Unbound Media are in some ways typical of East African film makers—technically savvy, working without finance, and following their own aesthetic.
Other film-makers in this series are Dilman Dila, Alex Ikawah, and Abstract Omega. In the Nigeria chapters, you will meet CJ “Fiery” Obasi. He’s the producer-director of a new short film based on a Nnedi Okorafor story. A stylish and high profile director I deeply regret missing (my own stupid fault) is Kenyan Jim Chuchu.
This interview unexpectedly shows how traditional beliefs can form the basis for original speculation.
Unbound also express their exhaustion with poverty porn, and how some foreigners perceive them.
I meet Bbaale and Kayondo in the National Theatre in Kampala. It’s less a repertory theatre venue these days, more a multifunctional cultural space. Upstairs is a huge and rather stark bar area, full of young creatives chatting, looking at screens, or maybe just hanging around. At one point Kayondo looks around the room and points—“writer, writer, writer, director, writer.”
Kayondo does most of the talking—he commandeers the recorder and the hammering disassembly of scaffolding stage in the bar drowns out Bbaale. Transcribing the tape it seemed to me that Kayondo’s English sounded somewhat Asian—he has studied at an Indian college.
Kayondo: “We made a science fiction movie called The Hunt. That was our first movie. We were still two students messing around, trying to figure out what themes would work, what kind of product our friends who were also science fiction fans would like to buy.”
“People make great movies in Africa but they don’t really get us science fiction fans. It’s like we don’t exist. We thought let’s try to make something fantastic. No one was able to produce so we did everything ourselves. Camera, lighting, editing effects, acting, everything.”
The film is five or six minutes long, “a simple story,” about a bounty hunter who pursues a super-powered criminal to Earth.
Bbaale: “It was part of our final project at Aptech. It’s an Indian institution, based in India, but is here in Kampala. It taught technical skills including effects and animation, which is what we learnt. We studied Multimedia, an advanced diploma.”
Kayondo: “We have a new film coming out called Cry. We took a break of about one and a half years to work on other people’s film projects, some of it free, to get some experience before we decided to write a new film. The trailer (for Cry) is out on YouTube. (It no longer is, but as Unbound Mediaug, they have their own YouTube page)
“The story for Cry is also simplistic, but it feeds on African tradition, like you know the Greeks have Gods. There’s a person called Musisi. He’s the god of earthquakes. (Laughs).
Bbaale: “Plus Kayikuzi.”
Kayondo: “He’s the brother to the devil in our culture. “
Bbaale: “In the Buganda culture, instead of God we have Katonda. Kintu is the first man.”
Kayondo: “God has three children. The three children in the creation story are Kayikuzi, Walumbe (the devil, the problem-causer), and Nambi the daughter, technically the first mother; she is the wife of Kintu.”
“God puts Kintu through tests to prove that he is worthy of his daughter, so Katonda is fine with it (marrying a human) but Walumbe is not happy with the marriage. Katonda tells Nambi and Kintu to leave before Walumbe gets back, because if he returns and he finds out it’s going to be bad. But halfway to Earth back from Heaven, Nambi remembers that she has left her chicken behind. When she goes back Walumbe finds her and follows her back to Earth. That’s the origin of why women are not allowed to eat chicken. Walumbe follows them and brings death and disease, and it’s because of the woman and the chicken.
“Death personified is Walumbe. He is misfortune, everything bad. He comes to Earth to torment these people. What he says specifically is that he is going to keep taking these people’s children, which is the rest of humanity until Nambi goes back with him to heaven. But that’s when God sends the other brother, Kayikuzi to stop Walumbe from what he’s doing. He combats Walumbe. The battle has gone on from then until now. That is the story.”
It’s so similar to the stories at the heart of Christianity.
Bbaale: “It’s so weird they are so similar. Blame all the bad stuff on the devil.”
Kayondo: “So the new film we’re working on we pick up in modern times where Katonda abdicates the throne to Walumbe. It reaches a point where he says ‘The hell with it.’ He leaves Death and Misfortune to take over. Before anything happens on Earth, the first thing Walumbe does is clear out all the old attendants, the other gods and demi-gods associated with the old king. He goes purging the whole system.
“No one on Earth knows where Kayikuzi has gone. He’s supposed to be mitigating Walumbe but he’s nowhere to be seen. He’s supposed to be keeping in Walumbe.”
“We film the last three gods in hiding, afraid, and they don’t know what to do. They are in shock. They decide to bait a trap and draw Walumbe to them. But the shock they receive is that the supporter of Walumbe who comes to kill them is Kayikuzi. The person who is supposed to keep Walumbe in check.”
GR: “A bit like Jesus siding with the devil?”
Bbaale: “Yeah (Laughs). Good has become evil.”
Kayondo: “It’s ten minutes of sheer terror.”
GR: “So what is Kayikuzi’s motivation?”
Bbaale: “That’s the sequel.” (Laughs.)
Kayondo: “The way we shot the movie...the actor is called Bomba, he’s a very good actor, we told him you will be doing bad things but you have to be the happiest person in the film. He’s playing with them. He’s HAPPY!”
Bbaale: “His character is like Megatron in Transformers. He’s sadistic and he’s laughing at them.”
I ask if the aim is eventually to join all these short movies together into a feature length movie.
Kayondo: “That’s what we hope. Before we met each other I had made a story which encompassed all the Gods. I had researched ten different cultures—Japan, Greece, what-what. We decided, ‘let’s cut off pieces that we can produce ourselves.’ Because producing in Uganda, you go work for twenty jobs get that money, produce a film. That’s how it works here.”
Bbaale: “Unless you can get a sponsor.”
Kayondo: “They are rare, super, super rare. What we wanted to avoid—it’s not an insult to other types of films—it’s just that a lot of work on offer from NGOs is that African documentary about kids suffering. We are so tired. We are so tired.”
Bbaale: “A guy on Facebook, an American, the first thing he asked me was ‘Are you living in a ghetto?’ I felt so bad. ‘Are you like those kids in the documentaries?’ I told him ‘No, we are civilized. We don’t live with animals.’ My brother is in China. He was in a supermarket to buy what-what, and a woman came and tried to rub soot off him.”
Kayondo: “We have to make the poverty porn so we can make money to make movies. You will find the NGOs who are sponsoring these films will instruct the film makers: ‘We need pictures of children with flies on their faces.’ They have to find dead flies and put them on the kid’s faces. Really, what are we doing? What? Really? It’s way too much.
“Then there’s the other side. There are the poverty stories, then there’s the AIDS stories. Then there’s the cancer stories. (Bbaale starts to laugh at this list.) And they are all in sepia, there’s that sepia look of ‘pity me please’.
“The nicest thing about sci-fi and fantasy is we didn’t learn that drinking milk is good for you from our teachers or parents. We learned that from Robocop. These figures are the ones taught us right from wrong, good from evil. They laid out a good foundation.
Kayondo: “Yeah. There’s this kid he used to have with him, and he used to tell him, ‘this is bad for you.’ And it sticks in your head because Robocop said it, not because you saw it on the news.”
Bbaale. “It’s fun and sometimes it’s educational.
Then I’m afraid the three of us, we geek out for about an hour. We talk about Doctor Strange, and how Denise Kavuma asked why the villain didn’t steal the whole book and got the whole story. They like Marvel but not DC, and hate hate Ninja Turtles, though it looked good. Bbaale likes the first Transformers. Kayondo, no.
Kayondo. “The movie that influenced me the most ever was the first Harry Potter film. Because I read every Harry Potter book twelve times when I was still in primary school. And the first time I went to the movies I saw that book, it shocked me for weeks, my brain was numb. That was the first time I thought ‘You can do this? People can make movies about these things I am reading in books?’
“This was different. There was Terminator going (makes machine gun noise), there was Rambo going (machine gun noise). All these guys going machine gun.
Bbaale: “It was back in the day. It was also Jurassic Park. The dinosaurs were so well done. The Matrix was also very good. I wondered if we are in the Matrix also.”
Kayondo: “I liked The Matrix more after I played the game, because the game had 40 hours to explain and the films had only six hours. The game gives you detail, it explains. Some of the things in the movies don’t make any sense. The game takes you through the steps towards the Matrix. The AI thinks like a human being and that is its biggest weakness. It was made to be like us.
“We are a mixture of sci-fi lovers and gamers. And we love Japanese anime. At the moment there is Robotek, which is fantastic. In GI Joe where two armies are shooting at each other and no one is dying and everyone is looking cool and muscular and they’re all white...(Bbaale at this point cracks up) you go and watch anime Robotek or Samurai X, where it is more adult and shocking.
“The way we wrote Cry ... have you heard of the role playing game Mass Effect? Where they put you in situations where you have to make really, really hard decisions? Do you let a crew-member die, or do you let a planet a die?
“That’s why we wrote the story as we did, with a lot of bad things happening. Because the way things are in real life, it’s BAD.
“I really liked the movie Ex Machina, about the female AI doll. And he brought someone in to evaluate the AI and the guy fell in love with it. It was such a calm film. The AI had more humanity than the people who had created it.”
GR: “You really are science-fiction fans.”
Bbaale: “Yes we are. One hundred per cent. We don’t do drama, we don’t do love stories, that’s so boring.”
They object to the casting of Gods of Egypt or the breath-taking anti-Nigerian xenophobia of District 9. They enthuse about Dr. Who, Ghost in the Shell, and Star Trek. In terms of film, TV and games, they are part of the international culture. What emerges as they speak is that they have as strong an aesthetic around CGI and animation, as a writer does about prose style. They hate the look of DC films—they found the CGI at the end of Batman vs. Superman poor.
Kayondo: “The CGI looked slimy, unfinished. We are animators and effects artists. Anything that looks funny hurts us. The masters of living tissue are Weta Digital. They did Planet of the Apes. We have a lot information about how they do their work. You pick just one idea from how they do their things and it transforms your work. They are so, so good.”
Their other heroes include Industrial Light and Magic. Bbaale praises the sequence in Mary Poppins that combines live action with what he calls Tom-and-Jerry animation. Kayondo loves a short film about a real space probe—but narrated and filmed as if from two hundred years in the future—from the Polish animators Platige Image. “You see the amount of care went into it.” Platige went on to provide the mythical prologue to Wonder Woman.
Bbaale: “We want to be like those guys. One of them Is Allan McKay. He’s an American. He’s really good at simulations, explosions, dynamics. We talk to him by email, cause he sends us his works and some tutorials he does. And also Andrew Kramer.
Kayondo: “The person who has influenced Ugandan film making the most is Andrew Kramer. Most people outside will never know.”
Bbaale: “He owns a video company and website called Video Copilot in the US. So many people here learned their editing and effects from that guy. He has a website, teaching with tutorials. He has hundreds of tutorials.”
I mention another Ugandan SF film that got a lot of publicity. It’s not just local rivalry that produces a strong response from the two. The film in question lifted shots from Star Wars and Star Trek and used Andrew Kramer’s tutorial templates.
Bbaale: “At the film festival here, everyone was screaming ‘tutorial fourteen’, ‘tutorial twenty-six’. We’ve all used them to learn. You can’t just copy and think we won’t know. Everyone was ‘oh dear oh dear, this is copied’.”
Kayondo: “The problem in Uganda is our educational system teaches us to do cram work, to memorize, to copy and paste. It doesn’t teach creativity. So you get an entire movie full of bits and pieces cut from other movies.”
They talk about the problems of doing good animation and effects in Uganda.
Kayondo: “The biggest limit to African sci-fi filmmaking is there are lots of talented animators SFX artists here, but power, computer capacity, and the equipment are not here. We are using gaming machines to do work.
Bbaale: “They are good machines but they are not meant to do serious simulation. It will take a lot of space and computing power. For an explosion, it can take a week to do the final render. With the right equipment or work stations, it would take an hour to two hours.
Kayondo: “What has started to take off this year, we are getting people who want to integrate special effects into their films in Uganda. Next year you will get four or five films we’ve worked on. Two films, a TV series and music videos. All those from people realising that in Africa it's possible to get really good work done.”
One of their sources of income: it’s illegal to have replica guns in Uganda.
Kayondo: “Even a water pistol. Film makers need SFX people to make the placeholders look real.
“So imagine you have a prop that is roughly made and we are asked to make it look real, and add muzzle flashes and impacts. That’s what we are doing these days, making people’s gunshots look nice.
“We are fortunate in that we are capable of producing whatever we feel like ourselves. Like if I come up with an idea that is a bit a crazy it’s ‘OK we don’t know how to do it, let’s go figure it out.’ That’s the advantage.
“I have a brother who is also a writer. He writes part time for a website in the US. He always regretted not doing what I did. He realizes that no one else is going to make your stories. You have to do it yourself. Here, in Africa, no one cares; you have to do it yourself. That’s the best decision we ever made.”
I ask them what they would want the readers of Strange Horizons to know.
Kayondo: “We are here. We exist. We don’t live in huts. We are also fans of your movies. It would be nice not to be represented as monkey-like things from time to time. It would be great.”
Bbaale: “It would be nice for them to stop thinking of us like we live in the bush with animals. No we don’t. We are civilized. We are animators here, or writers. We may not say we are the best but we can say that we can do something good. And the obvious thing. Needing investors is obvious.”
Update: November 2017.
In the year since the interview there has been a lot of news. Bbaale Pius moved to Rwanda.
Their production Cry was set back. They made a short film for their website explaining the delay.
Kayondo is moving away from film into animation.