Film as a Voice for the Voiceless: A Dialogue with Eleanor Nabwiso
Eleanor Nabwiso is a Ugandan actress, film producer, director and script writer. She has done a number of theatrical plays, short films, feature films, series, documentaries and infomercials. Her work has been recognised by the Uganda Film Festival, where her film, Bed of Thorns, won Best Script/Screenplay, London ArtHouse Film Festival in 2019 where the same film won Best Women’s Rights Film, Festicab International Film Festival 2017 where she was awarded Best Actress in her movie Rain, Pearl of Africa International Film Festival 2017 as the Producer of Best Feature Film and Nuren Film Festival 2017 where she scooped the award for Best Film in Africa and Middle East. She has also been nominated for many other awards. Her other works include: Sanyu TV series (2021), Heartbeat (2020), Prickly Roses (2020), Speak Up TV series (2019), Live Your Dream TV series (2018) and Hashtag Family TV series (2017).
Eleanor was a judge in the 2021 Dona i Cinema International Film Festival, a Program and Events Producer in the 2019 Euro East Africa Film Festival and a Coordinator at the American Film Showcase Workshop in 2019. She is one of the directors of Nabwiso Films Production Company. Her work seeks to entertain, educate and spread awareness about societal issues with the vision of changing people’s lives through film.
BY CHARITY NGABIRANO
This conversation took place in Kampala during chilly and uncertain days as we waited to confirm rumours of a pending lockdown.
Charity: Hi Eleanor. Let me start by asking you, how are you, and how have you been coping as a filmmaker and storyteller in this age of social distancing? Tell me your story.
Eleanor: Hi Charity. I am okay, how are you? Well, I have been coping great as a filmmaker. Visual art has been embraced a lot more since the Covid-19 outbreak. Since there are no more opportunities for huge crowds to gather for communications, awareness campaigns or big feasts, we have been able to deliver video and audio work for both individuals and organizations to reach out to many people and communities. As a storyteller, there is always a lot for me to talk about and it only gets better with different scenarios in my everyday life and on social media of course.
Charity: Wow, this is great. In this time when we don’t know how the next day is going to play out, and the fact that gatherings are out of the question, surely social media is a constant saviour. So, as a graduate of Science in Information Technology, how exactly did you end up in filmmaking? Is this something you had always wanted to do, childhood dreams, you know? How did it all start?
Eleanor: Well, I wanted to study something that I would need throughout life, and technology is part of us every day. It so happens that my parents are both very highly educated; My dad holds a PhD and my mom a Masters, so there was no way I wasn’t going to graduate (laughs). My mom always told me, “No matter what you do, you need something to fall back on. You can get a job whenever you feel like with your degree papers than if you have nothing because you dropped out of school.” So I chose Science in Information Technology for a wider spec. And I am glad I did because now I run a company and IT is part of my everyday life.
How I ended up in film, it’s always been a part of me since childhood and the degree was just to hold me as a fall back plan. I was always that girl raising her hand to act in school stage plays. I remember being picked as a sheep in the Jesus stage play in primary five. I was so excited, but I wanted more. I kept raising my hand every year to get an opportunity to act in the plays every third term towards Christmas. I then was picked as one of the wise men in primary five and I was totally happy. The best part was when I got selected to play Mary, eh, I felt like I had made it in life (laughs). When I joined high school; I was still a part of other school major plays and music festivals. I then competed for Miss Interact (school beauty queen) and got the crown. This took me on for the rest of my high school, I was part of so many music and sports festivals. I was even one of the school’s best swimmers and won best breast swimmer for my school house once. But generally, what I can say is that stage and film have been with me all through.
Charity: And mom is right! Life is about trying out this and that. Your parents surely did their best in grooming you for this unpredictable world. You see, I was also trained as a lawyer, got my papers and put them aside. Now I am doing what I love—writing, and talking to amazing people like you. I guess I’d also safely say my suits and heels and law books are my fall back plan, just in case things go sideways this side. It really feels good to finally take the route you love.
Congratulations Eleanor, on your latest production, Sanyu the series. It has taken Uganda by storm and quickly become a household name. The other Sunday I was visiting my aunt and after lunch I noticed everyone was running to get themselves ready for this Sanyu series. Like the whole house was glued to the television set and it was easy to see that they had been following for a long time, for they knew the storyline by heart. What is the story in Sanyu?
“With the freedom of expression and speech through film, I believe Nabwiso Films is a voice for the voiceless. We will continue to entertain and educate a lot more.“
Eleanor: Thank you so much. We are glad and totally grateful and happy that the series has been embraced by so many across Africa. We give God all the glory and a special Thank you to MultiChoice for believing in us and Uganda.
The story is about a young girl who has a stepmother that selfishly makes her sign a contract to work as a maid, putting her dream of being a fashion designer away. Luckily for her, as fate would have it, the youngest boy of the rich family she works for falls in love with her. The story unfolds with many events as she also gets a job as a fashion designer in their fashion organisation, which changes her life. The story has a lot of drama, and the plot will not only have you rushing home before 8pm but will keep you glued to the story. You won’t want to miss a day of it!
Charity: Such an interesting story! I’ve seen people schedule their days to make sure they don’t miss the show. Stepmothers have continued to sabotage people’s lives but somehow along the way, things work out for our heroes. Of course step-parenting can be work too, especially where the child and society refuse to accept her as ‘mom’. Mothering, regardless of the way in which you got that child, is not an easy paper. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi in her latest novel, The First Woman, explores the absurdity of life when women attack each other over a stepchild that was brought about by “their” man. Ideally, it is the man that wronged them both. But how the anger shifts to the child and her mother, only God knows. This topic is on many people’s lips and it is no surprise your series has become a hit.
Also, I am glad you highlight the fact that no matter what we go through in life, our dreams are still valid. Very encouraging. I understand you started shooting this show during lockdown. How were you able to navigate these tricky days, a time when there was so much fear and tension in the country and worldwide, not forgetting the restrictions on movements and all?
Eleanor: Well, we started with permission to film and ensured that all procedures as laid out by WHO were always observed. But, I cannot deny that it was tricky especially during the curfew days. Some people on the team lived far from the place we were shooting from so we had to devise means of balancing it. In the end, we decided to have some people stay at the venue. Also, we had to buy vitamin C tablets and keep giving them to the people on set. We also had some ginger and lemon hot water every day. Most importantly though, we are glad that the cast and crew have a huge passion for film and loved every bit working on this project. Together we were able to support each other and deliver the best.
Charity: It is always a whole lot easier when you work with people who love what they do. Passion is one thing and working to pay bills is another. You’re lucky to have such a strong team. I am very happy to hear that you were strictly observing the standard operating procedures. This pandemic has changed the way we do things but we don’t have to let it stall our paths. Your story gives me a picture of a very busy career woman. How are you able to balance work and family? Many times women are pushed to sacrifice their lives for their loved ones’ family. The common narrative goes that working women don’t make good wives. Is this so?
Eleanor: We sure are lucky and really glad to have had such a team. I am also glad they reached out and turned up for auditions.
As for balancing work and family, I am a mother first, then a wife and lastly a career woman. I balance all this to my best. I have a daily timetable for our home and I make sure I’m home in time before the children sleep. I believe so much in talking to children. I have a turn for all of them to tell me about their day. Since my husband and I work together, we try to take turns to have days off for the children. Some days that are not so busy, we have them join us on our film sets. Women should not sacrifice their lives for their loved ones. A full support system is what they need to secure their little ones’ future as well as be able to spread love.
Charity: Uganda’s film industry has for a long time been dominated by men. I have seen women come up and start out with strong visions of changing lives in communities but their dreams are short lived because of the patriarchy that borders all corners of the game. Men consider it weak to take instructions from a woman. So I imagine you have men on your cast and you have to tell them to do this and that. Eleanor, what magic have you used to stay afloat?
Eleanor: It’s not the case anymore, jobs are no longer descriptive according to sex. It’s an era where women choose what to do and being a woman in film is a huge part of my life. I believe we need more women in film because of our creativity and the ability to multitask. I’m glad I am not considered weak, because I have worked so hard to get to this point in the film industry. Women need to work and research a lot to add to their craft that way if you know what you are doing and do it well you can’t be demeaned by men in the same industry because good work speaks for itself! I am also glad to say the men in Uganda’s film industry are very supportive of the women in the industry and are very cooperative and will let you lead and listen to you if you are leading the project. My magic (laughs), I must say, is the fact that I study hard to improve my craft so that I am able to do what a man can do in the film industry. At the end of the day, we are even! I also believe in protocol being observed on a film set so everyone in their positions gets the respect they deserve and there is no competition for who speaks first.
Charity: This warms my heart. I have seen women resign from their jobs because their partners are uncomfortable with their schedules. Also, we are mostly attacked by ‘culture’ and ‘the way things should be done’. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a renowned author and feminist, recently shared about her wedding moments on her Facebook page. I read with a big smile her passionate narration of how she decided that for her wedding, she’d have both her parents walk her down the aisle, and she’d have her first dance with her mother, instead of the conventional way that places fathers at the fore. She goes ahead to emphasise that “if convention feels wrong for you, if your skin bristles and your spirit stalls at the thought of doing something ‘the way it is done’ then stop and act. We can unmake convention to make things more just, more complete, more beautiful.”
I’m also intrigued by the fact that you work with your partner. Most times we fear that this will “end in tears” but to see a powerful and well-meaning bond like this one encourages us to “unmake convention.”
Eleanor: That is a very good read. I too believe in unmaking convention. Most times we are held back because of so many beliefs and cultural restrictions. I believe we can all work towards what we love and convince society that “it can be”. About working with my partner, it will not end in tears (laughs), we are very professional at our work. Once we dress up corporate, the husband and wife attire stays in the house until we take off the heels and work shoes. We have learnt not to evade each other’s space. We believe in protocol and don’t ever cross each other’s work space until we get home and that’s when we get to share opinions on how to do it better the next day.
Charity: You have produced a number of documentaries and have worked on fiction films too. Which side are you most inclined to and why?
Eleanor: I am basically inclined to creating change in communities using visual art. We use art to not only entertain but also educate and inform. We believe in creating art that will spark off discussions that will in the end create solutions for change. I wouldn’t say I am most inclined to either side as I believe in speaking to my audience and will produce content considering what my audience needs or prefers. Also putting into consideration what the client wants.
Charity: Sanyu has an interesting story that could easily be linked to a real life story. What inspired you to write it?
Eleanor: Sanyu is a series that most people from all age groups and communities can relate to. As we have our team write the dialogue we drive our inspiration from the “So UG” ways of life and daily speech. This is what makes it seem like a real life story because it is a series that is very audience balanced. Ugandans need this daily dose of entertainment. We are forever grateful to MultiChoice for Pearl Magic Prime for this opportunity to extend local content and talent to far and beyond.
Charity: Let’s talk about your award-winning movie Bed of Thorns (loosely titled Tosirika, to mean don’t keep quiet) which seeks to address the prevailing issue of violence against women. I’m glad you speak about things that we’d otherwise sweep under the carpet. This movie shows a young battered woman that’s trying to keep her marriage intact by keeping quiet about the violence her partner is inflicting on her. As the film progresses, we see that opening up actually saved her life. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. And the fact that it had an all-female cast made it even sweeter. This situation of Covid-19 has even made matters worse. Domestic violence has increased, you know? People have been laid off from their work, poverty is knocking, mood swings are all-over the place, thus violence. This particular movie set out to impact women’s lives, and it succeeded. Eleanor, what else do you think can be done to curb violence against women?
Eleanor: Thank you. I am glad you appreciate the movie, and I am also over the moon that the audience largely embraces this movie. Various organizations have used it to reach so many communities for awareness campaigns. It has won both local and international awards including Best Africa Focus Film in the London ArtHouse Film Festival and Best Screenplay in the Uganda Film Festival.
So much has been done to help curb gender-based violence but we need to start by letting women know that it is okay to speak up about it and that it is not okay to stay in abusive relationships. Most women do not even know they are being abused because they are not aware of the different forms of gender-based violence. I believe more sensitization and awareness should continue to help curb gender-based violence. Above all, let women be each other’s keepers. When you see a fellow woman being abused, act. Report it, because not all women are strong enough to report gender-based violence.
With the freedom of expression and speech through film, I believe Nabwiso Films is a voice for the voiceless. We will continue to entertain and educate a lot more. Apart from Sanyu, we are creating a lot more content for different clients and also working on more entertaining commercial films. As the need for more visual content is rising, we are preparing a lot of content as well. We have a huge demand from our fans and followers and we never take our consumers for granted. We are grateful for the love and feedback. Our fans keep us creating more.
Charity: Speaking of fans, I was at the launch of Imperial Blue, a British-Ugandan production, sometime this month and the numbers were not encouraging. Earlier, there had been reports of piracy on this particular movie. Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has without doubt failed us as a regulator. But the fans are also taking it so far. How do we support the industry if we are not paying for their services?
Eleanor: I know some measures have been put in place for piracy although not at the expected level. The copyright law has to be more enforced. I guess also we as filmmakers have to always learn to document contracts and non-disclosure agreements for all our exchanges with any client or business partner. To have our screenings full to capacity, we need to broaden our marketing and advertising strategy to reach many people. More people knowing will grow your cinema crowd. Also, for now, the best way to support the industry is choosing to use platforms that require payments. Like online platforms, pay television, things like that.
Charity: Oh, one last thing. I noticed the use of Luganda in most of your movies. You drop in hilarious lines away from English. I am truly excited by this because it makes it feel personal. It is like reading Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s books and being able to identify the streets she’s referring to. Sighting local content with some lines of local languages screening on huge platforms gives me unexplainable joy. I don’t want to say Uganda has ‘arrived’, but well, here we are!
Eleanor: Yeah! I am glad too. We need to have identity for our content. It also boosts the numbers watching, loving and embracing the show because it appeals to them. There’s that feel of belonging and attachment you get when you hear someone speaking in a tone, accent and language you are used to. It’s like meeting a Ugandan, more so one speaking the language you identify with most, on the streets of the US; tight hugs and nostalgic moments. It’s also a way of spreading our culture and language across borders. Please allow us to show off in peace!
Charity: The stage is yours sis (laughs). Thank you so much for sharing yourself with us. All the best in those films. Go and blow more trumpets for us. We are watching!
Eleanor: The pleasure is all mine!
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Charity Ngabirano is a Ugandan lawyer and short story writer who is currently freelancing for The Kampala Sun as a columnist. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Law from Makerere University and a Post Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice from The Law Development Centre. She worked with the Centre for African Cultural Excellence as the Project Coordinator for Writivism in its inaugural year, 2013. She lives in Kampala with her husband and their two beautiful daughters as a full-time mother.
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I love acting and I wish to act