When Film Imitates Art
Written by Dilman Dila
I often think of myself as a storyteller, as a modern-day version of the artists who spiced moonlit evenings by the fireside under the villages favorite tree, or the women who thrilled children beside the warmth of open fires as they cooked supper, or the men who haunted the market streets of Arabian towns, spinning yarns about jinnis and adventures in the seas.
From an early age, I was thrilled by stories, not just hearing or reading them, but telling them. One of my earliest memories is me telling a group of children a story, about a lizard who made a car out of bananas. It had no beginning and no ending because I was making it up as I spoke. Eventually, the children got bored and started to play peke, a game that involved throwing bottle tops into a hole in the ground.
Another time, we were telling stories and my turn came. I begun, “Once upon a time, there was a leopard…” That’s as far as I got. One of my elder brothers interrupted. “Aah!” he said. “That is a deceiving story!” Everybody laughed at me. I realized then that I had developed the reputation of cooking things up, rather than re-telling folk stories that had been passing around for hundreds of years as was the norm, as other children expected. I was about eight years then.
When I went to secondary school, I remember not doing very well in English composition, which surprised many people since I was an avid reader. The problem is best explained in an episode I had with our English teacher, Ms Asio. She asked us to write about our experiences during the holidays, and I wrote about ghosts. I was in love with horror stories back then, and it still shows in my writing.
I got a zero.
Ms Asio said I did not understand the question. I say she did not understand creative writing. No one did. The boys in my dorm laughed for a whole term when I told them I was writing a novel. The laughter continued for many years.
My literature teacher, Mr. Ozombo, told me I was throwing away my life if I insisted on writing (he apparently wrote a book in his early years, but he tore it up out of frustration). I developed a lack of confidence that still haunts me.
Filmmaking as a Business, as Science
Then, sometime in 2006, I discovered filmmaking. I got far much more encouraging remarks from people when I told I wanted to make films. Kinigeria was popular then. People were buying TVs to watch Jenevive. There was money in film, and for the first time in my life I saw the possibility of earning from art. Well, I thought film was an art.
There was no proper film school in Uganda in the mid-2000s. I already had grasped the fundamentals of good storytelling, but I needed a guide on how to do it through film. I attended five different sessions of Maisha Film Lab over two years. The face-to-face interactions with mentors gave me a firm foundation.
But I did not stop there. I knew such teaching was basically an introduction. I bought a lot of books on filmmaking, notably those by Steven D. Katz, Judith Weston, Syd Field, Debreceni, Joseph V. Mascelli and Andrew Norton. I studied them from cover to cover, picking up invaluable advice on screenwriting, acting and cinematography. That was my film school.
However, it was not long before I discovered that filmmaking is not an art. It’s an expensive hobby. It’s a business. It’s a science, because it relies on technology. It requires managerial skills, diplomacy in dealing with egos, and communication skills—because it’s a collaboration.
It’s not an art!
The biggest pain in filmmaking, especially in Uganda, is the people you work with. A filmmaker is only as good as the people he works with, because film is a collaborative media.
I made three documentaries in Nepal, and working with the crew there was a joy. Not once did I get a headache. They understood everything I said, even though I was not 100% fluent in their language and they barely spoke English. They had studied the same principles in filmmaking (and embraced them) as I had. No wonder, I have been able to sell these documentaries.
The problem with Uganda, maybe because the industry is still young, is that most of those who call themselves filmmakers have not bothered to learn the craft. I call them filmjokers. They believe that what they hear from their peers, and the little they have learnt from experience, is enough. I call it half-baked knowledge.
From Theory to Practice
Judith Weston taught me a lot about directing actors, but I found this advice next to useless when dealing with actors who do not believe in rehearsals, who refuse to do the same thing twice because they believe they are natural-born actors. Yet doing it over and over again is not only the best way to get a great performance, but it also ensures smoother editing.
Mr. Katz taught me a lot on composition, but it’s difficult to work with his ideas when the cinematographers do not understand storyboards, or even just the importance of visiting a location and preparing how to shoot each scene before production starts. It’s a headache when they think that they should be telling the director what shot to take, rather than taking ideas from the big man.
The biggest pain is that most of the crew and the actors don’t read. You give actors the script, they ignore it. They want to improvise. I have had to spend a lot of time explaining the story, or arguing because the actor wants to do something totally out of the script. Some of the technical crew read, but others I’ve worked with never bothered. In the end they don’t even know the story they are filming.
I could go on and on about the great disconnect between what I studied and the half-baked knowledge that the majority of untrained actors and crew in Uganda believe in. Only a few have bothered to learn the craft. A precious few.
To make a good film, you need every actor and every crew member to have studied the craft, to grasp the fundamentals and be able to effectively apply the principles. Every single one of them, be it an extra or a runner, they have to be well-trained. That is lacking in Uganda, and it is a frustration to work in such an environment.
I hope that the emergence of film schools will improve the situation. I hope that someone in UCC reads this, and understands that the country needs a lot of training, not another festival.
Jean-Luc Godard said that film can only become an art if the tools of making it become as cheap as pencil and paper. I say it can only become an art if it requires only one person to make it.
In my next feature documentary, I’m experimenting with doing everything alone, directing, scripting, the camerawork, the editing, very much like what Kurt Kuenne did in Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1152758/
Now, that is what I call art.
Dilman is a writer, filmmaker and social activist who uses stories to influence the society. He was shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2013, the same year in which he released his first feature narrative film, The Felistas Fable. He keeps a journal of his life and works at http://www.dilmandila.com/
For Issue 034 Jul ’13 of Startjournal.org, Editor Thomas Bjørnskau invited eight Ugandan artists from different art fields to write an essay about the essence of art, all responding to the same kind of question: to sing/write/paint/write plays etc — what is it really about? This is one of the essays. You can read the other essays here.