Producers high on pan-African 'Boda-Boda'

JOHANNESBURG — A pan-African co-production that’s set to lense in Uganda is recasting an Italian classic in a contemporary African setting.

“The Boda-Boda Thieves,” produced by Kenya’s Sarah Muhoho and South Africa’s James Tayler, and directed by Ugandan helmer Donald Mugisha, is a 21st-century adaptation of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist pic, “The Bicycle Thieves.”

The project has generated early buzz and backing from some of Europe’s biggest film bodies, attracting funding from the World Cinema Fund, the Hubert Bals Fund, the Global Film Initiative, and the Rotterdam and Berlin film festivals. South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation also has put its weight behind the project.

Toni Monty, head of the Durban Film Office, says the foreign interest in “Boda-Boda” shows that African cinema is coming of age.

Pic is in pre-production in Uganda’s capital Kampala, where Mugisha says location scouting and casting are nearly complete.

Tayler says the group has secured roughly 60% of its proposed budget, which is around $530,000, an amount that would make it one of Uganda’s most expensive productions to date. He’s hoping to raise the remaining coin before principal shooting begins in June.

“We need that last push,” he says.

Tayler and Mugisha have a history of collaboration dating back to 2001, when they co-founded Yes! That’s Us, a pan-African guerilla filmmaking collective, according to Mugisha, which has its roots in the South African philosophy of ubuntu or community interconnectedness.

The collective bore fruit in 2004, with the release of “Divisionz,” a low-budget drama that Tayler says he and Mugisha funded with their credit cards. It was the first feature-length Ugandan film to be shot on digital, and it quickly attracted a cult following in the ramshackle video halls of Kampala. A second feature, “Yogera,” followed last year.

For their third collaboration, the pair began researching a story about the thefts of boda-bodas, or bicycle-taxis, which are used for transport in much of Uganda. While watching “The Bicycle Thieves” around the same time, they were struck by how similar postwar Italy was to urban Africa, according to Tayler, and how the upheavals facing Europe after WWII mirrored some of the challenges facing contemporary Africa.

For two long-time fans of the neorealist movement, the parallels were impossible to ignore.

“We needed to pay homage to this film, and the filmmakers of that era,” says Tayler, who sees similarities between the social-documentary style of the neorealists and the methods used by digital filmmakers to depict urban life in Africa today.

“They were the first guys who took the camera out of the studio, and showed the gritty reality of life that wasn’t glossed over (on) Hollywood studio sets.”

“Boda-Boda” marks the most ambitious collaboration for Yes! That’s Us. With a cast drawn from across East Africa, the pic will be scored in Kenya with post to follow in South Africa.

In Kampala, which Mugisha says represents another character in the film, the project should provide a boost to the small but growing film community.

“The buzz is happening,” he says.

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