Dila?
I am a writer and filmmaker. My books include the critically acclaimed collection of short stories, A Killing In The Sun and three novellas, more recently The Future God of Love. My second collection of short stories will be out in March this year.
Tell us about your career?
I started out as a writer and at first that is all I wanted to do. I wrote a few short stories for The Sunday Vision in the early 2000s, most of which were comic takes on societal issues. But it quickly occurred to me that writing does not pay as much, especially in a country like Uganda that does not have a publishing industry. At first I only wanted to be a screenwriter, and I gave my scripts to a couple of producers but they never paid me, although one of them went on to make a film out of my script and she made quite a bit of money from NGOs. I quickly realised that Ugandan producers do not value the writing process, and screenwriters were among the worst paid in the industry, if they were ever paid at all.
What happened later?
I decided to venture into film production. I started to teach myself, bought books on filmmaking, read a lot of online tutorials, and eventually I went to Maisha Film Lab where I got professional mentorship. I later attended more film labs in Durban Talent Campus and Berlinale Talent Campus, and that was mostly the foundation I needed.
In 2011, I founded a company, Dilstories, so as to make money from my film productions, as corporations would rather deal with a company than with an individual. I knew I had good stories in me, and if I could not find a producer, then I would become my own producer.
Who inspired you in the movie industry?
There are a lot of filmmakers I admired when I started making films. There is Alfred Hitchcok whose style I studied and emulated in my first book. Then there is Ousman Sembene, especially on how he made films on a low budget in the 1960s and 70s outside of Hollywood. There is also Akira Kurosawa who had a huge impact on me as well.
What challenges have you faced in this field since you began?
The biggest challenge has been a lack of market. In Uganda, the early filmmakers killed the industry. By the time I was coming of age as a filmmaker in the late 2000s, there had already been a boom in the industry, but productions were of poor quality, and storytelling was non-existent, so by the time I started making films seriously, around 2012, there was already a negative attitude among Ugandans that our films are not worth it. This killed the market and without a market, it is hard to invest substantially in film.
Among your projects, which one stands out?
I would say What Happened in Room 13. It was my first big project that I made under Maisha Film Lab. I had made about three short films before this, studying mostly on my own. They were not very great, and I wanted a product to push me up.
Mentors who saw the script of What Happened in Room 13 were amazed. It is 18 minutes and has absolutely no dialogue, and yet it is not a mime or a silent film. I just wanted it to have no dialogue, as an element of style, without it being an abstract thing.
That I pulled it off, and thereafter went on to make many short films without using any dialogue, was a great achievement to me. It is on YouTube and it has attracted more than eight million views, attesting to its uniqueness and entertainment qualities.
What else are you working on?
I am planning to make more products for online consumption, and grow an online TV channel, with the long-term vision of having a streaming service, such as Netflix. But I have also set up a studio and I want to launch it to be used by Ugandan filmmakers.
The ground floor is ready and we have made two series in it already. Working in a studio has saved me a lot of money and time, while ensuring good quality production, and it has made me even more ambitious with my plans.
Besides that, I am in preparation for my next feature film, a science fiction. Well, it is perhaps going to be my biggest and most ambitious undertaking, and I want it to launch my international career.
I am also planning to produce more TV series, both for sale to Pearl Magic, (more comedy stuff) and also targeting Netflix, for which I am thinking of a 13-episode science-fiction dramedy.
Tell us more about the series?
It is about a Katwe-based man who designs a robot that he uses to rob people’s houses. The robot can open any door, beat any security system and open any safe. I am also working on a series called Kabi and Kalo, an out-and-out comedy about a young woman whose dream of becoming a musician collides with her mother’s expectation of her becoming an engineer.
What was the inspiration behind this series?
Kabi and Kalo was made out of a specific need. It is the kind of story that came about from a critical thinking process, rather than the kind of inspiration that hits an artiste when they wake up in the morning and look out of the window and hear a bird sing. I wanted to create a product for online consumption. It had to be a comedy, an all-out comedy with a joke every minute or so. With this in mind, I had to develop the characters, give them a goal (and the goals had to be gags in themselves). The woman (Kabi) wants to be a musician, but she cannot sing, and she lies to her mother and studies music while her mother thinks she is studying engineering. The man (Kalo), is a mama’s boy, has grown used to soft money, and so he is a small-time con artist, but he is not particularly very skilled at it. Pairing these two characters gave me the story.
Who are some of the cast in the movie?
There are several people in the cast. Kabi is played by a new kid on the block, Lynda Uwera. I noticed she had potential for comedy, and she turned out to be a natural and fit all the check boxes.
Daniel Omara (Kalo) is a seasoned comedian. He made a name for himself way back in The Hostel, where we worked together briefly. When I started this project, he was the natural choice. I wrote the script with him in mind, knowing he likes to talk and he has a lot of natural punchlines.
Then there is Sarah Kisauzi, who plays Kalo’s mother. She is a celebrated actress, who hit the limelight in the TV Series Deception. She is a sweet old lady and delivers her performance beautifully.
Brennan Baby, the TikTok celebrity, is also part of the cast. He plays the child of a woman who Kabi and Kalo try to con. He was our natural choice for when we needed a child.
Diana Nalubega (the musician), plays Brennan’s mother. She has been branching off into acting recently, and she came from the set of The Kojja where she had her first acting role.
Why a series?
When targeting an online market, it is better to have a series, since this can hold the attention of the audience over a period of time. In this case, we hope it will run for six weeks and hope that there will be enough time to drive up attention toward it. If it were a single film, it would be all over after the first day of screening, but a series is great for building an audience, and a fan base around the product.
What does the future look like for you?
Over the years, I have made quite a bit of profits here and there, and as the film industry grows, with a dedicated DStv channel now buying Ugandan content, I thought it was time to invest even more in film, so I started the construction of a film studio, although it has not been easy, as I am not rich. I do not even own a car yet. But it is about sacrifice, living a frugal life so as to finance what might end up being Uganda’s first true film studio. It is not grand like the Hollywood studios, but that is the long-term goal. If enough filmmakers rent my studio and I see it as a viable business, then I will get more loans and finance the construction of a Hollywood style film studio in Uganda. For now, it is a studio that serves the industry, built with our kind of productions in mind.
I see myself launching a kind of streaming service in the future. It is a lot of dreams and ambitions, but well, I hope I get there somehow.
My writing has been recognised in international and prestigious spaces, including a shortlist for the British Science Fiction, Association Awards (2021), Nommo Awards for Best Novella (2021, 2022), the Gerald Kraak Award (2016), the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (2013), and a longlist for the BBC Radio International Playwriting Competition (2014). My short stories have appeared in several magazines and anthologies, including the Apex Book of World SF 4, AfroSF v2, and Myriad Lands.
As a filmmaker, I was nominated for Best First Feature by a Director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards (2014), The Felistas Fable, went on to win four major awards at the Uganda Film Festival (2014). My films, including The Sound Of One Leg Dancing (2011) won The Jury Award at the Nepal International Indigenous Film Festival (2012).
My 2017 feature film Her Broken Shadow has been selected at Durban International Film Festival and American Film Institute’s New African Film Festival.