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Navigating Cultural Narratives: How Ugandan Films Preserve and Promote Heritage
Navigating Cultural Narratives: How Ugandan Films Preserve and Promote Heritage
Navigating Cultural Narratives: How Ugandan Films Preserve and Promote Heritage

At the Ngalabi Short Film Festival of 2022, I watched a movie titled Nyama (Meat) by Asher Rosen that depicted the life of the Batwa of the Kisoro Mountains. The film won multiple awards on the continent and in Uganda, including the prestigious Short Film of the Year Award at the African Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria. The film showcased the lives of a Batwa family, exploring their interactions with tourists and the struggles they face as a community in the hills of Kisoro. Currently, the film is being remade as a feature film titled Small Gods and is set to screen early next year.

One aspect that resonated with most viewers was how effectively the movie portrayed the story of the indigenous people, dispelling stereotypes and offering an intriguing perspective on the lives of a community often misunderstood.

This sentiment can be extended to numerous other films such as Karamoja (2023), Foot Wine (2022), Nambi (2023), and The Kitara Chronicles (2023) among others. Thus, the question arises: How do films genuinely contribute to the preservation and promotion of heritage?

One significant way is through the documentation of culture and history:

Movies often portray historical events, as exemplified by The Last King Of Scotland, which tells the partly fictional story of Idi Amin. Cultural practices are vividly depicted in films like The Kitara Chronicles, Tecora (2021), Nambi (2023), and more. Traditional customs are showcased, serving as a visual documentation of a society's heritage. Such films have the capacity to capture the essence of a particular time period, highlighting elements such as clothing, architecture, language, and social norms. In essence, they become invaluable visual records that contribute to the preservation and understanding of cultural heritage.

Cultural Representation: Movies serve as a platform for the portrayal and celebration of underrepresented cultures. A notable example is the short film that I already talked about Nyama, which highlights the life of the Kisoro Indigenous tribe, Batwa. By showcasing these diverse perspectives and traditions, films contribute to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of Uganda's cultural heritage.

Preservation of Language: An issue raised by the audience watching the movie Foot Wine was its missed opportunity to tell the story in the local language, which could have provided a unique and authentic feel to the brewing culture in Uganda. The fact that many Ugandans who watched the film expressed a desire to see themselves reflected in the language used by the actors speaks volumes about the power of language representation and preservation through visual storytelling. It emphasizes the importance of capturing and preserving local languages as an integral part of cultural identity within the context of film narratives.

Architectural Preservation: Ugandan filmmakers often overlook showcasing some of our finest cultural architecture in movies, opting instead for depictions of contemporary housing. However, there has been commendable attention to preserving an older cultural way of housing in films such as Hats in The Kitara Chronicles, Nambi, and The Lions of Buganda (scheduled for release on December 31, 2023). Katera of the Punishment Island also portrays Manyatta housing, offering a glimpse into the living arrangements of the Karimojong. These movies are set in the pre-colonial and colonial era of Uganda, we need to see more movies set in current Uganda do the same.

Screengrab from the recent Trailer of The Lions of Buganda movie by Jerry Ssesanga premiering on Pearl Magic Prime on 31st Dec. 2023. Courtesy Photo. 

Filmmakers frequently utilize real historical locations or meticulously recreate historically accurate settings. This practice serves a dual purpose of preserving and showcasing architectural heritage, enabling audiences to visually experience and appreciate the beauty and significance of various architectural styles. Through this visual medium, architectural elements become integral components of storytelling, contributing to a richer portrayal of cultural identity and history.

Educational Value: Many young Ugandans may be unaware of historical practices such as using calabashes for drinking water or employing banana leaves in daily life. When movies portray these traditional practices, they offer the younger generation insights into the lives of their ancestors and even recent grandparents. This visual representation becomes a powerful means of passing down cultural knowledge and traditions from one generation to the next.

Movies also have the potential to shed light on practices that are still ongoing in different parts of the country but may be unknown to other regions. For instance, issues like female genital mutilation in certain areas or male circumcision in the Bugisu region are examples of cultural practices that, if depicted in films, could spark conversations and serve as educational tools. By addressing these topics through cinema, there is an opportunity to promote understanding, dialogue, and awareness throughout the country, fostering a more comprehensive knowledge of Uganda's diverse cultural landscape.

Cultural Tourism: Movies that feature picturesque landscapes, historical landmarks, or culturally rich destinations can significantly contribute to cultural tourism. By showcasing these attractions, filmmakers not only offer viewers a visual feast but also inspire them to explore these places in person. This, in turn, contributes to these locations' preservation and economic development.

For instance, I highly recommend watching Small Gods when it is released next year, as it beautifully captures the scenic beauty of Lake Bunyonyi, Mutanda, and the mountain ranges of Mufumbiro in Kisoro. Films like The Girl in the Yellow Jumper, Katera of The Punishment Island, and Tembele also provided a splendid showcase of the Karamoja terrain and Sipi Falls. These cinematic depictions not only entertain but also serve as invitations to Ugandans, encouraging them to explore and appreciate the diverse and stunning landscapes within their own country. In essence, movies become powerful promoters of cultural tourism, fostering a sense of pride and curiosity about the beauty that Uganda has to offer.

Behind-the-scene photo of the making of the movie Small Gods on Lake Mutanda in Kisoro. Photo by Isha Images

Global Awareness and Understanding: Movies possess a global reach, providing people from diverse corners of the world with the opportunity to learn about and appreciate each other's heritage. This capacity of cinema can foster cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect. By featuring discussions about our cultures in films, we create a seamless and effective means of disseminating this cultural information to the rest of the world. It serves as a subtle yet powerful way to inform the global audience about who we are without having to shout about it.

If you decide to attend a Ugandan movie screening today or tomorrow, pay special attention to the cultural references embedded in the narrative and appreciate the effort to preserve our rich culture and heritage. Recognize that movies produced today, depicting contemporary life, will serve as a window into the Uganda of our time for future generations. These films will tell a real and authentic story about our society.

For filmmakers, consider the long-lasting impact of your work. Be intentional in how you tell stories, as they may become reference points for discussions about Uganda in the future. Your narratives have the potential to shape perceptions and contribute to a collective understanding of our culture, traditions, and way of life. Embrace the responsibility to authentically capture the essence of Uganda, ensuring that your work becomes a meaningful part of the cultural legacy passed down to generations to come.

By Martin Kabagambe

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