SIFF spotlight: Imani
Imani is the first feature film from Uganda to appear at SIFF. It’s also the first feature film for its director, Caroline Kamya, who edited and produced as well from a script by her sister, Agnes Nasozi Kamya.
Imani tells three slice of life stories all set in a day in modern Uganda. Olweny is a 12 year old former child soldier being reunited with the family he hasn’t seen in years. Mary is a maid for a wealthy woman whose sister is arrested for a crime she hasn’t committed. Armstrong is a break dancer struggling to put on a performance in the old neighborhood he may not have left behind as thoroughly as he thought. Director Kamya’s background in documentary work serves the film well – she allows the characters’ stories to play out in a naturalistic way and uses the visually stunning background of Uganda’s landscape, both rural and urban, to excellent effect, placing the viewer fully into the setting. Strong performances from a primarily non-professional cast add to the realism on screen. Young Stephen Ocen especially shines as the troubled Olweny, who rarely speaks but communicates the depth of his weariness and trauma with his expressive face and body.
Kamya was inspired to produce this film by her own background, creating Imani “through sheer wanting to communicate.” Born in Uganda, Kamya moved to England at age 12 and soon found “the content I saw on screen did not reflect where I came from. There was that need to communicate to people and the media [of film] just seemed to work.”
Uganda has very little in the way of filmmaking tradition, Kamya had to create it as she went. “There are no casting agencies in Uganda,” she says, so she held an open call to find actors for the film. Several hundred people showed up for auditions; from there she selected 40 who attended an acting boot camp with an acting coach from Kenya. From this group, she selected the cast for Imani.
It wasn’t just the cast who were inexperienced. Over 80 percent of the crew had never worked on a film and had to learn their jobs as they went along, a challenge with a positive outcome – having completed a feature film, the crewmembers are now experienced enough with filmmaking to help push Ugandan film further along. The absence of a major film industry in Uganda also meant there weren’t experienced wardrobe or set designers; all designed pieces had to be individually manufactured. This was more time and expense on a film as tightly budgeted as any independent film anywhere, but, again, this process helped train a whole new group of craftspeople on the requirements of producing designed pieces for film.
Despite the difficulties in the filming process, Kamya is justifiably proud of her film. The characters and their stories have a simple universal appeal – you needn’t be in their exact shoes to be able to relate to the difficulties each faces – but with a distinctly Ugandan flavor. This is important to Kamya who titled her film Imani because it means “faith”. Imani represents her faith that Ugandans can communicate clearly their own stories in their own voices. She plans to continue telling these stories; Imani is the first of a planned trilogy.