The documentary ‘Bobi Wine: Ghetto President’, which will have its world premiere out of competition at the Venice Film Festival on September 1, centers on one man’s quest for freedom and justice for his country, but at the heart of the film is a love story. Variety talks to the filmmakers and unveils the trailer, the first time any footage has been released.
The film, directed by Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo, and produced by Sharp and Oscar winner John Battsek, follows musician Bobi Wine’s attempt to overthrow the repressive regime of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
Sharp has a personal connection to Uganda: he and his father were born there, and he spent much of his childhood in the country. He met Wine, real name Robert Kyagulanyi, in 2017, just after the musician became an MP.
“I was overwhelmed by him: his optimism, his determination, his bravery. And then his wonderful wife, Barbie…I just felt like I had never met someone like them before,” says- he.” I hung out with him and Barbie, and I said, ‘We just need to make a movie about you guys.'”
Sharp started the project with a British cameraman, Sam Benstead, who decided to quit after a short period of time, and Benstead was replaced by an Italian cameraman, Michele Sibiloni, who also quit. Finally, Sharp was introduced to Bwayo, who stuck to the task to the end, at great personal cost to himself. Bwayo says of his predecessors, “Because of the regime and how far they go with torture and intimidation, because of some of these issues, these guys couldn’t continue with the project.
“Bobi and Barbie just gave us full access,” Sharp says. “There was literally nothing they didn’t let us film. We shot thousands of hours of footage and then spent two years in the editing room trying to figure out what movie we were going to make.
The film follows Wine as he steps up his campaign against Museveni, culminating in his running for president himself in the January 2021 election. Along the way, he and his supporters from his National Unity Platform party, part of what Wine dubbed the “People Power” movement, have been subject to repeated arrests and assaults. A police and military crackdown on anti-government protests left dozens dead.
Central to the film’s story is Wine’s relationship with his wife Barbie and their children. “We obviously wanted to give Barbie and the kids as much space as possible. We didn’t want it to be just some kind of political drama about another despot. We wanted it to be a lot more personal,” says Sharp.
This decision meant that the documentary was less impactful than it could have been.
“When Bobi saw the movie, he said, ‘You made it not so bad. There’s so little violence in it,'” Sharp says. tongue cut out, eyes gouged out, battered. And in the end, we made the decision to really tell the story through Bobi and Barbie and the people around them. We thought it would be more impactful, but it doesn’t nothing to show how brutality [the regime is] and how many bad things happen to many people around [Bobi and Barbie].”
Sharp pays tribute to Bwayo, who he says was “incredible” and “put himself in great danger”. But Bwayo prefers to express his gratitude for the opportunity to tell this story. “It’s been quite a journey, and I have to say it’s been a blessing to be a part of it because I believe Bobi Wine and the People Power movement came at a time when Uganda needed a voice. like his,” he said. “Bobi Wine really appeals to the majority of our population, which is to say the young people.” More than 77% of Uganda’s population is under 30 years old.
He adds: “The people [overall] has been oppressed for a long time. They felt like they had no voice or place in politics; [the country is] economically divided, right now. They feel that, yes, he speaks for them and defends them.
Although Bwayo feels an affinity for Wine and his wife – “I learned that, yes, it’s actually a story worth telling, and I fell in love with Bobi and Barbie, and their story,” he says – he held himself distance from the campaign itself, although that did not save him from paying a price for his association with them.
“From the start, of course, it was a very conscious decision not to become an activist myself, or to become a story myself,” he says. “But that said, actually, things happened to me myself. I mean, I’m in Los Angeles right now. I can no longer live in Uganda because of this film. Not in a bad way. I appreciate being part of this film, and it’s a sacrifice and a very conscious decision that I made. Because change is not easy. You have to make sacrifices and to be honest, if you want to be a vehicle [for change]if you want to be involved in change… of course you can’t be reckless, but you have to put your life on the line or [put yourself] in these situations to bring about change in places like Africa and Uganda.
The explicit threats against Bwayo were “multiple”, he says, but he was also physically assaulted and detained. He and his wife are seeking asylum in the United States. “We could no longer live in Uganda. I was shot in the face; I was arrested; I’ve been locked up for a few days. I was followed, intimidated.
However, he considers himself lucky as no footage has been released so far. “Fortunately, when we were making this film, we didn’t release anything [online or on television]. So that really kept me safe, because the regime didn’t really see anything out there.
However, ‘safe’ in Uganda is a relative term. He adds: “Journalists and anyone in Uganda who works to expose the regime, you are a direct threat to the establishment. As such, they are subject to intimidation and attacks. “I mean, I got shot in the face myself. Without the camera I held in front of me, I probably would have lost my eye. Just here [he points to a scar]. My jaw would be broken, or… I don’t know. He was shot on November 6, 2020 and was arrested around the end of February, beginning of March 2020, he adds. “Moses and Bobi and all those guys are just off the brave scale,” Sharp says.
Bwayo says he was lucky enough to leave the project but chose to continue. “More and more I recognized that as a Ugandan I needed to say something, and I needed to be part of this time. Bobi represents a revolution, right?
It refers to the “lawlessness of the state” and the willingness of the military to shoot people who dare to protest in the streets, as they did when Wine was arrested on November 18, 2019.” People lost their lives [including] women, children, people who weren’t really in the streets to demonstrate. So the repression is really at a point where you choose to either… it’s do or die, you know?
Bwayo took great pains to get the footage out of the country, sending Sharp a disc every two weeks via friends. “I would have several [memory] cards during filming, and I would keep them in places where they wouldn’t find them. And at the beginning, I never kept the images with me. I would give it to other people, and people would come around to bring it to Chris. And internet in Uganda is terrible so it was very difficult to send it via internet. There was also bullying, so even people I knew avoided me, so there were very few people around me that you could trust.
Sharp traveled in and out of Uganda himself and handled all filming outside the country, including Wine’s trips to Paris, Berlin and New York.
As mentioned earlier, at the heart of the film is the love story between Wine and his wife, but this was not planned when filming began. “He came out of the editing room to be honest. We really didn’t want to settle for a political struggle: that kind of brave guy who stands up to the dictator,” Sharp says. “And when we started going through the rushes and organizing them, we realized that the most interesting story was their love story, and seeing the pain through them, rather than showing people who made themselves cut off the fingers. And it was so much more poignant. The big goal for me and Moses is that we just wanted people to realize what’s really going on.
In January 2021, Ugandan election officials declared Museveni the winner of the presidential contest with 59% of the vote and Wine with 35%, although Wine alleges widespread voter fraud took place.
Sharp also alleges that the election was fraudulent. “The Americans were unable to send observers, nor the European Union. All the journalists came. They said, ‘It’s fraudulent. This guy has been robbed, the people of Uganda have been robbed,” he said.
Western leaders’ response to the crackdown has been muted, and the United States and the European Union continue to give millions of dollars in aid to the Ugandan government. Where that money ends up is a moot point. The fact that Museveni sent thousands of troops to Somalia has positioned him as a potential Western ally in the region, which may influence how seriously they challenge his brutal behavior at home.
The army is key to Museveni’s grip on power, Bwayo says. “The army is like a tool for [Museveni] to protect himself against the people, and the longer he entrenches himself in power, the longer he becomes a problem for the region, for the world itself,” he says.
“So I hope people will see that this government is not trustworthy. For a long time, he has been saying things and promising things that don’t happen. Uganda is not a democracy. It is a fake democracy. They organize elections, not for elections to take place, but just to show the world that there is a democracy, but it is nothing like that.
“Bobi feels the West has let him down because he’s pro-democracy, doing everything right,” Sharp says. “And he really thought the West would support him. And they didn’t. He’s an optimistic guy, so he pulls himself together. But it was a big disappointment for [Bobi and Barbie], because he thought people would love to have a democratic process, and he thought it would matter. And it didn’t, and it was hard for him.
He adds, “When Bobi saw the movie, he said, ‘You made him so sad.’ [I replied:] ‘Bobi, it’s sad. You won the election and you were robbed. All of your friends have been locked up in military custody for six months. Many of your friends have died, suffered and it’s sad. We can’t shoot it any other way. We just have to tell it like it is. You stay up and carry on, but we can’t make it a happy ending, because it’s not a happy ending.