Dilman Dila is a fi lm maker with several documentaries and fiction films to his name. He is completing final touches on the Felistas Fable, but what drives him? Rowan Emslie found out
When it comes to culture, there are certain terms that should set off alarm bells. Any reference to a ‘movement’, especially an artistic, is almost certainly a retrospective labeling of a group of disparate people who may or may not even have known each other. What is worse is that the people who package sets of creators into one easily digestible whole are more often outsiders who need to sell a story.
For some people, though, the story is what matters – before themselves and their bank balance, they desire simply to do justice to the narrative they have to work with.
Last month, I spoke to Dilman Dila, a 34 year old Ugandan filmmaker and general creative type, about what he does, what he wants to do and why. He runs a small independent production company called DiLStories, which was founded in 2008.
Initially, most of their work was done in Nepal, where they focused on showing very small non-fi ction stories that had wide-reaching themes and implications: inter-caste marriages, the lot of people with disabilities in an intolerant society, the way in which disabled women in particular suffered more than their male counterparts.
Now based in Uganda, Dila has set his stall high. “We aim at making Ugandans fall in love with Ugandan films, to build an audience within Uganda, a market for the industry so that we stop relying on funds from Europe and America, and instead encourage local producers to invest in fi lms.”
Honing his craft
Dila landed himself in Nepal in 2009 after receiving funding from Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO). While there, he raised money for his projects from anyone and everyone – civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations, private investors, fi lm festivals and broadcasters – in an attempt to get his work out there.
He stayed in Nepal for two years, honing his craft, before he felt that the next stories he wanted to package and send out into the world were explicitly African in makeup, even if they come from a shared perspective that informed his earlier work.
“When making documentaries, we target the oppressed, the minorities, we speak about things that everyone takes for granted yet are hurting the society. Take the next feature documentary we are planning to make – called The Bush Healer. It will feature a traditional healer, and the drama of providing healthcare to rural Africa. We shall be asking a basic question: why is it that we force ourselves to stick to Western medicine yet we have solutions in our own backyard?
Now the traditional healer has been regarded as ‘backward’ and sometimes are called ‘witchdoctors’ and ‘fake’. This documentary we plan to make will aim at painting a different picture of them, showing the world that they are effective and professional. And that before colonialism, we had a functioning health system”
The product is not all documentary based, however. “Stories are stories, whether told in fiction or in documentary. We love documentaries because of their innocence and honesty. We love fictions because you can do anything with them to manipulate a public. Note that by documentary here, we mean creative documentaries, not the NGO funded crap that is considered documentary in Uganda or East Africa.”
Finding his space
It was at this point in our conversation that I found myself starting to fall into the lazy ways of ‘culture’ reportage. Do you want to be an art house director? Are you more influenced by Nollywood or Hollywood? How do you fi t into the ‘Ugandan film industry’?
So many labels, so little time. Dila’s response to these questions was important, not just for his answer, but also for his rejection of creating an easy story for me to sell on. The easiest stories, the ones with the largest and most persistent audiences, are the ones in which we know what is happening almost before it happens.
At the end of a long day, even the most haughty of intellectuals is bound to flick to something mindless and entertaining rather than the latest avant garde offering.
It is human nature: we choose the easy option. How does Dila propose to find an audience for his challenging documentaries, particularly within Uganda itself, where any kind of domestic film making tends to be marginalised by the huge production costs and advertising campaigns of Hollywood?
“If you are familiar with folk stories, you will know they were meant to entertain and to teach. That is what we believe we are doing here. Our stories are very entertaining, yet they show you a world you have never seen before, and without preaching into your face, teach you a thing or two. “Of course we shall tackle topics that are eating society at that moment, such as AIDS, domestic violence and defilement. But these, rather than be in your face, will be subtext. If there is a social problem that everyone ignores, we shall talk about it.”
Keeping it real
Laudable as such an approach is, it is also quite likely to get you into some issues, particularly if you are arranging to fund your outputs from a large variety of different sources. Donors tend to want a particular type of outcome from their investment. Taking on certain hot topics, homosexuality in Uganda being especially warm at the moment, will undoubtedly attract certain types of funders and ostracise others. Do funders ask that their money not be used on films about certain topics?
“Some do. Most do not. For example, now we are working on a short story, commissioned by a British organisation. They look at our script, and tell us, build on this idea, we like this idea better, so in the end it is really our story, only that they have told us which area to focus on.
So at the end of the day, the funders respond to the kind of stories we have. Either they like it and ask us to make improvements to suit their interests, or they do not. We have never been in a situation where the funder comes to us with a story and tells us to make it.” It would be a better thing all around if an honest, earnest storyteller like Dila never has to compromise on his vision.
If he continues to work his own furrow, uninterrupted, that might actually say something about the state of the Ugandan film industry as a whole, after all.n Filming a scene from the Felistas Fable Dila’s _ lm|
First published in Discovery Magazine (Sunday Vision) June 24, 2012: Vision Group Resource Centre