Bobi Wine: Ghetto President Review

I am a huge fan of many styles of pop music from the African continent but I have to admit that I had never heard of Bobi Wine prior to this documentary …

Despite my love of dissecting various types of film and connecting with friends to assess the deeper meanings and the filmmaker’s intentions, there is one genre where I believe such observations to be almost immaterial and this is in viewing the observational documentary. This type of film is not as frivolous as art tends to be, particularly when it addresses issues of life, death and democracy that currently affect a nation and its people, as is the case here. This is something far more important. It is essentially an extended news feature and is made for our information, not to marvel or criticise the use of colour, cinematography, etc. as I would normally do proceeding a night at the movies. It seems that the filmmakers would have made this at some considerable risk to themselves.

Directed by Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp, Bobi Wine takes us along for the tumultuous journey of the titular Ugandan opposition leader and his National Unity Platform (NUP) party in Kampala, as he campaigns for change in the country and attempts to depose tyrannical president Museveni.

I am a huge fan of many styles of pop music from the African continent but I have to admit that I had never heard of Bobi Wine prior to this documentary. A statement at the start of the film declares him one of Africa’s most successful pop stars. We learn as the film proceeds that Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, to use his real name, is also an actor and most apt here, an activist.

Continuing the theme of huge holes in my knowledge, ashamedly, I was pretty ignorant about the history of Uganda, its current plight and recent political struggles. Unfortunately, stories like that of President Yoweri Museveni are all too common on the continent, having been in power since 1986 and appearing not to want to part with the position, even changing the constitution during the course of the filming so that he could stand for election past his 80th year.

My immediate thought when I heard that he was a pop star running for president was, what qualifies him? One begs the question, is this the power of celebrity gone too far or is he someone that actually wants to impart real change? It reminded me of Wyclef Jean filing himself as a candidate for the presidency, ultimately unsuccessfully, in Haiti in 2010 and more recently, friend to Fox News and White Lives Matter campaigner, Kanye West in 2020. As I continued my internal conversation, I pondered the other side of the argument and thought to myself, this rough around the edges, essentially Ugandan mandem, is a refreshingly real politician. When I think of here at home in the UK, someone like this is probably exactly the type of person needed to shake up the establishment and to break up the Eton mess.

Wine’s relationship with his partner, Barbara, who he met at university and her subsequent influence on him seems to be a big part of sending him on this trajectory. He describes himself as “ragamuffin” when she met him and the suggestion is that she may potentially have been the spark that set him off on the journey to becoming the Ghetto President.

Bobby Wine

Undoubtedly the picture painted of Uganda and its current situation is a depressing state of affairs throughout but some of the most poignant and emotive parts for me were where the focus was on Wine’s children. Seeing his daughter composing a letter to him after he has been detained in a military barracks without any idea when or if he will be set free was very moving. At another point in the film, they have to fly the children to America to stay with an aunt because remaining in Uganda becomes untenable when Wine’s life is repeatedly put at risk by Museveni’s government. I personally would have liked to see more of a focus on this aspect, their life and the impact of all this on his wife and children because that is something that the average person can relate to.

President Museveni is essentially the villain of this story and I would also have liked to learn more about him in this film. He uses the state apparatus, namely the army, the police and the judicial system to bully Wine and his supporters throughout the filming with no hint of remorse. He barely features in the film, save for a few clips from media interviews and there is some allusion to the fact that he started his leadership with noble intentions and gradually became corrupted by the position. Wine himself says in the film that he would have loved to have a face-to-face conversation with Museveni, being that they began from similar backgrounds and with similar aspirations. I feel that an exploration of Museveni’s fall into the dark side could have made for rich and compelling storytelling.

Seeing dead black bodies following military and police raids on the communities and others supporting Wine left me feeling conflicted. In Western media, white bodies under similar circumstances are either blurred out or left unseen and are given a certain level of respect and humanity. Almost the opposite treatment is given to black bodies, particularly when the focus is on places considered “Third World”. Then there is the side of me that says, let us not make this comfortable for the viewer and make it as real and raw as possible as this is what the Ugandans are facing, literally.

It’s not completely doom and gloom and there are moments that we get to see Wine smile when he has the opportunity to focus on things other than politics (at least not directly), such as when he is making music. When we arrive at the time the coronavirus reaches Uganda in March 2020, Bobi comes up with a far better way to say the words symptom (“sim-po-tom”) and quarantine (“kwaran-tyne”) in a new song, which I proceeded to add to my lexicon and will be replacing for the originals from this day forward.

Despite this, Wine looks physically tired by the end of the filming, not least because he has been beaten, arrested, blocked, and his home and offices invaded by the time we are at the closing. His trademark swagger is still there but with maybe less spiritedness, unsurprisingly. He is exhausted, although not defeated.

One of the great benefits of stories like this being featured in high-profile festivals like the London Film Festival is that we catch almost no whiff of them in the mainstream media, so it is an opportunity to bring them to the fore. This has in fact spurred me to look more into the legacy of the country and learn more about the continent and its politics generally. My earlier concerns about his qualification for such a station were a distant memory by the end of the film and I was absolutely rooting for him. Wine clearly loves his country. My concern now is for Wine and his family because, as we have seen so often in history, those who stand up to powerful people sometimes end up as martyrs.


SUMMARY

A Ugandan musician runs for presidency of the country to depose a dictatorial leader, all at risk to his family, friends and supporters.

OUT OF 100

Directing
80 %
Sound Quality
75 %
For the Culture
90 %
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