Not many people were in line when I went to get my will call tickets for the North American premiere of Imani (well, the last of three premiers ;-)). In fact, I counted seven people total. Then again, we’re talking about a film that had played twice before, and which I was watching at 4:30 on a Friday, when most people are trying to get home from work, or are at home trying to relax. I also picked up an official SIFF guide for $10 (includes more info on each film, sponsor information, and the names of the volunteers from last year), which was fortunate, since I had left my free SIFF guide at home.
The director of Imani, Caroline Kamya, introduced the film, one of eight African films to be shown at the festival. The staff member who introduced her mentioned that, over the course of three days, she had been to several schools, working with teenage filmmakers. Imani is her first feature film. In Swahili, the name means “faith.”
A 3-minute short film from Brazil called Human Colours preceded the film, with a voiceover by Fernando Lime (directed by Jose Vinicius Reis Gouveia). That film is part of the Adobe Youth Voices project. I will not be reviewing that film. 😛
Before I review Imani, here are some important facts about Uganda:
For more than twenty years, Northern Uganda has been engaged in a bloody civil war. While a cease fire has been in effect for two years, the toll it has taken on the populace can still be seen, not least so in the children who had been abducted and forced to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army, the remnants of which are now being hunted down (read about current developments here).
That information helps put the opening quote into perspective: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”
The quote is from Magnolia, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson. This aspect of the film is what Kamya would refer to in the Q & A as “colonial hangover,” where different classes of people still exist, based on the old model of stratification that the white British colonialists left behind.
The movie follows three people: a housemaid, Mary (Rehema Nanfuka), a former child soldier, Olwenyi (Stephen Ocen), and a breakdancer, Armstrong (Philip Buyi). We meet Mary first, and her sister, Ruth, who has been beaten by her husband, Gideon. Ruth gives her sister a locket that a muzungu gave her (Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary spell it “mzungu”, which is Swahili for “white person”). At first, Mary declines, but Ruth explains that Gideon will never let her wear it.
We then meet Armstrong, who is putting on a breakdancing concert that evening. We see him making preparations with his wife, who will be making their costumes. Soon after meeting him, we get our first reminder of the civil war: a headline in a newspaper reads, “368 Days of Peace in North Uganda.”
The next reminder is Olwenyi, who is staying at Hope Alive: Children of War Rehabilitation Center, which houses former child soldiers (note: this center actually exists, and Kamya filmed inside the actual center). On this day, Olwenyi will be reunited with his parents, whom he has not seen since he was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. He is withdrawn and likes to sit in corners and draw, or play an instrument. He does play checkers with one of the other boys (using bottlecaps for pieces), but the game ends before there is a winner, with Olwenyi retiring to go off someplace by himself.
Each of these characters introduces us to someone else who is important to the story during the course of their day: George works with Mary at their mistress’s house, Simon used to be friends with Armstrong, and Lasty helps run Hope Alive (and accompanies Olwenyi on his journey home). Only Lefty is a redeemable character: George is sexist (he believes their mistress is single because no man can handle her) and Simon is some sort of low-level criminal, known as “the Gutter King.”
Two crises (and an awkward situation) reveal themselves as the movie progresses: Mary finds out that Ruth is in jail for trying to kill Gideon (and the police want 50,000 pounds for her release), Armstrong has some of his equipment and belongings stolen by Simon’s henchmen, and Olwenyi’s parents worry about how much the person who has come back to them is the son who was taken from them. In the first story, George agrees to help Mary raise the money by selling her locket. In the second story, Armstrong confronts his former friend. In the third story, Olwenyi’s mother decides to see what’s inside the box that Olwenyi carries around with him.
The main problem with this movie is that these crises are resolved too easily, and in a manner that doesn’t lead to growth on the characters’ parts, nor recognition that anything has changed on ours. [WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD] Perhaps the most powerful ending is provided by Olwenyi’s story (and even that ending is lackluster, since what is inside the box is not so shocking of a find), but what about the other two stories? Armstrong has an “episode” after he leaves Simon, but it leads nowhere. Was he poisoned? And if nothing happened, how come Simon puts the king in checkmate once Armstrong leaves (which, by the way, is one of the few movie cliches in this film)? As for Mary’s story, George collects “payment” for a loan he gives to Mary, even though that loan came from the sale of the locket.
What saves this movie from being as bad as, say, I Am Love, is that it knows what it is and doesn’t try to be more than that, or get all “artsy” on us. This movie is content to show us a specific place and time, and while it doesn’t always succeed (the ending being the prime example), it kept my interest up to that point. I wasn’t surprised to learn, after the film ended, that Kamya worked on documentaries before making this film, as it certainly has the feel of a documentary to it. In fact, that is part of its problem, as well. It educates us about all these facets of Ugandan life without delving deep into the characters or situations that it raises.
In the Q & A that followed, Kamya came across as a very genuine person who has a lot of passion for the people of Uganda. In this film, she wanted to show that people are moving on from the war. She also explained one of the rituals used in the film: when Olwenyi returns home, he has to use his foot to break an egg placed between two branches before his mother, or anyone, will embrace him. This ritual is based on an older one in Uganda, but it has been adapted as a way to readmit soldiers into their families, despite all of the horrible things that they have done. That, and the water thrown on the roof of the house, which drips down as Olwenyi enters and exits the house twice, are purification ceremonies. I imagine that the water is symbolic of the blood being washed from the soldiers’ body, the blood that that soldier spilled.
Kamya’s sister, Agnes, wrote the screenplay from notes that Caroline gave her. Since Caroline worked with all non-actors (found through posters put up at the National Theatre), she didn’t want any improvisation. She also said that people in Uganda switch back and forth between languages while speaking, as they do in the film, since several languages are spoken there (Acholi, Luganda, and English are used in the film, according to the official SIFF guide, and Caroline mentioned that Swahili was used, as well).
This movie is a result of her frustrations, frustrations in people not knowing what is happening in Uganda, or what has happened there. For example, one of the reasons that she focuses on a breakdancing group in the film is because she hopes that someone watching the movie will ask about it, since it actually exists. Called Breakdance Project Uganda, the members breakdance for social change, and the actor who plays Armstrong (Buyi) is actually a member of that group. One of their “shining stars,” he is now one of their choreographers.
When I went to see Imani, I had hoped that I was going to witness a shining star of a director. After all, this film did create some buzz at the Berlin Film Festival, which is why organizers in Seattle were so keen to have it here (this from the staff member who introduced the director and partly introduced the film). Instead, I saw a pretty good film, one that, unfortunately, may soon be forgotten, much like Uganda’s civil war.
3 out of 5.