A scene from Dilman Dila’s Her Broken Shadow. Watch the trailer here on Youtube.
I made Her Broken Shadow on a whim. I had just returned to Uganda after about three months of travel. I had been to South Africa for a literary festival, France for a scifi workshop, a film festival, and then I was back at work on the Disney film, Queen of Katwe. I woke in my own room after several weeks in strange rooms with this immense feeling of being alone. The year before a long relationship with my girlfriend had come to an end. Luckily I had too much work, and I travelled a lot, and I did not give it any serious thought. Now, the weeks ahead were empty. I had nowhere to go, no work, no girlfriend, just days upon days of being locked up in my bedroom doing nothing, and just like that, the story fell into my lap. I saw the whole film from beginning to end in a flash, and as I got off bed to clean my teeth, I decided to make it. Just like that.
I started writing the script that same day, and had a first draft ready within a month. I sent it to a friend, Charity, a visual artist whose help was invaluable in making the film. She is a sci-fi fan who introduced me to Dr. Who. We had been working on another script, Makewana, about a woman who has the knowledge to transform her village into a paradise, but who must fight an international charity/NGO that is determined to keep the village in poverty since the NGO benefits from the misery of people. I liked that story a lot; it tackles an issue that has bugged me for many years—how non-governmental organizations in the name of humanitarianism sell poverty the way Coca-Cola sells its drinks. I very much wanted to make that film, and maybe someday I will, but it would require a bit of money, which we couldn’t raise.
For a filmmaker in sub-Saharan Africa, there are very limited opportunities for film finance, partly because of an undeveloped film market. Mostly, I think, it is because of the global scheme of things — the old argument about how the West keeps Africa underdeveloped. Most grants an African filmmaker can get are European, and most of these grants make it a condition that the African must have a European co-producer (who ends up controlling the project) to get the money. As such, the stories that get told are often those that European producers prefer, that they think will do well in festivals (rarely do they pick stories with commercial potential), stories with headline or NGO issues, like AIDS, genocide, famine, climate change, or stories with stereotypes about African cities like crime in Nairobi and Johannesburg.
I pitched Makewana to several European producers, and they all told me nearly the same thing, that it is a commercial project and would not attract any grants. I wanted to make the film anyway, but it would require a lot of special effect props and possibly CGI. If there was a market I could look at, I might have taken the risk and put money in it, but I could not take a very heavy risk for that would be similar to putting a rope around my neck. So as I wrote Her Broken Shadow, I had to keep in mind what I could achieve with the little money I had made working for Disney.
I did not want to seek European funds as I end up feeling like shit. I write about fifteen unique stories every year. And I never ask myself why I’m writing this or that story. I just write. Of course, there is always a personal motivation, a writer always puts something of himself in each work he creates, but the way these funds ask the question ‘Why do you want to make this film?’ always makes me feel like a beggar on the sidewalk with a big banner detailing the misery of his life. I did not want to go through such a humiliating process.
If I really wanted to make this film, I had to be careful in how I wrote it. I could not use any CGI and had to rely on practical effects. I had to limit myself to largely one location, and one character, things I was not really comfortable with, but had no choice if I was to make a decent film. I did not specifically set out to write on a theme of loneliness. I just had the idea of a single person stuck in one place, something similar to the Canadian scifi film Cube (1997). At first I thought it would be a murder mystery, about a woman who lost her memory and has to figure out the murder, who the killer is and what the motivation is. But given the state of my mind at that time, loneliness became a central theme and it gave me an excuse to confine the character (and the viewer) in a claustrophobic setting.
“When did you write this?” Charity asked, when I sent her the script. She was still trying to figure out how to make Makewana work, and here I was bombarding her with another script.
“I started a few weeks ago.”
She did not believe me, of course. She shrugged and said, “It’s better. The props and the setting will be easier to make.”
Or so we thought.
We had never made special effects props for a film before, nor did we have anyone to guide us here. We had to build a space city, a robot-creature that I call a cyrit (a cybernetic spirit – half ancestral spirit, half robot), and a mind-reading helmet. These three things would make the film come to life, but we had absolutely no idea how to make any of them. We hit google. We looked for tutorials, and got nearly nothing. The few we found were geared for people based in Western countries, and Hollywood people, and so they mentioned materials beyond our reach. Others had materials we could get, but the cost of building the prop would have been much more than the budget for the entire film, which was just a little over US $5000.
We had to do everything by trial and error. We were going to use materials that we could easily find. Charity has a big affinity for African cultural nuances in her art, so she started from there. We ended up using wooden face masks, sponge, palm-frond mats, and origami artworks, things we could find in the market or build from scratch. We avoided metals as they are too expensive for a trial and error venture, but the materials we chose looked very ordinary and would not sell a futuristic idea. We thought fixing lights on them would render a technological look, but we couldn’t find the right kind of lights in Kampala.
Luckily, we were working with a friend from UK, who became a co-producer, and who scored many shops in London until she found remote-controlled LED lights that served us very well. Only then did I really feel comfortable to make the film.
Even as we went through all this, I knew I still would have to look to the West for success. I hoped to premier it in one of the big festivals, so I contacted programmers I had met over the years, which is really the only way to get your film seen in these big festivals. Blind submissions just don’t work. Three programmers were kind enough to get back to me, and they were excited by the idea that I was making a sci-fi. They said I should send them the rough cut once it is done.
Encouraged, I threw myself into the project. We started shooting in November 2015, just four months after I got the idea. It felt strange that I was making a film without having to write a motivational statement, or a synopsis, or any such thing I had grown to believe were necessary to shoot a film, because you need them when looking for money. I found making a film this way much more satisfying than getting lost in writing a director’s statement and such nonsense that drain all energy and art from the film. We planned to shoot it in eight days in extremely low light. I was happy to find I could get a RED camera for very cheap in Kampala. Someone had imported it for the lucrative music-video industry. I don’t know of any camera that would have given me real a good picture on candlelight. So I decided to go with a RED, which enabled me to get a lighting scheme I wanted. The only problem was that the RED was not made for my kind of production. We were stuck in small, airless rooms with dozens of candles burning, and as such the temperature kept going up, and the camera kept overheating and shutting down. We ended up shooting for thirteen days, which pushed our budget up.
It took me six months to make a rough cut. The programmers, who saw it, gave very encouraging replies and urged me to send them a finished product for possible selection. I nearly lost hope along the way; it was a nightmare editing 4K Raw. Then I needed a good sound score. The film industry in East Africa is undeveloped. I had to go all the way to Mexico for a music composer, which meant spending much more than I intended. I finished the film in time, and I thought at least one of the programmers would accept it for screening. Sadly, it was not to be.
When I received the last rejection, I felt crashed. I had put all my hopes in the film getting into one major festival so it could get visibility. They never told me why they rejected it. There was the usual lines about how many good quality submissions they received, and how I should not be discouraged because my film is good. I have seen some of the films they have accepted, which I feel aren’t as good as mine, but which tackle one issue or other. And I wondered for the thousandth time if I should have had made a film about AIDS or genocide or child soldiers to get the limelight.
As this ran through my head, I happened to look at stats on my YouTube channel, and I saw I had made over six thousand dollars in three years, largely from a short film, What Happened in Room 13, which has so far attracted over six million views. And it occurred to me that here was an opportunity for a struggling filmmaker like me. I don’t think a feature film produced entirely in sub-Saharan Africa, without inputs from Europe or America, has ever made it big in the international scene. I look at exceptional hits like Nairobi Half-Life (2012, Kenya) and Viva Riva! (2010, Congo), both of which had European producers and African directors, and I wonder why these directors, in spite of the buzz their films generated, are yet to release a second/follow up feature. Is that not a case that even if a film makes it, the European producers benefit the most? I want to make it big. I want to go to Cannes and Berlin and Rotterdam and Sundance. I want my films to be in theaters across the globe. But the reality is that it may never happen, not if I continue producing sci-fi films and dark thrillers like What Happened in Room 13.
And yet online distribution platforms are blossoming. I can make the films I want to make, without having to go with a beggar’s hat to some snob in Europe, without having to justify to anyone why I want to tell a particular story. And I can look forward to making back the money I put i. Film, unlike writing novels and short stories, is an expensive venture, and so I have to think carefully about what I put in. The question I keep asking myself is, If I can make all that money from YouTube off one film, how much could I make if I have a lot of good films up there that are generating a lot of views? Is it the future of film distribution? Will I get the success I dream of if I focus on the Internet platforms?
Towards the end of 2016, I decided to test the waters. I set out to make one short SFF film a month over the course of one year. I have so far made two, one called What Happened to Jilted Lovers, and the other Cursed Widow Blues, which is doing really well and has about two thousand views in two months. Yet while I have the drive and motivation for this project, the reality of making sci-fi films in Kampala hits me hard each time I set out to do one.
The biggest problem is the lack of people in the film industry who are true sci-fi fans, who would come up with concepts that they have not seen on the most recent Hollywood blockbuster, and also a lack of previous local work to look at for guidance. I feel like I am the first person to walk this road in Uganda. Actors always have trouble with the scripts and with the props. I had to abandon a shoot late in January because the actress could not engage with a box-prop as an intelligent character. We had designed an alien with cardboard and LED lights, and it would have required creative camerawork and lighting effects to convince the audience that it is an alien, if only the actress could engage with it as such, but this actress failed to see the box as a living, intelligent thing. She kept laughing at herself, and playing it as if it were a slapstick comedy.
And I have failed to find someone like Charity to work with. Most artists I approach have no clue of what I am asking them to do. Just last week, someone said, “You want to make a toy?” He could not understand the concept of using a model, even when I showed him examples from Her Broken Shadow. “But it’s just for drama,” he argued. “I don’t have to be perfect. We can just make a toy.” Another artist worked on a spaceship model for a month, but she gave up, saying it was taking too much of her time and I was not paying her enough. She never understood the concept of trial and error to come up with a believable prop. I miss working with Charity, who has a day job and cannot support every whim of mine. So for now I have to limit the kind of props I think about, which means I have to limit myself on the kind of stories I can tell.
It is frustrating, but I believe sooner or later something will come right. Technology will get cheaper, and it will be easier to find materials. The audience will grow and my YouTube channel will start making enough money to enable me to invest much more in these films.
Something will work out, I believe, and then I won’t have to stifle my storytelling, and the films will come out just the way I dream about them.
Watch the trailer of Dilman Dila’s Her Broken Shadow here on Youtube. Support him on Patreon.
“Braveheart’s Return,” Dila’s fantastic story set in Nepal’s Terai plains appeared in the inaugural issue of Mithila Review (March 2016). You can read it here.