Lupita Nyong’o: from Kampala to Hollywood
Publish Date: Feb 23, 2014
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FEBRUARY 22: Actress Lupita Nyong'o accepts the award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture for '12 Years a Slave' onstage during the 45th NAACP Image Awards presented by TV One at Pasadena Civic Auditorium on February 22, 2014 in Pasadena, California.AFP

By Caroline Ariba

She is the new darling of Hollywood, which is all agog with this new chocolate coloured new star on the block. From the red carpet to appearing on magazine covers, the entertainment world cannot get enough of her.

Her big film debut came with the movie 12 Years a Slave, which won her nominations for Best Supporting Actor in, among others, the Gbobe Awards, the BAFTA Awards, and the Oscars.

But before all of that, Lupita came to Kampala and joined the Maisha Film Lab, a film school set up and run by Hollwood director Mira Nair.

Who is Lupita

Born to Dorothy and Peter Anyang' Nyong'o, Lupita’s rise started here in East Africa, where many know her as the bold lady in the HIV’AIDS series Shuga.  Despite this, the international media has portrayed her story as simple; “raised in Kenya and educated in the USA,” end of story. She may be a graduate from the Yale University School of Drama's Acting program in the USA, but she got the initial training right here in East Africa.

Lupita in Uganda

In 2004, a movie academy called Maisha Lab was opened in Kampala, and aimed at giving those interested a chance at grooming their passion, and Lupita Nyong’o was one of such person.

“Her father told me that his daughter wanted to come and train with us and I said it was ok,” Mira Nair said when we met her at her home in Buziga, a Kampala suburb.

Only twenty one years old then, Lupita grasped the chance and came to Uganda in 2005, not to act but to train in production.
“Initially, Lupita came as a production student but someone in Maisha saw her and asked that she act in a movie instead,” Nair says. Mira recalls that Lupita simply stood out, and when she was asked to try out acting, she did not hesitate and took it up with passion. In fact, she describes Lupita’s passion for the movies as a ‘fire in the belly’ which she says every actress ought to harbour if they are going to succeed.

“To do anything in film, you need to be trained, but you also need the fire in your belly, a passion that cannot be ignored,” she explained. “Lupita had focus, drive, passion and above everything else, talent”

Why don’t we have our own Lupita’s

In the same year that Lupita trained at Maisha, an Indian filmmaker, Ritesh Batra, was also there and trained in screenwriting and directing. Then came another big name, only a year later, American Producer, Lydia Dean Pilcher, also co-producer of Mississippi Masala.

Today, all these three have gone ahead to win awards and grow their careers. Another eleven directors have been created from the school, so the question arises, why aren’t we seeing Ugandans take a stroll on the red carpet?

Fibby Kioria the Program director at Maisha argues that the talent in Uganda is suffocated by piracy and poor marketing strategies.

“As one film director once said, sometimes you are driving down town and someone tries to sell you your own movie,” she painfully says.

Gloria Kiconco insists the local population needs to take interest in their own content because that is how the industry will grow.

“In Maisha, we have a slogan that if we do not tell our own stories, no one else will,” she says. However, those that have taken time to tell those stories have been shoved aside for the Nigerian movies and Western movie collection. The question remains, is Uganda wanting of something or is it the fact that our movies are in the local language?

“No! Uganda is perfect, the landscape is perfect! I have worked in street language and it has worked, it just depends on how the movie is made,” Mira stresses. Kioria couldn’t agree more, she says that if other countries are making movies in their local languages and they sell, why can’t Uganda? Uganda according to the Maisha team has an amazing Landscape for movies.

“Period film could be made in Uganda. A few kilometres out of Kampala and you will see that the landscape isn’t tampered with,” she says. By period films, Kioria is talking about those back in the day or century movies that depict moderate urbanization. She insists that many spots in Uganda would be perfect for such scenes.

Could Uganda make it?

Patience Asaba, the Program Administrator at Maisha could not quite hide her pride in finishing a project of her own. “I joined in 2011, I made my first short film called Never lose hope and I feel good about it,” she says.

What would it take to get talent like Asaba’s harnessed to the best of the country’s ability?

“We need a good structure in place. We are in talks with the Uganda Communications Commission to see that it happens,” Mira Nair says. She believes that until such structure exists, success in the industry is but a farfetched dreamed.

“We need film school in this country. You see, we have all these drama competitions in school but that is all, what happens when the child wants to take it on?” she wonders.

How Uganda could benefit from the industry

Mira believes that with more movies shot in Uganda, Uganda’ amazing scenery would be showcased to the world. “The film Industry can fetch the country more revenue in ways it cannot imagine,” she says. She also believes that if countries like Kenya are gunning revenue from the movie industry, why can’t Uganda do the same?

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