The line between empathy and topical colonialism can be a difficult one for a documentary filmmaker to walk.
It’s the difference between “In this specific story, I see elements of my own truth” and “This story is just a placeholder for something else that will be immediately visible to most viewers.”
Bobi Wine: Ghetto President
The Bottom Line
Structurally inconsistent, but consistently potent.
Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo’s Bobi Wine: Ghetto President doesn’t lack for global relevance and, like Daniel Roher’s superficially similar Navalny, it gains potency from the ability to view its chaotic and harrowing political narrative through an American prism. But the connections viewers will want to make aren’t being imposed by the directors. Ghetto Presidentt is a Ugandan story, Sharp and Bwayo keep the focus within Uganda and on its main character, and the film benefits from not forcing artificial universality on a story that comes from it authentically. I had quibbles about the consistency of the documentary’s narrative approach — but not its bracing message about the challenges of political idealism and the wide-ranging consequences of democracy in peril.
Yoweri Museveni ascended to the presidency of Uganda in 1986 and, given that his predecessors included Idi Amin, it’s no wonder that his ascension was greeted with optimism. But 35 years later, he’s still president, having eliminated term limits and a constitutionally mandated age limit and having been at the center of several waves of humanitarian outrage.
Better known for his “Bobi Wine” alter ego, Robert Kyagulanyi was raised in the rough Kamwokya neighborhood of Kampala and he became one of the country’s best-known musicians. He parlayed that success into a run for parliament in 2017 and then a run for president, where his status as a rising populist force made him a threat to the establishment.
The Navalny documentary treated Alexei Navalny as primarily an oppositional political figure, one more driven to be a tool of change than an agent of a progressive ideology. Sharp and Bwayo mostly do the same, although through Bobi Wine’s music it’s easy to see certain aspects of a grassroots political plan. Roher was at least able to directly confront Navalny about several points, including some of the unfortunate alliances he had to make in order to become Putin’s chief enemy. But whereas the filmmaker’s presence is distinctly felt throughout NavalnySharp and Bwayo take a more observational approach, except for when they perplexingly choose not to.
The strategy in Ghetto President is to have the cameras — Bwayo is joined by Sam Benstead and Michele Sibiloni in contributing the intimate and harrowing photography — embedded with Wine over the course of seven years, but generally unremarked upon. The camera is generally just present, sometimes in the corner of his house or the passenger seat of a campaign vehicle or out in the streets as Wine meets with his adoring public. They capture the chaos and cacophony, but also the warmth, of Kamwokya and Kampala and convey the relationship Wine has with the people who are part constituents and part customer base.
There’s an inconsistency, though, to the camera’s presence.
Sometimes it’s completely logical. Bobi Wine is being arrested with horrifying frequency and if the documentary makes it generally unclear what he’s being charged with (or not being charged with) at any given point, it’s equally unclear to him and to his loved ones. You know why Yoweri Museveni and his junta aren’t allowing a group of documentary filmmakers into a military prison.
But then there are other gaps that are stranger, weeks or months or possibly years that pass with only an on-screen chyron. Bobi Wine: Ghetto President gives the impression that there are as many stories in the parts of the timeline we aren’t seeing as there are in the film itself. One need only google Bwayo’s name to know that the production of this documentary was an adventure.
I get why the directors didn’t want to make themselves into subjects. Again, it’s Bobi Wine’s story and the story of his country. But Sharp and Bwayo erratically break their own observational rules. Early on, for example, there’s exactly one direct-to-camera interview with Wine’s wife Barbara, an equal partner spouse who seems like she will be a key part of the documentary’s story, but mostly isn’t. Later, there’s a single direct-to-camera interview with another opposition political candidate, giving a little context that the filmmakers couldn’t insert otherwise, but representing a jarring deviation from form. There’s no explanation for why, at certain times, the directors had a level of access to Bobi Wine’s entire family that feels astonishing — like a dinner table meeting where the kids are told they’re briefly being sent to America for their safety — and then almost none at all.
These are, as I said, quibbles. Bobi Wine: Ghetto President keeps its eyes most clearly on its dual heroes of Wine and the general concept of democratic action, even taking pains to make sure viewers understand that even if Yoweri Museveni is the villain of this tale, he was once portrayed as a hero. It’s an ambivalence that’s reflected in Wine’s and the documentary’s primary call to action, which involves urging the Western world to remain vigilant in observing what’s happening in Uganda for the benefit of Uganda. But if the message is always lurking that we need to keep an eye on our own democratic virtues? That’s just an added benefit.
Check the latest Hollywood news here.