Imperial Blues: European-African co-production in the post-colonial era
A dialogue between Samuel Lutaaya Tebandeke (Ugandan filmmaker) and David Cecil (British producer) on British-Ugandan production Imperial Blue
Samuel Lutaaya Tebandeke (SL): What was the most difficult aspect of raising resources for Imperial Blue? What kind of questions did you have to respond to when pitching to investors?
How did you go about organising the resources for the project?
David Cecil (DC): Resources for film-making are severely limited in Uganda. The industry is miniscule and the most active local film-makers don’t expect to make more than a few hundred dollars from a film, so investment potential is not here. Some TV stations eve charge the producer to show their film!
We raised money from two investors in our network in the UK and from crowd-funding. One of the investors was interested in the educational aspect of the project and the other was interested in supporting the arts. Both were very hands-off and hardly asked any questions, mainly because the sums involved were very low, relative to the costs of film production in the UK. I think they were drawn to the adventurous side of it – Dave and Dan making a crazy film in Africa!
Uganda has excellent resources and potential for film-makers in terms of locations, people and hacks. But you need to come in with respect and not take people for granted. We found that partnering with people was the best method – giving them as much responsibility as possible and making it their project too. Because the idea of “human resources” has a dark implication in situations of economic inequality.
SL: Did you intend Imperial Blue to be a co-production from the very beginning?
DC: Yes. I have a background in film education and I see co-productions as a way of capacity-building in the African film industry. During the colonial period, productions in Africa were entirely staffed by colonial crew and served colonial interests. There was very little media education in Africa before or after Independence and, especially in anglophone Africa, film and music were viewed as unimportant. Even today, international productions tend to fly into Africa with all the technical and production staff.They do not trust local crew/staff, nor do they actively seek to build capacity in the local industry
That said, I think there are equally legitimate concerns about co-roductions and the danger of inequality in decision-making, payscales, etc…
SL: I would advise against co-production models where the money producer is not involved in the creative process, or one where they do not engage with the story from a deeply personal level, even though the experience may be far removed from what they know. Sympathy and empathy are important for me as a co-producer because this is not just a relationship for raising finances. This film will be a part of you, or at least it needs to be because you will engage with it for more than 12 months at least. In the case of Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018), it could take even up to seven years, so as a co-producer you need to be prepared to commit to this “marriage” for the long haul.
To avoid such situations, one needs to be aware that cultural differences always play into these situations. Racial dynamics affect co-productions and prejudices are difficult to avoid, especially in situations where the foreign partner has no experience working on the continent. Misunderstandings as a result of these differences will arise and we need to focus on the reason why we are together, and that is to tell a great story. That is what must guide every conversation, decision and whatever else may come up.
DC: You know a lot about the production of Imperial Blue. From what you heard, what do you think we could have done differently to be more inclusive or address inequality?
SL: Initially, I had no concerns that two British guys wanted to make this film and incorporate Ugandans. In fact, it is now when you ask the question that I am now considering it. You were inspired to make this film because of your experiences in Uganda and I have no reason to judge you and neither do I have the right to give you permission to tell that story or any other story for that matter.
I think you did everything by the book, if such a thing exists. You shot on location with the locals (talent and crew) involved with a few foreign crew assisting. From what I heard, there was no disrespect on the set. In fact, it was comradeship all the way. I know that you did everything possible to make this set as inclusive and as respectful as possible.
Why is there an assumption that because we have a European international partner on board, that they are in a controlling position in the project? Also, even though a partner contributes a larger portion of the resources, that they have the right to take charge of the narrative?
DC: …or the logistics, the dialogue, the allocation of budgets, casting, etc… In our case, there were not “sides”, since we had already been working together on a number of different projects. Ugandan producer Semulema Daniel and I came to Imperial Blue as a international company that was handling a mixed crew. There was little opposition or even “coming together” between people of different cultures etc. since the “co-” bit had
been worked out and forgotten about already.
Some aspects of the production were very collaborative and others were entirely dictated by a particular person or circumstance. For example, the script was written by Dan and myself, 2 English guys, but the dialogue, scenes and characters were taken from real life in Uganda, sometimes verbatim. The art design came from the director’s vision but was implemented by Ugandan artists and crew who made creative decisions.
Dan Moss (the director) is a very good listener and although he worked in a very decisive way, his decisions were based on what he was hearing from the team around him which was 90% Ugandan. I think everyone who worked on the film would agree that it was a highly collaborative process that allowed everyone to “learn on the job”. And this is core to our approach to co-production.
On a deeper level, I am way more comfortable telling stories set in another country if people from that culture are actively involved in building the project with me. They can’t turn around and complain that we have misrepresented them if they were part of the construction of the project. Because it wasn’t a big-paying job, actors and crew would have walked away if they felt we were guilty of misrepresenting their country.
SL: I find that African creatives also have limited access to the skills needed to compete effectively on the world stage. Their “developed world” colleagues continue to have an edge over them and continue to produce content of far superior production value due to easy access to cutting edge technologies and production and post production workflows. The means of film production are mainly in the hands of foreigners.
DC: For me this is all the more reason why co-productions on more or less equal terms are so important for a country like Uganda. It’s a question of global systemic inequality.In Europe, governments fund education and production in the arts and media. African governments have severely restricted budgets. Education in media production in Uganda is almost non-existent and there are way fewer professional projects for people to get their teeth into than there are in Europe.
A possible upside to this situation is that Ugandan film, like Nigerian or Indian film, could develop its own unique style, away from the dominating influence of the western film industry. But the only example I can think of is deeply problematic: the Ugandan Wakaliwood scene, much touted in the western media. These films have budgets of a few hundred dollars, absurd plotlines involving Rambo and ninjas, and CGI effects that could have been made in the 1980s. The western media jumped on these examples of “authentic” African cinema and they were given much attention on CNN, The Guardian, etc. Indeed, we can share a laugh with the Ugandan film-makers and their local audience in the same way that we can laugh at badly-made B-movies anywhere. In Uganda, they are loved by some locals because they contain in-jokes and because they are, at least, a genuine home-grown product. Unfortunately, the hilarity among the international audiences is not so much one of a shared joke, but threatens to teeter into
mockery at impoverished filmmakers. This would not matter so much if there were plenty of well-made or profitable films coming out of Uganda that could compensate for these silly efforts. But without investment in the industry and without an effort to raise standards, the laughter rings hollow. I find it depressing that the most well-known film export from Uganda is a joke on how poor its industry is.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Ugandans are perfectly capable of making excellent films that can compete internationally. International co-productions are one of the only ways forward in this regard. Without government funding, private initiatives are necessary to push forward professional production and education. With the Ugandan economy in
such a dire state, then international finance is one of the only options. And the international partners get much more for their dollars in Uganda than they would in Europe or America. Imperial Blue was shot on a tenth of what it would have cost in Europe. One thing I do admire about akaliwood is that they make the most of the little money they have. On a bigger scale, international productions in Uganda can also achieve extraordinary results on a relatively tiny budget.
SL: You mention the rather disturbing aspect of a select group of films being
championed in the West as “African” and that are viewed as pushing the envelope. Do you think that this is particularly problematic for those that are not producing within that model? Does it actually matter where a film originates? Whether the creator is African or European? Obsession with the origins of a film can alienate audiences from stories from different cultural and geographic contexts.
DC: Festival programmers are very interested in African film at the moment and are concerned if the director of a co-production is not from Africa, as that means that the film is not “African”. This is terrible for low-budget films like ours, as we are outside the mainstream industry and the festival circuit is one of the only means we have of breaking through. Meanwhile, the same bias will overrate some pretty badly-made films chiefly because their director is African. Ironically, many arthouse films by African directors are precisely aimed to please European not African programmers.
But I have to admit, against my interests as a white boy making films in Africa, that positive discrimination favouring African rather than European auteurs is historically and structurally justified. We do need to hear more African voices in the industry worldwide. Festivals have to be highly selective due to time constraints vs. the sheer quantity of movies getting made these days.
Don’t you think there is a strong argument for this kind of discrimination, simply to address the numerical imbalance of US/European vs. African films?
SL: I believe that every festival has a unique DNA and that they need to make concessions to include other stories, while keeping within the core identity of the festival. They have specific audiences and serve different interests. What I do not agree with is tokenism, or cosmetic changes being made to tick the diversity box. Films selected must be done so equitably, taking into account the conditions of productions on the African continent. Alternatively, these festivals can have sections in their programs for showing select content from the continent so that the profiles of these filmmakers can be raised. This will in turn make it a lot smaller hurdle for them to make a higher quality film with the access to more and even better resources.
DC: Agreed. There’s ways of doing both. We should be wary of confusing origins with economics, creating a false and essentialist “difference” between African and European film-makers.
SL: What is an African film anyway? Even as I ask this question, I feel like I am falling into the trap of the Eurocentric gaze, which has decided to consider films from the continent as those that have a mostly francophone” aesthetic. Read Ousmane Sembene, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Djibril Diop ambéty, Souleymane Cissé, the infamous Abdellatif Kechiche, Abderrahmane issako, Haile Gerima from Ethiopia being the exception.
Most of these filmmakers of note are from Francophone West Africa and North Africa and of middle age. The only other directors considered African are from South Africa. Everything in between is not even a second glance if it is not validated by a European, read French authority. Whereas I may sound vindictive in my statement, that is the last place I inhabit. These stalwarts of cinema from the continent has been critical to establishing Africa as a viable centre of excellence in terms of film production. My
concern, however, is that our gaze should not remain on these great men (and it is worthy to note that there are no women) but on where the next generation of cinema is headed.
Funding comes from Europe and they dictate what African films look like. The need to categorise is what becomes the source of the problem. Are filmmakers from the continent going to be placed in a box? For a continent of 54 countries, over 1 billion people and myriad ethnicities, each with their own culture, traditions, languages etc, how do we accept to be defined by a single term, African? I digress, but with reason. I felt that it was important to paint some context for the reader to note where systemic problems occur when it comes to film production on the African continent, and by extension co-production with the West.
How then can we define “African cinema” if there is such diversity on a continent that is constantly evolving?*
Who has the right to make an “African film”? Can filmmakers who do not originate from the continent make such films that reference the continent? Who decides this? And if indeed there is an “authority” that gives said license, does this not become a case of exclusion in an era when the discussion is about inclusiveness? In this case, am I allowed to make a film about the American civil war? And is this an African film?
DC: I very much look forward to your take on the American civil war! Such fresh perspectives are always fascinating. But making stories about other people’s histories or culture is deeply politicised. Some people automatically object to contemporary Europeans creating narratives about Africa because it is claimed that Europeans have been controlling the narrative about Africa for centuries, to their advantage. E.g. racial stereotypes in film that present Africans as victims or incompetents may be said to implicitly justify European intervention in African politics and society.What is frustrating – however justified – about Imperial Blue is that our story and characters could be said to be very disruptive of stereotypes about European-African relations.
SL: You are right when you mention the disruption of the existing stereotypes. The white saviour narrative has pervaded Hollywood when it comes to black cinema, particularly from the African continent. It is outdated and it is ignorant of other narratives in the same manner that the “Disneyfication” (a term I borrow from a producer I once worked with) of Africa is problematic.
DC: Our European anti-hero, Hugo, is both savior and exploiter. He’s not the hero or villain of the usual “white man in Africa” stories. His antagonists are two complex, multifaceted African women. Kisakye is a Christian who gets involved in the drug trade. She is anti-patriarchal but still drawn to powerful men. Her sister Angela is an abused and abusive woman. She thinks nothing of stealing from people, but is an admirable and amusing survivor. I don’t think either of these characters conforms to worrying
European stereotypes about Africans, or women for that matter – hopefully the opposite! Everyone in our film is morally ambiguous.
What is the harm, politically or culturally, of me and Dan Moss making such a film with such characters? Why should it be of less importance and benefit to the cultural landscape? I know the answer: because African voices have been silenced by systemic inequality in the global film industry for so long, that critics and audiences want to hear those voices. They’ve had enough of listening to European narratives about Africa, however clever or nuanced.
My problem with this position is that it is essentialist and exclusive. We’re back with your question of whether you could make a film about the American civil war. What gives anyone the moral authority or the right to shape a narrative about a politicised event that is not of their culture? My answer is simple: if it’s credible and well-made.
SL: Exactly. Stories in this day and age are not owned. As artists, we must be aware of the stories that we tell and that we represent the characters truthfully and realistically in the world that they inhabit, whether real or imagined. There shouldn’t be exclusivity. And also, if that standard is to be applied to telling stories, then Hollywood should stick to their lane and produce material about their culture and leave us alone. We live in a
co-dependant world and we should behave as such.
DC: To bring it back to Imperial Blue, I think a European-African co-production about European-African relations is very fitting. Dan and myself, as white guys who’ve worked in Africa for years, are well-positioned to interrogate and satirise post-colonial relations, based on our experiences and relationships in Uganda over many years.
SL: Do you feel you had to adjust the story to fit a potential audience that led you away from your original intentions? DC: Yes, certainly in my case. For commercial reasons, Dan the director wanted to make a mainstream film, more action-based, whereas I naturally am drawn to dialogue and drama. In the end I completely came around to his way of thinking and really enjoyed the idea of constructing a story with as few words as possible. I think we ended up making something like an intelligent action film with a broad appeal, but it’s very much been snubbed as a genre film by festival programmers who favour arthouse content.
SL: So where is the space for stories not focused on arthouse projects? Most funders want African filmmakers to create projects with an arthouse aesthetic, or magical realism elements.
DC: As a viewer, did you engage with Imperial Blue as a postcolonial parable? Or is it chiefly “postcolonial” because of its setting?
SL: Not at all. It was everything it said it would be. I engaged with it as an ordinary audience member and did not have biases towards the makers of the film.
DC: Going back to your earlier point about “what makes a film African?” we can also interrogate what films are actually popular in Africa. Because most sub-Saharan African film industries have so few sources of revenue, most ambitious African filmmakers look to European festivals and their attendant donors, who mainly favour arthouse content over popular, genre film. So African film-makers aren’t developing and marketing popular content for their audience at home and thereby building their own autonomous industry.
SL: And this is also very problematic, because we have ended up having our most “prominent” continental filmmakers almost following a Eurocentric storytelling model that veers towards the abstract or the “controversial”.
The other thing that bothers me about making films on the continent – and I haven’t made that many short films – is that filmmakers applying for funds are asked the question, “What makes you the best person to make this film?” For me that translates loosely as the filmmaker asking for permission to make the film. I wonder whether these questions are asked in the boardrooms of Hollywood studios and production companies. Similarly, when you come from a country like Uganda, where the government approaches the creative industries with paranoia are not inclined to provide a favourable environment for making films. Rather, there are punitive regulations that stifle the growth of a film industry that has the potential to contribute to the national GDP.
DC: Meanwhile, co-productions with foreign film companies can, ironically, help make content that is more appealing to a local audience than a “purely African” arthouse film may be. I’m especially thinking of genre films here.
If such co-productions were successful, accusations of foreign meddling and influence would keep coming up. My first theatrical production in Uganda was condemned as foreign activism by the Ugandan government, because it touched on issues of homosexuality. I recently started a record label in Uganda and was recently accused of neo-imperialism and cultural appropriation by some British critics. Do you think we might
face these accusations with Imperial Blue?
SL: To be brutally honest, as a foreigner from a privileged culture it is a given that there may be a conclusion of your neo-imperialist stance being an impediment to the work you are doing. I do not think that you should concern yourself with such accusations. Maybe they will come, maybe they will not. The point is that it really shouldn’t matter. You have your reasons for making the work and it is the work that must speak for itself.
*On what makes film “African”: