Amakula 2012: Gangsterism and Ben Kiwanuka

Serubiri Moses reflects on the recent Amakula Festival which showed films as diverse as Nairobi Half Life, Africa United, The Interrupters and Who Killed Me? and told contrasting stories of immigrants, thugs, gangsters, street children, and even a safe house.

By Serubiri Moses

There were moments in Nairobi Half Life (2012), directed by David Gitonga, that were startlingly reminiscent of Uganda’s dark past of the 1970’s Nile Mansions safe house, located below the area now known as the Serena Kampala Hotel. At these moments you felt as though you were in the basement of that particular hotel, surrounded by nothing but walls and echoes.

As such narratives have done previously, Nairobi Half Life blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, making the Ugandan audience feel terror in one moment and cheer in roaring merrymaking the next. Such contrasts made the Amakula International Film Festival both exciting and alienating.

With the theme “Safeguarding Independence” one was taken through a journey that proved both thought-provoking and hilarious.

Absurd and charming

Adversaries by Selimani Wangera, a Ugandan filmmaker, begins with an absurd exchange of gunfire between two men, who eventually come to have a long final conversation, dying in cold blood. The film ended just as it had set the scene for an entire dialogue; we waited in anticipation for the real drama to begin after those two soldiers died holding each other’s hands, but only watched the credits roll up the screen.

This was an absurd, yet charming moment that made me reflect on whether Ugandans think about anything beyond the violence of civil wars during the last 40 years, especially looking at the Jubilee celebrations.

Like those 50 years celebrations, Nairobi Half Life was geared at mass box office success, and suffered from what can only be termed the “Hero Syndrome”, in which the star of the film, Mwas, overcomes all obstacles including cheating death by a strand of hair.

One of the screenwriters, Serah Mwihaki, revealed in a Q&A after the film’s screening at the Amakula Film Festival, the timid approach to the Nairobi gangsters who were, contrary to their initial apprehension, forthcoming.

“They demonstrated how to dismember a car in under a minute, as we watched in amazement.”

The coherent and faithful interpretation of car jacking in Nairobi is one of the major successes of this film, and which makes the hero of the film, Mwas, all the more believable, but not without the proper research demanded of a character that comes out of literal obscurity.

Mwas is a young man from a small village in the outskirts of Kenya, who goes to Nairobi with dreams of making it as an actor. This goes to show how little is known of such characters in real life.

Cut off your lips

During one of the intermissions, we again felt that endearing sense of contradiction of the Jubilee celebrations in a poetry recital by the Lantern Meet of Poets in which was declared:

“They will cut off your lips!”

In such moments, you wondered if we were really “Safeguarding Independence”, as the line suggests something else. Like the above quote, the rest of the recital burned with violent urgency, such as declaring the Ugandan President a “Clown on our throne”. On the other hand, deeply gratifying to some, was the poem on Ben Kiwanuka, the first Prime Minister of Uganda and leader of Democratic Party.

The poem was one of the highlights of the entire festival, read by a UACE exams candidate from Nabisunsa Girls’ School, who as the narrator called Ben Kiwanuka to refrain from going to work the day he was assassinated, declaring that Uganda would be lost without him.

At such moments it felt like both the performers and the audience were “Safeguarding Independence”.

Stopping gang violence

The Interrupters (2011) directed by Steve James, another film that was screened at Amakula, shows a year in the life of a city (Los Angeles) grappling with urban violence. Like the poem “The Clown”, the film focused on rage, anger, unresolved conflict, community funerals and the journey of reform that one undergoes from being a gangster to stopping gang violence as an “Interrupter”.

It showcased the difficult emotions that young teenagers go through when confronted with violence in their communities and neighborhoods.

For example, in the film’s turning point, Jessy, a young man wearing a red cap, lies in a coffin while several other young men and women wearing red caps pay their last respects, as speeches are read by the victim’s mother and close family members.

However, all this is somewhat interrupted by a poignant speech by Mina, an interrupter of gang violence, who declares:

“They said they were coming to shoot up the funeral, to get the real person… We have got a responsibility to break up the violence.”

I think of Mwas in Nairobi Half Life, the young Kenyan boy from a small village, who is forced into leading a life of gang violence. In another scene in Interrupters, they go to a high school to interview teenagers who reflect on how it is not so easy to walk away from gang violence, some refer to it as a way of life.

A reformed gang member in his early twenties returns home after serving a two-year jail sentence. We see how his younger brothers and sisters still idolize him as their elder, but—in true contradictory fashion—his mother proclaims on seeing him before embracing him:

“My life was in your hands, I didn’t know if you were gonna kill me; my daughter said ‘we gonna die.’”

Objective narratives

Unlike the previous titles, there were some other films that did not seem to have this deep-seated sense of contradiction, such as Who Killed Me?(Tanzania, 2012, 14′), a film shot in Canada as the final project of Amil Shivji at the Toronto Film School. It focused on using poetry as a technique to explain the character’s lives, which was unusual and therefore somewhat independent in thought. It did not try to justify the murder of the protagonist through further plotting, but rather used poetry to depict the lives of a variety of people facing violence.

Grey Matter (Rwanda, 2011) was so beautifully and poetically filmed that one forgot that it was about the much discussed 1992 genocide in Rwanda. The film, completely independent of the tribal conflict, discussed two sharply contrasting angles:

First, it showed a prisoner forced to hate ‘cockroaches’ which he watched trapped behind a glass jar, swearing curse words at mere insects, while an unidentified man hands him a beer now and again.

Second, it showed the sense of overcoming depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, where a young man who deals with hallucinations, finally overcomes them after visiting the exhuming site of his parents.

In both cases, one felt that the theme, “Safeguarding Independence,” was achieved through carefully objective narratives, driven by well-executed artistic concepts that were both mysterious and beautiful.

Africa United (UK, South Africa, Rwanda, 2010, 88′), in which three Rwandan kids walk 3000 miles to the Soccer World Cup in South Africa, created quite a storm at the festival. However positive this film was, even with its inclination to the theme of the festival, I was vexed by the fact that one of the kids had HIV/AIDS without his friends knowing.

Was it simply because this is typical of African narratives from the perspective of the International Press?

Who owns Africa?

A discussion following a rather secluded screening of “Who Owns Africa?”, a film made for Finnish audiences, consisted of interviews with top East African capitalists.

The film presented capitalism as an unarguable solution to Africa’s problems, declaring that with consistent investment, Uganda will have a bright future economically.

Following the screening, a panelist offered Tanzania’s nationalism as a model for Africa’s bright future, talking about how Uganda has failed to identify as a nationalistic state.

With “Safeguarding Independence” as the main theme of the Amakula Film Festival 2012, the panelists and audience agreed that even through the free market in which we see greater opportunities for education, trade and economic growth, we also see that the very same model marginalizes communities and keeping poverty in power by favoring a selected few capitalists.

As cited earlier, Nairobi Half Life, depicts the life of a Kenyan boy emerging from literal obscurity rising through the ranks to become a prominent gang leader in Nairobi. One must rethink the capitalist Third World environment, especially when the Daily Mail UK is reporting about a “bright future for Africa”.

Perhaps the African capitalist future is not so bright after all, but at least East African filmmakers will continue to make such powerful films.

Serubiri Moses has been published in The New Vision reviewing live music. As a poet, he is featured on the pan African website, Badilisha Poetry Exchange.