Speculative Elements in African Storytelling and Film: A Dialogue With Dilman Dila
Dilman Dila is a writer, film maker and a social activist from Uganda. He is the author of Cranes Crest at Sunset and A Killing in the Sun. His work has been recognized by internationals awards such the Jalada Prize for Literature (2015), the BBC International Radio Scriptwriting Competition (2014), the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (2013), Short Story Day Africa prize, (2013 and 2014), and Million Writers Awards (2008). His works has been published in The Sunday Vision, The African Roar 2013, Storymoja, The Kathmandu Post, The Swamp, Dark Fire, Shadow Sword and Gowanus Books.
His films include What Happened in Room 13 (2007), The Young Ones Who Won’t Stay Behind (2008), Untouchable Love (2011), The Sound of One Leg Dancing (2011), and The Felistas Fable (2013). He films have been nominated for Best First Feature by a Director and Best Make-Up Artist at the Africa Movie Academy Awards (2014), and Best Make-Up Artist at the Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards 2014. He was the winner of The Jury Award at the Nepal International Indigenous Film Festival in 2012. The Felistas Fable won Film of the Year (Best Director), Best Feature Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor during the Uganda Film Festival 2014, and also received nominations for Best Actress, Best Sound, and Best Post-Production.
This conversation happened between the sun-drenched city of Gaborone, Botswana and exuberant city of Kampala, Uganda by Skype.
Gaamangwe: Dilman, in the two forms of storytelling that you work with; prose and film, you gravitate to speculative fiction. What is the origin of your fascination with this kind of genre?
Dilman: Like most children from where I grew up, the first stories I encountered were folktales and urban legends. Back then with there being no TV and little access to radio, storytelling was very popular, not just among children, even among adults, and not in the way you would think, where people gather around a fireplace. Most of it was informal, anytime, anywhere. Folktales, I must say, were much fewer for there is only a limited number of those from the communities I grew up in, but urban legends abounded. Almost every day we would hear something new, from how John Akii-Bua can run faster than cars to how cars can drive on trees in Kenya. When I grew up, I just didn’t grow out of it.
I started reading books at around the age of ten, and by that time I was already engrossed in these urban legends. So in books I looked for those with the most speculative elements. I remember one title Yoa and the Python, about a boy who befriended a snake, and it was very similar to a story I had heard in the streets, about a who had a pet snake that guarded his home. We had a library in our school which helped me access a lot of stories. One of my early memories is of my mother reading a red book on her bed, which I read after she finished it. This was The Clocks, of Agatha Christie. It was before I was twelve. I think that was when I started reading adult books, and books that were not purely fantastical, but I always went back to spec books.
That said, I think all stories are speculative whether its fiction or documentaries or any other genre. I think there is a thin line between genres. I think genres were created because publishers wanted to create markets to publish their books. And maybe also because of the industrial revolution when human beings started separating magic from science. But I look at stories as having the same elements or drive behind them. The reason why human beings tell stories is basically the same. Whatever is it that makes one read stories, there is some instinct that drive you to read the story. So there is little differentiation between genres, for me anyways.
Gaamangwe: I am also quite fascinated with the strange, magic and the things that are outside what we accept as real. I love those kind of stories.
Dilman: The problem with human beings of the modern age is that the things that they don’t understand they write them off as unreal or illogical, and yet magic is really all around us. They are many things that science can never be able to explain. Some of them can be as simple as dreaming, why do we dream? When we dream what exactly happens to us? Do all animals dream? Do trees dream? Science has some theories, but they are merely speculation, and they have never understood dreams.
Gaamangwe: Sometimes I think; how strange will it be if an extra-terrestrial or someone who is not from this planet came and witnessed this phenomenon whereby when the sun goes down and time strikes 9pm or 10pm, all human beings go into their rooms, fall into the bed, sleep and dream. How vulnerable and strange.
Dilman: Yes. There is a story I am writing where people are able to go into the world of their dreams. There is one particular woman who is experiencing domestic violence and travels to a nightmare world where the only other person is her husband, it’s kind of a horror, and she has to deal with a world in which there are a million copies of her husband.
I drew inspiration for the story from my own experience because I grew up in a family where there was domestic violence. The thing with stories is that what you grew up with, what you experienced, and what you encounter in your everyday life, will make your story very different from all the other stories that have been told before.
Gaamangwe: That’s fascinating. Freud says dreaming is for wish-fulfillment but I also think that in dreaming, the subconscious purges and integrates our daily traumas. Otherwise we will all probably have psychotic breakdowns because too much happens in a day.
Speaking of childhood experiences, I am interested in knowing some of the folklore stories that you grew up with, that have been influential in you getting fascinated with this kind of writing and film-making.
Dilman: Well there are two that popped into my head right now. One is about a leper who went to the well and asked young unmarried girls to give him water, of which they refused because they could not share their calabash with him. But one girl is kind to him and gives him the water. So after he has drank, he tells the girl not to go to the dance that night and the girl heeds the warning and a rock falls from the sky and buries all the people who were dancing. There is a place in Uganda where you can see the rock, and it bleeds at certain times of the year. I have never been able to find that rock but one time I hope I do. That’s a story that has really stayed with me, I think that it was just the idea of a rock falling from the sky and burying everybody. You know when we think of aliens we are thinking of this super cool, shiny spaceships with lights and we don’t imagine that maybe their spaceship could be a rock.
The other one is about a girl who was about to get married and every man will come to her, and she will refuse and reject the men. And one day she meets this strange man who was very handsome and who sweeps her off her feet. So she goes to his home, and because her sister is disabled and cannot get married, they go together. It is said the girl was blind or a leper, depending on who is telling the story. So one night the disabled girl overhears the husband sharpening a knife to kill the bride. It turns out the husband was a shape-shifter and transforms into a monster some times. The disabled girl tells the sister and the two flee.
I like this one because when you look at the popular monsters like the werewolf in the European culture.But do you know that werewolf are in almost every culture? Some creature that will transform from human to animal. That fascinates me. It’s kind of saying there is a beast in every one of us. That there is darkness in every human being. I think that’s what I took from that story.
Gaamangwe: That’s fascinating. You do work a lot with this darkness and violent aspect of us.
Dilman: I think it’s not conscious. When I was just starting out I use to not like stories that had bodies in them, somebody had to die somehow. I think when you go back to the folktales I used to hear, all of them are not like Cinderella stories, even though Cinderella stories have also been watered down to suit children of this age but if you listen to them in their original form, they are violent. They were all about good and evil. They revealed the worst in humans, and the worst in the world. It’s not about the statistics but it’s also about not sugar coating the world as we know it. Because the world is a very cruel place. Some people grow up in shielded homes, they have no problems getting what they want, because they are privileged. They have money to go to the best schools, after they graduate they get big parties, then they get a job then they are married and they have children, and it’s really kind of nice for them. But for most of the people it’s not like that. Everything you gain is from a lot of sweat and pain and struggling. So maybe that’s why there is a bit of darkness. I think I aim to thrill the reader with my stories. I want to affect the reader’s emotions in some way. And I think I find it easier to do that with something that hurts one of my characters.
Gaamangwe: Where do these stories come from? How do you think of this fantastic and shocking story-lines?
Dilman: I don’t know. It’s one of those questions that writers don’t like answering. I can’t give you a good or clear answer of how these things come about. You see a doctor or a surgeon, you will wonder how they cut up a person and stitch them together. It’s just one of those mysteries of the human brain. When you train it to do something, it just naturally starts doing things.
I started writing at an early age, I was about 15. Students were studying for exams and I was reading The Stand by Stephen King, which is really a huge book and these kids were asking me why I am reading a novel when I knew exams where happening in two weeks and I said because I’m going to write a novel someday. And they started laughing and it was kind of like a challenge, and I started writing to prove to them that I can actually write.
From that time until now, I don’t remember a time where I was not writing, or at least trying to write, every single day. Every time when I am walking or in a bus or in a meeting, I am daydreaming stories. It has become a part of me, it’s some form of madness, maybe because I think a lot about things that don’t exists and people who don’t exist.
Gaamangwe: I totally understand. What kind of themes within speculative fiction are you mostly fascinated with?
Dilman: I think I am not drawn to anything in particular, the only thing that I have never written is time-travel. I don’t like time-travel and superhero stories. Although I will enjoy a time-travel story more than I will enjoy a superhero story. The way that they tell superhero stories of late is predictable.
I do think that there is a lot of social justice in my work. Once I thought of myself as an activist. It’s not about good versus evil but it’s about being decent to other human beings and respecting others.
Gaamangwe: Speculative fiction is not everyone’s cup of tea, do people relate and see the power in your stories?
Dilman: I will use my first feature film, The Felistas Fable, a fairytale fantasy as an example. It’s like beauty and the beast but in this case the beast was a woman and she had a terrible smell. A shaman finds a way to cure her of this smell. When people watch this film they identify with the shaman, even if they are Christian or strongly religious. If I was to use the English words like “witchdoctor” then the evil connotation will come into play, right? So I don’t call my characters ‘witch’. It’s kind of a soft cushion for readers to get into the story because I am aware that readers have biases, some of which are religious. It’s about playing with terminology if its prose, and on film it’s the way that I presented this shaman character.
In my film, the shaman didn’t paint his face and didn’t have a costume that makes him terrifying. He only had a piece of bark cloth, which is associated with traditionalism in Uganda. So somebody watching the film can see that they are watching a traditional healer, but they will not associate them with the evil that Christianity insinuates is there.
Gaamangwe: That’s great. What are your thoughts on African film especially the kind of genre you gravitate towards?
Dilman: It’s really great that a lot of Africans are creating African films. But the problem is a lot of the productions are not high quality storytelling. I am not talking about just the technicalities but I am talking about strong story content. If you look at the comments on my films “What Happened in Room 13”, you will see that people are surprised that it is a story out of Africa. The biggest problem with filmmaking in Africa is that you need the backing of someone in Europe or America to make it internationally. For example, I cannot think of a film that has been produced hundred-percent in sub-Saharan Africa, without any input from producers or grants from Europe or USA, and that has become an international success. There is some kind of bottleneck, so submitting to a festival, there is a bit of politics and a lot of European influenced decision making. It’s just like African economies, it’s very difficult for economies to grow because there is neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism, and I think that translates into film.
I think that it’s changing, especially with YouTube and other online platform. Eventually if internet costs keep going down in Africa it will be easy to make money on films online. Right now I am making a bit of money from my Youtube channel. When I look at the stats most people can afford to watch only 3 minutes, which becomes a bit tricky because now you have to produce a film of only 3 minutes, and that makes it difficult to tell a good story. But if internet costs go down then the market can grow and filmmaking does not need to go the traditional way of producing for festivals and all that. It will be possible for people to also see that there are actually good films produced in Africa.
Did you hear of Wakaliwood? A Ugandan made a film and it is being reported in all the big media outlets like CNN and BBC. At first I liked it until they all started making all these news where they were promoting it saying that this is what Ugandans are making. There were condescending and patronizing, I would not go as far as calling it racist, but they were kind of laughing saying “Oh look, this people are trying to make films”, because why will all this big media feature Wakaliwood and not talk about all the other good films produced in Uganda?
Gaamangwe: That’s terrible and devastating. Because the other issue is that as much as we have good filmmakers who understand that film-making is a craft, and that every single aspect must be accounted for, we also have other people who think that just because they are good at directing or cinematography then they can write scripts, without actually bothering to understand the art of script-writing.
We have people who are really trying, and we have who aren’t trying so much and at the end of the day the poor quality productions are the ones known and then we have a situation where companies and independent investors don’t want to invest in our own productions because they think we are going to make the same poor quality films.
Dilman: That’s what I said to business people who expect to make tons of money from films. There are some TV series in Uganda that are really popular, but then they look more at the money than the craft, and they compromise on the art and storytelling, and so they go from 90 to say -50. It’s just being greedy and short-sighted.
Gaamangwe: I think that a lot of Africans want to look at films that reflect their own experiences so that they can relate and who better to tell our stories than other Africans, right? For example your film “What happened in Room 13” had 6 million views, which is a lot of people. It’s very rare to get that many people watching an African film on Youtube. Its saying people want stories, people relate to our stories.
Tell me about “What happened in room 13”, its creation and the doors it opened for you.
Dilman: So we had a small lodge where I used to work, when I was a student and I used to see this kind of stuff where people sneak in with other people’s wives. It bothered me and perhaps that’s why I am not married right now. Working in such an environment, you can’t trust people and you think marriage is useless, cause the kind of people who come in there are maybe people you thought were very faithful to their husbands. This was in the early 2000’s and when I set out to make films, because I didn’t go to film school, I started to read books online on script-writing and commentaries by other filmmakers. One of them was Roman Polanski and his advice was that if you want to be a good filmmaker, you should make short films without dialogue. It wasn’t the first film I made without dialogue, I wrote two or three, very short, one was one minute and the other was three minute.
So my experience in the lodge stayed in my head. My original idea was to have the film in one place, like everything happens in this one lodge and it doesn’t get out. I wanted to write a detective film where there is a dead body and there is a detective finding clues that will lead him to the murderer, but somehow in the re-writes the detective disappeared and then it just became what you see on YouTube.
Production wise, I would think it’s a student film, because there was a film lab opened in Uganda and I got mentor-ship. So after production only three festivals were interested.
I put it on YouTube and somehow it just got views, I didn’t even promote it. In the beginning of 2014, it has only 200,000 views and so most of the views have come in the last two years. And it has made me more money than I would have ever imagined with this film.
It has encouraged me to make productions targeting online audiences. One of the things I am doing this year is to produce a short film every month. I’ll try to write something as good as What Happened in Room 13. There is one that is already uploaded in December, What Happened to Jilted Hearts, and I am shooting the next one and by the end of this month it will be up. And then every month I will be uploading one short film.
The only thing with online production is you never know what’s going to go. You can put in a lot of money and advertising but nobody watches it. I won’t do advertising because I want it to grow organically. The one I uploaded has like 600 views, which is not bad for a one month upload. It’s actually better than What Happened in Room 13 in its first month and then the views kept on growing. So I am thinking that by the end of the year hopefully, there will be huge viewership.
Gaamangwe: I wish you all the best, I think that you are taking the initiative to make sure that we are growing the film-making industry in Uganda & Africa. It will happen organically. What you put in will come back to you.
Dilman: I hope so, thank you.
Gaamangwe Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.
LINKS TO SOME FILMS
What Happened to Jilted Lovers https://youtu.be/FpU2y1SD-5M
What Happened in Room 13 https://youtu.be/RZnpN86hPzo
Love Makanika https://youtu.be/boKzdd6fcX4
Saving Mugisha https://youtu.be/6lkYP4EZw2A
Untouchable Love https://youtu.be/fQUCl_YlUDg
The Sound of One Leg Dancing https://youtu.be/8Hi6qwU7TaA
A New Prayer https://youtu.be/kVpNKsDOuUM
Muyenga Mansion https://youtu.be/zpBBeic0Yz0
Side Dish https://youtu.be/we_pdjFTtWk
What Happened in His Bedroom https://youtu.be/MFGpIHr5AFQ