Thursday, November 27, 2014

ADIFF ’14: The Ugandan

Thirty five years after his ouster and eleven years after his death, military dictator and self-proclaimed “uncrowned King of Scotland” Idi Amin Dada still exerts a cancerous influence on his country. In 1972, Amin forcibly expelled 80,000 Asians (mostly of Indian origin) from Uganda. Several thousand Indo-Ugandans have since returned, filing claims for the property appropriated by the regime. Demagogues invoking Amin’s name are only too willing to capitalize on the resulting tensions. Two families are caught up in the racial and economic tensions escalating throughout Patrick Sekyaya’s ironically titled The Ugandan (trailer here), which screens as part of the Indian Cinema sidebar at the 2014 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Simon’s little brother was nearly suspended for protecting Sonia’s little sister from a bully. They met during the disciplinary aftermath and eventually fall in love. However, joining their two families will be a tricky proposition. Their home was once the property of Sonia’s father, Raman, who has instituted legal proceedings to retake possession. In fact, he is playing a nasty game of hardball, even though Simon’s sister Becky happens to be his secret mistress. Oh, but it gets even more complicated than that, especially when Becky’s other lover Tony takes advantage of a race riot to waylay her third brother Ralph and his ill-gotten loot. Naturally, the hot-headed Ralph will not take that lying down.

In many respects, The Ugandan is not so far removed from some of the more professional Nollywood films. The execution is a little rough and some of the performances are slightly awkward, but Sekyaya’s ambition is impressive. He tackles some big themes here, openly inviting an honest historical reckoning with the Amin legacy. Even with his budget constraints, Sekyaya also stages a pretty convincing riot, giving the film further ironic resonance in light of current events.

To be fair, Sekyaya’s cast plugs away rather gamely, including the director himself, who is suitably intense as Ralph. Peter Mayanja and Dora Mwima demonstrate the greatest screen presence, by far, as Simon and Becky, respectively. On the other hand, Arfaan Ahmed has a bit of a rough go of it as Raman, but Sekyaya gets him through it.

Frankly, Ugawood is still developing a talent pool, so Sekyaya makes do in some cases. Nevertheless, the film’s not so thinly veiled social and historical critiques are quite fascinating. His narrative also takes some odd turns, but the seemingly abrupt ending actually makes sense in retrospect. If you were one of his characters, you’d try to end things there as well. Hopefully, it will mark the beginning of a fruitful career, but anyone interested in contemporary Ugandan culture should see it now, because its subject matter will probably be too challenging for most festivals. Recommended for its plucky potential, The Ugandan screens tomorrow (11/28) and Tuesday (12/2) as part of this year’s ADIFF New York.