Richard Porton checked in from New Jersey to see the no budget production That Small Piece from Uganda.
Film critics rely on a skein of contextual reflexes, allusions, and — let’s face it — unabashed clichés in order to perform their jobs efficiently. When confronted, for example, with an African film, a Western critic’s natural inclination is to either fall back on fond memories of the glories of Francophone African cinema — the anti-colonialist classics directed by Sembene or Mambety and beautifully crafted art films by filmmakers such as Cissé — or rather ambivalent memories of the less altruistic, to the say the least, genre movies produced by Nollywood. Pigeonholing is, after all, a vital component of anyone’s critical apparatus and it’s not surprising that, bereft of the tried-and-true reflexive assertions that can be conveniently summoned up to pigeonhole the cinemas of Mali, Senegal, or Nigeria, the critical quandaries raised by other African national cinemas are likely to befuddle critics disinclined to emerge from their usual comfort zones.
For many critics, the prospect of writing on a Ugandan film, emanating from a film industry shrouded in relative obscurity (although a handful of Ugandan movies have been featured at Rotterdam and the Berlinale in recent years), is daunting and a bit anxiety inducing. Of course, even though the usual critical bromides need refurbishing in order to provide the requisite critical gloss, a bit of Internet research confirms that Ugandan cinema, or ‘Kinna Uganda’ as it tends to be labeled at both home and abroad, has been struggling to forge a distinctive identity. An easily accessible M.A. thesis by Kristin Alexandra Rasmussen (Kinna Uganda: A Review of Uganda’s National Cinema) outlines the many obstacles that have prevented Ugandan cinema from fulfilling its potential. The years of dictatorship under Obote and Amin meant that an indigenous cinematic tradition was put on hold for decades and problems in funding and distribution (there is one multiplex in the entire country) make it difficult for local films to be screened outside ‘video halls.’
What soon becomes clear, from reading both Rasmussen’s thesis and disparate festival reports, is that Ugandan cinema is neither art cinema per se nor Nollywood-style exploitation. Ugandan films seem to have followed a middle path. ‘Storytelling’ and pleasing a mass audience appears to be important for Uganda filmmakers. But a definite preoccupation with prevalent social and political woes animates films that examine, among other issues, the scourge of AIDS, the plight of child soldiers, and discrepancies between rural and urban life.
JOSEph S KEN’s (the orthography used by the IFFR site to designate the director although he is also called Joseph Kenneth Ssebagala — or Ssebaggala — in some publicity materials) That Small Piece is a good example of a contemporary African film determined to be both crowd-pleasing and a pertinent reflection of ongoing social problems. According to a title card at the conclusion of the film, the narrative, which encompasses land disputes and the intervention of a witch doctor, was loosely based on the personal testimony of a man named Ponsiano Nitra. The fairly schematic story line focuses on young lovers Petero and Rosemare, whose budding romance is stymied by their families’ pathological territorial disputes concerning property boundaries. Despite the threat of imminent violence, the families, dominated by Rosemare’s father and Petero’s uncle, routinely steal firewood and jack fruit from each other while the young lovebirds look on in horror. When the accelerating hostilities drive Petero mad, a witch doctor is called in and his therapeutic prowess tentatively saves the day.
A reviewer unfamiliar with Ugandan cinema is certainly tempted to revert to clichéd references derived from American history, hoary Hollywood films, and international popular culture. The acrimony generated by the land skirmishes recalls the legendary nineteenth-century feuds of the Hatfields and McCoys, as well as Buster Keaton’s comic treatment of this familial imbroglio in Our Hospitality. In addition, the lovers ostracized by their respective families inevitably brings to mind Romeo and Juliet — although it should be noted that the Romeo and Juliet analogy is also invoked in a piece by Raymond Mpubani (a writer ostensibly at home with the conventions of Ugandan cinema) that is posted at allafrica.com.
Unfortunately, foreign viewers are liable to be frustrated by certain questions that Ken/Ssebagala neglects to, or has no desire, to answer. Although That Small Piece intimates that protracted land disputes are common to Uganda, the film does little to enlighten us concerning the historical origins or significance of these stand-offs, which is perhaps why even Ugandan writers resort to archetypal Romeo and Juliet references. If the film’s scenario is somewhat hackneyed, Ken/Ssebagala’s visual style is unquestionably the freshest aspect of this well-intentioned film. Vivid shots of the landscape, coupled with frequent extreme close-ups of the protagonists, convey Ugandan life in all of its materiality — an aesthetic flourish infinitely preferable to the often-banal dialogue and facile plot contrivances.
That Small Piece (JOSEph S KEN, Uganda 2011, 90′)