How Ugandan Musician Bobi Wine Fights Tyranny With Love
Documentary “Bobi Wine: The People’s President” centers on a man’s pursuit of freedom and justice for his country, but at its heart is a love story. The film, which was acquired by National Geographic following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, screens this week at Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, where Wine is a guest.
The film, directed by Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo, and produced by Sharp and Oscar-winner John Battsek, follows the attempt by musician Bobi Wine to topple the repressive regime of Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni.
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Sharp has a personal connection to Uganda: both his father and he were born there, and he spent a large part of his childhood in the country. He met Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, in 2017, just after the musician had become a Member of Parliament.
“I was just bowled over by him: his optimism, his determination, his bravery. And then, his amazing wife, Barbie… I just felt like I’d never met anyone like them before,” he says. “I spent time with him and Barbie, and said: ‘We’ve just got to make a film about you guys.’”
Sharp started the project with a British cameraman, Sam Benstead, who decided to quit after a short period of time, and Benstead was replaced by an Italian cameraman, Michele Sibiloni, who also stood down. Finally, Sharp was introduced to Bwayo, who stuck with the task to the end, at great personal cost to himself. Bwayo says of his predecessors: “Because of the regime and how far they go with the torture and intimidation, because of some of these issues, those guys couldn’t carry on with the project.”
“Bobi and Barbie just gave us complete access,” Sharp says. “There was literally nothing they didn’t let us film. We shot thousands of hours of footage, and then spent two years in the cutting room trying to work out what film we were going to make.”
The film follows Wine as he steps up his campaigning against Museveni, culminating in his bid for the presidency itself in the election held in January 2021. Along the way, he and his supporters in his National Unity Platform party, part of what Wine dubbed the “People Power” movement, were subjected to repeated detentions and assaults. A crackdown by the police and army on anti-government protests resulted in scores of deaths.
Central to the film’s story is Wine’s relationship with his wife Barbie, and their children. “We obviously wanted to give Barbie and the children as much space as possible. We didn’t want it just to be a sort of political drama about another despot. We wanted it to be much more personal,” Sharp says.
This decision meant that the documentary was less hard-hitting than it could have been.
“When Bobi saw the film, he said: ‘You made it not look that bad. There’s so little violence in it,’ ” Sharp says. “We filmed people who’d had their fingers chopped off, tongues chopped off, eyes gouged out, beaten. And in the end, we took a decision to really tell the story through Bobi and Barbie and those people around them. We thought that’d be more impactful, but it doesn’t do anything to show just how brutal [the regime is] and how so many bad things happen to a lot of people around [Bobi and Barbie].”
Sharp pays tribute to Bwayo, who he says was “incredible” and “put himself in a lot of danger.” But Bwayo prefers to express his gratitude for the opportunity to tell this story. “It’s been quite a journey, and I must say, it’s been a blessing being part of this because I believe Bobi Wine and the People Power movement came at a time where Uganda needed a voice like his,” he says. “Bobi Wine really appeals to the largest portion of our population, which is the youth.” More than 77% of the Ugandan population is under the age of 30.
He adds: “The population [overall] has been oppressed for a long time. They felt like they had no voice or place in politics; [the country is] economically divided, right now. They feel like, yes, he speaks for them, and stands up for them.”
Although Bwayo feels an affinity for Wine and his wife – “I got to learn that, yes, this is actually a story worth telling, and fell in love with Bobi and Barbie, and their story,” he says – he’s kept a distance from the campaign itself, although that hasn’t saved him from paying a price for his association with them.
“From the start, of course, it was a very conscious decision not to become an activist myself, or become a story myself,” he says. “But that said, actually, the stuff has happened to me myself. I mean, I’m in Los Angeles right now. I can’t live in Uganda anymore because of this film. Not in a bad way. I appreciate the fact I am part of this film, and it’s a sacrifice, and a very conscious decision that I made. Because change doesn’t come easy. There have to be sacrifices and to be honest, if you want to be a vehicle [for change], if you want to be involved in change… of course, you cannot be reckless, but you have to put your life at stake or [put yourself] in these situations to effect change in places like Africa and Uganda.”
The explicit threats to Bwayo were “multiple,” he says, but he’s also been physically attacked and detained. He and his wife are in the process of applying for asylum in the U.S. “We couldn’t live in Uganda anymore. I’ve been shot in the face; I’ve been arrested; I’ve been locked up for a couple of days. I’ve been followed, intimidated.”
However, he considers himself lucky because no footage was released until the premiere. “Luckily, when we were making this film, we hadn’t put out anything [online or on television]. So, this really kept me safe, because the regime didn’t see anything really out.”
However, “safe” in Uganda is a relative term. He adds: “Journalists, and anyone in Uganda who works to expose the regime, you’re a threat directly to the establishment.” As such, they are subject to intimidation and attacks. “I mean, I myself was shot in the face. If it wasn’t for the camera I was holding in front of me, I probably would have lost my eye. Just right here [he points to a scar]. My jaw would be shattered, or … I don’t know.” He was shot on Nov. 6, 2020, and was arrested around the end of February, beginning of March 2020, he adds. “Moses and Bobi and all those guys are just off the scale brave,” Sharp says.
Bwayo says he had the chance to quit the project but chose to continue. “More and more, I recognized that as a Ugandan I needed to say something, and I needed to be part of this time. Bobi represents a revolution, right?”
He refers to the “lawlessness of the state” and the willingness of the military to shoot people who dare to protest on the street, as they did when Wine was arrested on Nov. 18, 2019. “People lost their lives, [including] women, children, people who were not actually on the streets protesting. So, the repression really it’s at a point where you choose to either… it’s do or die, you know?”
Bwayo took great care to get the footage out of the country, sending a drive to Sharp every couple of weeks via friends. “I would have multiple [memory] cards while filming, and I’d keep them in places where they will not find them. And at the beginning I never kept the footage with me. I’d give it to other people, and people were travelling to get it to Chris. And the internet in Uganda is terrible, so it was very hard to send it through the internet. There was intimidation as well, so even people I knew were avoiding me, so there were very few people in my circles that you could trust.”
Sharp was traveling in and out of Uganda himself, and handled all the filming outside the country, including Wine’s trips to Paris, Berlin and New York.
As mentioned earlier, at the heart of the film is the love story between Wine and his wife, but that wasn’t the plan at the start of filming. “It came out of the cutting room to be honest. We really didn’t want to do just a political struggle: this kind of brave guy going up against the dictator,” Sharp says. “And when we started going through the rushes and organizing them, we realized the more interesting story was their love story, and seeing the pain through them, rather than showing people who’ve had their fingers cut off. And it just felt so much more poignant. The big aim for me and Moses is that we just want people to realize what really goes on.”
In January 2021, the Ugandan electoral officials declared Museveni as the winner of the presidential contest with 59% of the vote, and Wine with 35%, although Wine alleges widespread voting fraud took place.
Sharp also alleges that the election was fraudulent. “The Americans weren’t able to send monitors, nor were the European Union. All the journalists turned up. They said: ‘This is fraudulent. This guy’s been robbed, the people of Uganda have been robbed,’” he says.
The response from Western leaders to the repression has been muted, and the U.S. and the European Union continue to give millions of dollars to the Ugandan government in aid. Where that money ends up is a moot point. The fact that Museveni has sent thousands of troops to Somalia has positioned him as a potential ally for the West in the region, which may influence how seriously they challenge his brutal behavior at home.
The army is the key to Museveni’s grip on power, Bwayo says. “The military is like a tool for [Museveni] to protect himself against the people, and the longer he entrenches himself in power, the longer he will become a problem for the region, for the world itself,” he says.
“So I hope that people will see that this government is not one to be trusted. For a long time, he’s been saying things and promising things that do not happen. Uganda is not a democracy. It’s a fake democracy. They organize elections, not for elections to happen, but just to show the world that there is a democracy, but it’s nothing like that.”
“Bobi feels the West has let him down because he is for democracy, doing everything straight,” Sharp says. “And he really thought that the West would get behind him. And they didn’t. He’s an optimistic guy, so he picks himself up. But it was a massive disappointment for [Bobi and Barbie], because he thought that people actually would be pleased to have a democratic process, and he thought it would matter. And it didn’t, and it was hard for him.”
He adds: “When Bobi saw the film, he said: ‘You’ve made it so sad.’ [I replied:] ‘Bobi, it is sad. You won the election, and you were robbed. All of your friends were locked up in military detention for six months. Loads of your friends died, suffered, and it is sad. We can’t spin it any other way. We’ve just got to tell it as it is. You’re left standing and you carry on, but we can’t make it a happy ending, because it’s not a happy ending.”
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