KAMPALA, UGANDA — Actor Apollo Asiimwe, popularly known as the Kung Fu Gangster for his onscreen martial arts, rehearses a scene for his upcoming action film, “Kampala Afuba,” on a studio lot in Wakaliwood – the center of Uganda’s film industry.
“I started acting in 2011. I became an actor because I wanted to be famous and rich, but I have only achieved fame,” Asiimwe says.
To make ends meet, Asiimwe sells vegetables from a stall in Nakasero market, one of the busiest in Kampala.
“Some of my customers get shocked when they find me, a whole movie star at my stall, but what to do? It is the job that pays,” Asiimwe says.
Asiimwe is not alone. Few who work in Uganda’s film industry are able to make a living in an industry that has struggled in the face of widespread movie piracy, which siphons revenue that would otherwise go to moviemakers. Pirated movies are sold for between 500 Ugandan shillings and 1,000 shillings (14 cents to 27 cents), while genuine DVDs can cost four times as much, up to 2,000 shillings (54 cents).
Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda
Last year, Ugandan authorities cracked down on Kampala movie dealers and confiscated their stock as part of an ongoing anti-piracy campaign. DVDs of both Ugandan and foreign films were confiscated because they were believed to be pirated.
“These operations will go on, because we believe it is good for the economy, and creators of this content should get paid,” says Micheal Wabugo, intellectual property officer at the Uganda Registration Services Bureau.
“Ignorance of the law is no defense,” Wabugo says. “We need compliance.”
The crackdown has hit movie dealers hard.
“I have lost over 7,000,000 Ugandan shillings’ worth ($1,906) in DVD sales and other work equipment. I do not understand why my movies have been confiscated,” says movie dealer Hawah Mutesi.
Movie consumers were also affected by the crackdown. Norman Lubega buys movies, including local ones, every Friday, but he was disappointed to find the shelves of his local movie dealer empty. He says he does not see a difference between buying a legitimate copy and a fake.
“I enjoy the Ugandan movies. I buy each at 1,000 Ugandan shillings (27 cents). It is cheaper, and I don’t see the difference between an original and a fake, so why pay more for the same thing?” Lubega says.
Jane Nambasa, CEO of the Uganda Federation of Movie Industry, says this view is common, and until the public begins to respect works by Ugandan filmmakers, the industry will not grow and develop.
“That is unfortunate because we have really good producers that have made films that compete internationally,” she says.
Uganda’s growing film industry relies on old copyright laws that aren’t clear on movie piracy, which makes their enforcement difficult. But a film bill is currently before the country’s Parliament to tackle this, says Rhonnie Nkalubo, head of production at the Uganda Film Council.
“We need legislators to acknowledge that film exists in Uganda,” he says. “When we establish [the film bill], the copyright law will easily be incorporated.”
Nambasa says protecting copyright would help the Ugandan film industry by creating an environment where film creators could be fairly compensated for their work.
“We need money to make films, but the challenge is if you put in money to produce a good movie, there is no market. Piracy now runs the film industry, and investors have been discouraged,” Nambasa says. “This is meant to be a business venture.”
Nambasa says there has been some change since the recent enforcement of copyright laws. Vendors now sell more authentic, unpirated material.
“There is a slight change since enforcement of the copyright law, as there is some compliance. We think that enforcement will be consistent and with time we will succeed,” Nambasa says.
Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda
Aisha Komuhangi has been acting since 1998 and currently stars in Ugandan drama series “Half London.” She is one of the lucky few actors who get paid. Still, it’s not quite enough to make ends meet.
“Starting out, I was not paid, and that was challenging. But now I get paid but not enough to sustain me, so I have an electronics business,” Komuhangi says.
Some actors make a living from their craft another way: They sell copies of DVDs, including ones they star in, for extra money.
“When we make a movie, we produce and make it on DVDs and get it to the actors and actresses, because they are the marketing team of Wakaliwood. They sell and make a commission from it,” says film director Isaac Nabwana.
However, like the rest of the industry, piracy has made it difficult for actors to make money this way, as it directly competes with their sales.
Nabwana says Uganda’s film industry has a long way to go, beyond enforcing copyright law.
There is a lack of local cinema culture, he says, as most Ugandans would rather pay to see foreign films than support local content. But appreciation of Ugandan films is something that could be taught.
“There is so much potential. The new generation is the future of film in Uganda. We need to take cinema to school and teach the younger generation to appreciate local film and get involved in transforming the market,” Nabwana says.
For his part, Asiimwe still plans to act, even if the financial rewards aren’t evident yet.
“The reason why I stick to acting is because of the passion. It does not pay, but you can never know who will watch you in a film and cast you,” he says. “I hope for international recognition someday, by maybe starring in a movie made in America.”