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On the Fly, Uganda Invents a Film Industry

No infrastructure for filmmakers existed in country when 'King' came calling

When producer Lisa Bryer optioned the novel “The Last King of Scotland” years ago, she expected that if it was ever filmed, it would shoot in South Africa, which has a filmmaking infrastructure, experienced crews and good hotels.

But when helmer Kevin Macdonald returned from Uganda after researching the life and times of its tyrannical dictator Idi Amin, he insisted that the film shoot there, at authentic locations.

“I said, ‘All we can do is go back and budget it,'” says Bryer, and the new figures said their £5 million ($9.5 million) budget was not enough. “We thought we’re not going to be able to do it.”

Relentlessly whittling the budget down didn’t get the costs in line until Macdonald, Bryer, her fellow producers Andrea Calderwood, Christine Ruppert and Charles Steel, and line producer Andrew Wood met with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni.

“He gave us not only his blessing,” says Bryer, “but he gave us a tax break, the use of all the locations for nothing, but most importantly, he gave us the use of his army. With all that, we were able to do it, but only just.”

Wood, who had worked on “Shooting Dogs” in Rwanda, has developed an expertise in making films in countries where there is no filmmaking infrastructure.

That is certainly the case in Uganda, which hasn’t seen a feature shoot since Mira Nair shot part of “Mississippi Masala” there some 15 years ago. The local culture is focused on theater and radio, and while people watch TV and DVDs, cinema isn’t a big part of the Ugandan cultural or entertainment landscape. Wood would be starting with a blank slate.

He told the producers: “If we use a service company, we’re just going to blow the budget entirely.” He could do it without one, he said, if he had four key Ugandan people: a local casting director; a government liaison to make sure the army, military locations and military equipment would show up on time; a liaison with the local community who could help find locations; and a unit-manager-type “fixer.”

“With those, I knew we could spread,” Wood says. He found all four, including actress Joanitta Bewulira-Wandera, who took on the casting chores; Emily Mbonga, a doctor who became location manager; and musician Raymond Kalisa, who served as assistant director, helped with community relations and found many local musicians.

With their help, the Ugandan crew grew to some 200.

Still, shooting in Uganda meant coping with impassible traffic in the city, bad roads in the countryside, debilitating heat and disease. On top of that, supplies and crew would have to be flown in.

Labor costs were low, but any supplies, such as lumber or bricks, were expensive.

Wood had just eight weeks of pre-production in Uganda. He warned the 35 international crew members who were joining him there “to be incredibly patient, but the rewards would be stupendous. If they found the right people, there would be a tremendous satisfaction in helping them understand the filmmaking process.”

“We had to introduce the whole idea (of moviemaking),” Bewulira-Wandera says. She found some 6,000 Ugandans to play speaking roles and extras, but many had never even seen a movie before, much less acted in one.

On one occasion, the film engaged 2,000 rural villagers to do traditional dances in honor of President Idi Amin. “They started to laugh and said, ‘Who doesn’t know the man died?’ ” says Bewulira-Wandera.

She and Wood agree that the Ugandan crews adapted well once they learned what they were doing. The foreign crews, though, were suffering. Malaria was a problem; everyone got dysentery. All departments were shorthanded, and crews ended up working 16-hour days, though they were only being paid for 12.

Ugandans also found themselves working longer hours than they anticipated, and some there still feel the local people were underpaid.

On the other hand, Wood says that “the next film that goes there will have a really good staff and be able to draw on the people we used.”

Bryer says “Last King” came out “100 million times better” than she hoped, but “if you said to me today would you do it again, my answer would be absolutely no. Because the favors we had to ask, you can only ask once.”

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