Film-makers should always respect the subjects of their stories

When your travel ambitions ‘collide’ with more pressing needs, you cede, sit down and occupy yourself by lazing around. It was while I was thus lazing around during my holiday last December that I chanced upon this captivating story in the film, The Queen of Katwe.

It’s set mainly in Kampala’s slum area, Katwe, which was made famous in the days of Idi Amin Dada. The story is the usual rags-to-riches kind, and lately we’ve seen many a similar offering, say the India-based Slumdog Millionaire, but in a way Katwe so pulled at my heartstrings as no other Cinderella-genre sort of story had done.

It’s not the story line that gets to you, of a slums girl realizing her dream of making it among the chess grandmasters of the world. Nor is it that, if you are an old-timer, you’ll necessarily identify with the Idi Amin era just because you lived in Kampala during his time and partook of “Radio Katwe news”, the rumour mill that was more relied upon than official news.

Personally, it’s when I thought back to other films I’ve seen that were based on reality, and that should have touched me but didn’t, that I saw its real attraction.
The first one was Gorillas in the Mist, a story about famous conservationist Dian Fossey and her life among our very own gorillas. Her death at the hands of a government that should have lionized her for her work but didn’t because it had no direction should surely be touching.

But imagine it. One of the locals, as portrayed in the film, called out to a fellow local: “Aterere! Nũmwũnire?”

On hearing the language spoken, the Kenyan friends I was with laughed me out of the cinema hall!

That was in the 1980s when I lived in Kenya and I’d just explained to some Kenyan friends that the animals they were calling baboons were actually gorillas of Rwanda, where Dian Fossey had lived. The irony was that those portrayed as locals were speaking Kikuyu, one of a number of Kenyan languages. It still shames me to recall.

Then there was Hotel Rwanda. The story was going according to the reality of what took place inside Hôtel des Mille Collines – minus the hoax of a hero it was based on, who had duped the film’s producers – until the scene moved to a taxi park, supposedly downtown Kigali.

Instead of the familiar ‘Twegerane’ (Kigali’s minibus commuter-taxis) with their green dotted-line bands of the time, the minibuses were spotting unbroken yellow bands. That and the language spoken in the crowd betrayed the fact that the scene had been taken in South Africa.

Combined with the fake on whom the story is based, a fake who had actually used the chance of managing the hotel to collaborate with the génocidaires in their gory enterprise, you can imagine what the film did, and still does, to the feelings of the survivors of that hell.

A weighty subject like the Genocide against the Tutsi, a vile occurrence of the century, treated so casually? What’s the essence of film making if it’s not that it should be faithful to its subject?

We know that these American and European film companies are flush with funds. And we have seen how they are ready to deploy them to get the facts behind their stories. Why do they sometimes entertain this amateurish oversight, if at all it’s an oversight?

In The Queen of Katwe, what is truly delightful is the way life in Kampala and the exact conditions the hero of the story lived in are captured and shown to a minute but correct detail.

You see Nakivubo Channel with its dirt-choked waters; sufurias packed beyond their rims with banana-leaf-wrapped matoke; humanity swarming around minibus-taxis that so easily ‘dig’ a route through and around them; et al. You lose yourself in the life of the area if you’ve been there or, if you haven’t, instantly recognize it when later you visit.

But what’s most convincing about a story probably are the people who tell it; their common mannerisms and their language.

And so in Kampala, where Luganda dominates other local languages, in the film you hear that language often or hear it mixed with their English, which is invariably peppered with that unique Ugandan accent that the actors convincingly affect. In fact, even their common mistakes in English are not ignored and so where a team beats another, you hear: “We won them!”

So, here in Rwanda, why don’t we demand an apology, in the form of remakes, over our vulgarized and abused stories? Is it impossible to get legal redress?

But then again, the way I see it is that there may be complications if, for instance, the producers of the two films were to ask for our assistance in the realisation of remakes. Where, in this Rwanda of today, can you get the primitive conditions of those days?

Still, the way respect has been accorded Queen of Katwe should inspire us to demand justice for Gorillas in the Mist. But as for Hotel Rwanda, may it go the way of those brute times!

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