Most of Queen of Katwe (QoK), Uganda’s “Slumdog Millionaire” was shot in South Africa.
The movie will delight Ugandans who know the story of Phiona Mutesi quite well. She is the girl from Katwe. This is one of the largest of the 67 slums in the capital Kampala. Against some serious odds Mutesi made a name for herself as the most unlikely chess prodigy.
Like happened with the Last King of Scotland, hearts in the city of hills will be warmed by the familiar sights of Kampala. The film also features a local cast and extras whose accents and faces will be easy to recognize like dance hall “Queen Sheba” or homeboy Ntare Mwine, arguably the most accomplished actor from Uganda in Hollywood (and a social media fanatic).
Thats him below with Lupiita Nyong’o at the world premiere of QoK [ photo is his]
There is real excitement around Queen of Katwe (QoK) for many other reasons. Unlike say Last King of Scotland the subject is happier. Mutesi’s triumph is a positive story. It stands in contrast to the fictionalized dark account of Idi Amin’s controversial legacy was always going to draw mixed reactions.
Ugandans besides can’t agree on Idi Amin (he casts a large shadow even historically on Katwe, which like other ghettos grew during the economic crisis of Idi Amin’s rule in the 70’s and incidentally his expulsion of Asians which affected Mira Nair the film’s Indian-Ugandan director in a personal way).
QoK is an uplifting story that suggests that from the ghettos, that compost of humanity often seen as refuse, can come fertile, able, dreams that flourish. Like those vegetables we Ugandans love, the doodo, and Nakaati, which thrive in places we would rather not cite at the dinner table.
It does help that heroines Lupiita Nyong’o, the picture’s star attraction is herself a “girl” from Kampala. That is one who returned to the city where she started her film journey now to play the mother of a real life trailblazer, in this way much like herself.
For this and the simple reason that like other countries, Ugandans are excited when some aspect of their common “story” to channel Ms Nair, – is presented in color and sound before the rest of the world. It is like the world is acknowledging not just Mutesi – but each and every single Ugandan, affirming that we exist and we matter.
And it is here where the film’s legacy will be the longest. Hopefully. One of the issues away from the public eye (and which involved me and a couple of “volunteers”) was the fact that about 70 percent of the film was shot in South Africa.The reason for this is Uganda’s unpreparedness, despite its rich assets as a production destination for this and other films, to attract big budget pictures.
However before we get into that the intellectual argument for me personally is that in today’s world – the film, either shot on a phone and posted online, watched at the cinema or on Facebook or YouTube or Whatsapp and other social media, is the main tool of conversation and learning. In this way it is an important arena for contestation and opportunity. For younger Ugandans film may well be more important than books or the brick and mabati classroom as a source of knowledge and identity.
Perhaps little known outside the industry itself is how talented and promising (and young) Ugandan film is. When QoK was shooting in Kampala I was based at Urban Television and having worked with some of the production staff (including Talking Film founder Derrick Kibisi and Zippy Kimundu, one of its editors), it became clear to me that productions of this scale would give confidence and tools to future storytellers – to “tell their own story”. Since film is superior in some ways to other forms of publication it made sense that Uganda aught to invest in the right relationship with QoK and future productions.
At an event in the Maisha gardens that is run by Ms Nair, Lupiita’s co-star, the Nigerian David Oyelowo said he believed Ugandan (aspiring film actors and entrepreneurs) needed to be more forward and brash like Nigerians to make it in the industry. I found many reasons to disagree with him. The side of Ugandan film I had seen – was never going to be like Nollywood. Most Ugandans, thanks to bootleg DVDs are accustomed to a “Hollywood” standard of production. This is showing in the techniques that local filmmakers are using (forget Who Killed Captain Alex).
At my perch in Urban TV, the corporation that owns it, the New Vision and its C.E.O Robert Kabushenga have bought into the view that content production will be the area for growth for electronic media, much of it local. Besides Oyelowo, did not know Ugandans like I did (or he should since he was in a movie where a Ugandan girl from the slums showed her promise). There is nothing timid about Ugandans- a country whose biggest export appears to be violence – both real and ideological.
Anyway, what happened because and in spite of Queen of Katwe was a mixed affair. In retrospect it was perhaps inevitable considering Uganda’s low base in envisioning itself as a film production destination. For starters, Disney Corporation, which already had chosen to do the bulk of the film in South Africa, had done so for tax reasons. It had also taken the decision because production facilities and crews in SA were more experienced.
South Africa (and Morocco) is one of the leading production destinations on the continent. It has an attractive tax rebate regime to incentivize large productions. This rebate (money back for Disney) for QoK, a relatively low budget production, was $1.8 million. For South Africa and other film production destinations rebates of up to 25% of the spending on a film are still great business. This is because the actual economy of a production involves spending on the services that a film needs – including hotels, car services, fuel, artisans and crew etc.
One has to keep in mind that local crews, drawn from the local film industry benefit greatly here through a practical skills transfer, which happened with QoK and Last King of Scotland before it.
Uganda did not/does not have these incentives in place. The conversation about it has started with QoK. Indeed so unprepared was the country that the Revenue Authority imposed an additional VAT – on the main account for the films local budget. It was Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda (who later met with Disney officials in New York to figure out what the future for film production looks like) who has committed to introduce a rebate system perhaps in the 2016/17 Uganda budget. As it happens – the film may have triggered longer lasting reviews of this situation in part because Uganda also desperately needs the limelight that productions like these offer – for its tourism industry, which is in serious problems.
QoK will be one of the biggest unpaid ads for the country for a while.
This in addition to the revenue that remained in the economy. [for comparison, South Africa’s bigger film production economy contributed 3.5 billion rand according to a 2013 study the other benefits not withstanding].
It will take a while for Uganda to put its house together but QoK will certainly have made its modest mark. When the film premieres in October in Kampala – one sincerely hopes that besides the warmth that Mutesi’s story will bring to our hearts, the work ahead is more clear.