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Why Queen of Katwe is more than just a film for Ugandans

Since Walt Disney Pictures optioned the rights to Tim Crothers’ Queen of Katwe back in 2012, there has been a lot of excitement among Ugandans.

Different people were excited for reasons that of course differed from the others; some were actors, fashion designers while others were people as distant from the film industry – many believed it’s the film that will give them a Hollywood breakthrough, while others were simply looking at the money that was indeed going to change hands.

But it was in January 2015 that the film production gained new momentum, a couple of stories were run about the casting of Academy award winning actress Lupita N’yongo staring in a Mira Nair film Queen of Katwe alongside British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo, who at the moment was making waves for his role as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma.

But the casting for other roles mostly filled by Ugandans had started in Uganda between July to December 2014, with over 700 girls auditioning for the role of Phiona Mutesi.

Lupita Nyong’o at the Uganda premiere of Disney’s “Queen of Katwe” on Saturday, October 1, 2016 in Kampala. The film, starring David Oyelowo, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and newcomer Madina Nalwanga, is directed by Mira Nair and opens on 7 October 2016.

The film is currently making waves in Hollywood after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival at the beginning of the month, a limited screening in Hollywood last week and of course the impressive reviews that has followed the Mutesi story.

But for Ugandans that operate in different sectors of recreation – the film means much more than the 124 minutes the film lasts, the red carpet that will be rolled, Lupita and Oyelowo gracing the premiere or Uganda even watching it before anyone in Europe.

Joshua Ssentongo Ssali, a film tourism consultant says that at Queen of Katwe has been the best thing that has happened to Uganda in the past may years; “From the time it was announced that the film was going to be made, the international media started giving Uganda mentions.”

He says that most of the times, when an election happens in Uganda, what follows is usually bad publicity of riots, arrests which most of the times force the international media to pay attention, though this time round, regardless of what the media reported at the beginning of this year, Queen of Katwe has managed to keep Uganda in the positive news.

Robert Katende, Martin Kabanza (Brian), Mira Nair (Dir), Madina Nalwanga (Phiona), Lupita Nyong’o (Harriet), David Oyelowo (Robert), Phiona Mutesi at the Uganda premiere of Disney’s “Queen of Katwe” on Saturday, October 1, 2016 in Kampala.

Ssentongo also adds that in the past, Uganda has spent lots of money to market the country as a tourism destination and it may not have gained any following compared to what the Disney film has done, for instance, he cites Lupita’s big social media following that was constantly learning about Uganda whenever the Kenyan actress tweeted or instagramed about things that amused her.

Early this month, she shared a throwback of herself with Taryn Kyazze, one of her onscreen daughters in Queen of Katwe relaxing at the Nile with a caption; “Remembering when days off looked like this! By the River Nile with my on-screen daughter, Taryn Kyaze.”

Of course one of the comments came from a Brazilian that noted that he would love to visit ‘that’ place one day, but besides the tweets, international food blogger Jenn Fujikawa has already created special Queen of Katwe themed cap cakes which she’s promoting on different websites.

According to Ssentongo, if Uganda takes film as a tourism promoter, using it as a vehicle to share our heritage, culture and sites, they will be surprised with the outcomes, he notes that for Uganda, just this year, Queen of Katwe is not just a film.

“It has become evident eye opener that film is an ultimate marketing tool because of the visibility it creates and its prolonged media shelf life – it gives media shelf value that can be easily gotten by one off adverts,” he says adding that tourism is Uganda’s number one revenue earner thus when it’s boosted, different sectors of the economy feel the boost.

Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo attend the Uganda premiere of Disney’s “Queen of Katwe”

He compares the film to the pope’s visit where the country sank millions with a hope of promoting tourism but was forgotten by both the local and foreign only days after the pontiff had left; “Film has the kind of media that follows it during the casting, filming, promoting and the award season, this can be quite a period.”

And the good media is expected to go on until the awards season; Ssentongo notes that if Uganda can wake up and find means of attracting more foreign productions, at least one a year, the film industry, tourism as well as the economic front will all benefit.

For instance, while in Uganda, actors Esther Tebandekke, Joanita Bewulira, Joel Okuyo and Irene Kulabako among others were hired for roles, yet other people like Gladys Oyenbot, Robinah Nansubuga or Edward Ecwalu were hired in different roles.

But the communities where shooting happened too benefited, for instance, during a scene where Lupita’s Harriet is being convinced by Oyelowo’s Katende to let the children go to Buddo for a tournament, the props that were used like fish, piles of firewood, vegetables and other things like charcoal were all bought off.

But even during their stay, even those not connected to the film or it’s making made money off their presence, it’s said the team spent all their time at Munyonyo Resort where they rented office space, which was of course revenue earned, artistes whose music was used in the film were paid and a source that requested anonymity reveals that his artiste was paid at least $1500 and more $500 if the song made the cut to the soundtrack album.

For the two months production took place in Uganda, it’s said that Queen of Katwe deposited $6m on the local economy and another $6m to South Africa where part of it was shot.

Cast members Ronald Ssemaganda (Ivan), Ethan Lubega (Benjamin), Nikita Waligwa (Gloria), Mira Nair (Dir), Madina Nalwanga (Phiona), Martin Kabanza (Brian) at the Uganda premiere of Disney’s “Queen of Katwe”. (Disney Pictures)

However, the fight to get more films coming to Uganda is quite a big one considering a fact that very few of our politicians know the power of arts, for instance, as Uganda tries to use individuals like Ssentongo to lure Hollywood to Kampala, other countries like South Africa, Kenya, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia among others have government bodies whose sole role is promoting their countries as possible locations.

They do this by offering incentives like tax weavers, free army equipment, access to authority structures like parliaments, state house or even the airport.

An insider on the production crew notes that one of the reasons Queen of Katwe was partly shot in South Africa was because Uganda Revenue Authority was double taxing the project. Apparently, the project ended up paying more than shs2bn in taxes compared to what they were indeed supposed to pay.

With the kind of incentives South Africa offers, taking the crew and actors to South Africa to shot the rest of the film there was rather manageable.

According to Screenafrica.com, DTI’s Location Film and Television Production Incentive is available to foreign-owned productions with Qualifying South African Production Expenditure (QSAPE) of R12m (about shs3bn) and above. It provides a rebate of 15% of the QSAPE.

Films that have received this incentive include Blood Diamond, Primeval, The Avengers, 10,000BC, Lord of War and Catch a Fire among others.

Kenya is trying to up South Africa by promising a bigger rebate while Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are promising man power thanks to a fact that many of them already have standard film production studios.

But what many of these countries don’t have and Uganda can assure, is good weather, locations and friendly people.

Ssentongo, currently in Hollywood for the first Queen of Katwe screenings notes that if we are to benefit from the film beyond the premieres, the government has to work quickly and it has to happen now; “Having lost out on the extra Queen of Katwe $6m, the government should be formulating something like a policy that protects and invites foreign productions the same way they do for other investors.”

He says that tax employment have to be reviewed especially considering a fact that Queen of Katwe was taxed as an employer yet such short term projects are taxed differently.

The lack of structures, even in the success of Last King of Scotland in 2007 and the good signs for Queen of Katwe, Uganda is still losing productions that it would have got, for instance, at the beginning of this month, Working Titles, a British production house confirmed that they were going to shoot a film about the 1976 hijack of an air craft at Entebbe.

Titled Entebbe, the film was thought to be shot in Uganda but won’t be going to Malta thanks to the better deal they gave the producers.

“We are still pushing to see the production come to Entebbe to at least do a number of establishing shots that can capture Lake Victoria so that Uganda can get some visibility,” Ssentongo says.

He notes that even on the art front, having watched Ugandans in both the Last King of Scotland and Queen of Katwe, there’s no denying that there’s talent, if we get many of these productions coming, even the art industry will benefit.


About Kaggwa Andrew

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