Kampala’s National Theatre was abuzz. Crowds gathered in the floodlit surroundings of the colonial-era theatre, milling with anticipation. Pockets of young, glamorous and arty types in close circles; excited voices in animated conversations; beer bottles checked at security clearance, (which remains tight since the 11 July bombings). Why? This theatre was playing host to Kampala’s 1st Annual Maisha African Film Festival (13-15 August 2010). A sense of occasion carried outside its doors.
The festival is a new part of the Maisha Film Lab programme – the brainchild of Mira Nair, acclaimed director of films such as Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala. Maisha was conceived as a non-profit training initiative for emerging East African filmmakers and has been running workshops in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya since 2004. Their international board of advisors and mentors includes directors Spike Lee, Raoul Peck and Sofia Coppola, and Rwanda Cinema Centre founder Eric Kabera. The Kampala film festival is part of their vision to stimulate the growth and development of African filmmaking and hopefully generate the investment local artists need.
Sadly technical mishaps meant the opening film petered out. The film started to skip and freeze. Distinct tuts and whistles from the crowd. The place was rammed. And it became hot and frustrated. After forty minutes the opening film, Caroline Kamya’s iMANi, which showed three separate Ugandan lives in tandem (a la Magnolia) – a child soldier returning to normality, a woman fighting for the release of her sister from jail, and a dance troop leader trying to get through a hometown performance – was no more. We squeezed out into the cooler air. It was a great shame since this award-winning film was beautifully shot and captured some strong performances.
“Kampala’s a cosmopolitan city” says Mugisha, “You have lots of different tribes; people from the east, west, north and south. People from Kenya, Tanzania, Congo. That’s good in a way. It makes you liberal, accommodative… but in a way you lose your background.”
The contrast between rural tradition and urban modernity clearly interests Mugisha. His previous film Divisionz was shot in Kampala and also starred national hip hop stars Bobi Wine and Buchaman, who come from the capital’s slums or “ghettos”, as Mugisha calls them. These guys were cheered when they came on screen. Their characters conform to type; dealing in a raw and humorous dialogue, they gladly smoke ganja and offer no illusions about their sexual desires. “It’s a balance” says Mugisha “You want the spirit of the countryside and the spirit of the hustle”, he smiles.
The range of narratives and imagery being screened at Maisha was impressive. Such productions attest to the richness of storytelling traditions and tremendous visual potential for film on the continent. Baganda tribal myth, trans-African road trips, a satire on dislocation, femininity and sexuality in the Sahara – these were some of the fascinating themes coming out of the films. Despite the first night hiccup, the Maisha film festival looks set to have a bright future and we look forward to next year’s edition.