Dilman Dila on Filmmaking in Uganda

Host Christopher Merrill talks with Ugandan science fiction writer and filmmaker Dilman Dila about his work in teaching storytelling to filmmakers. They also talk about how his disability propelled him into becoming an artist.

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Dilman Dila Interview Transcript


I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.

Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.

The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from nearly 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Last year, the Program celebrated its fiftieth-year anniversary; visit the fiftieth anniversary website at iwp50.grad.uiowa.edu. To learn more about the International Writing Program, visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.

This episode of Origins features Ugandan writer Dilman Dila.

Dilman DILA (fiction writer, filmmaker; Uganda) is the author of three volumes, The Flying Man of Stone, A Killing in the Sun and Cranes Crest at Sunset, shortlisted for the 2016 Gerald Kraak Award and the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His The Felistas Fable was the Film of the Year at the 2014 Uganda Film Festival; What Happened in Room 13 has had six million views on YouTube; he regularly produces science fiction films for his YouTube channel. He participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

We are recording from the University of Iowa on Thursday, October 26th, 2017. We had the chance to sit down with Dilman, who is here as a participant of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.

MERRILL: Welcome, Dilman.

DILA: Thank you very much.

MERRILL: Your works often fit into the genres of sci-fi or horror and I wonder if you could tell us a little something about your interest in these genres? What draws you to write in these ways?

DILA: I think it came from my childhood. Sometimes I like to think that I did not grow out of my childhood so I still like the things I liked as a child. But as a writer and someone who is interested in themes of social interest, things of human rights, and such things, social justice we could say, I find science fiction and fantasy over like a much broader playing field for me to write about things that happen in my community. It gives you a chance, you know, to play with allegory, metaphors, and things like that. Which, if you were to stick to real life writing, you are kind of constrained and don’t have the freedom to explore human nature to the best of your abilities.

MERRILL: That chimes with something you said in a presentation you gave at the Iowa City Public Library about, “Writing in the Field of Optics.” You said, somewhat to the surprise of the audience, that you believe in spirits. I wonder if, when you’re talking about having a broader field and the freedom to explore issues, I wonder if there’s a connection with Ugandan folklore that inspires your work or inspires the horror and science-fiction work?

DILA: Maybe not just folklore because folklore in Uganda now may not be as strong as it was in the past. But maybe there’s something you can call urban legends, that’s another word for it. But I wouldn’t call them urban legends because people believe in many of these things.

MERRILL: But they’re not just fun, they’re something that has a deep spiritual meaning.

DILA: Yes, and you will find politicians, when they get elected, they won’t enter office until their shaman has come to clean it.

MERRILL: To clean the office? Ah, to rid it of former spirits.

DILA: To rid it of charms and things like that. People’s attachment to the spiritual world is very strong and I think the problem with the modern world is we believe anything we cannot prove with scientific methods, we call it superstition, which may not be the right way to go with it. It may not be the right thing for any society to think of because there are things that I’m not sure science will ever explain, like why we dream and if we are the only species that dreams. Yeah? It may seem something simple and basic, but I don’t know if science will explain that. Or even just, what is consciousness?

MERRILL: Well I think scientists just figured out that dogs dream, so.

DILA:  Ah yeah, that dogs dream.

MERRILL: And if dogs dream, then presumably other mammals dream as well.

DILA: Yes, other mammals, other living things, like trees, do they dream? And the single-celled animals, do they dream?

MERRILL: You wrote in your personal blog that “I think I’m the kind of writer doomed to come up with only autobiographical pieces.” Since we’re talking about things spiritual, what do you mean by being doomed in this sense?

DILA: By being doomed, I mean often the best of my work is something that can be related to something that happened to me. Emotionally, it’s not like I write memoirs, but they all have some emotional imprint from my real life. And sometimes it’s very difficult to go back to these experiences, and it’s sometimes very painful and it sometimes makes you remember things that would best not be remembered. Like I started writing a novel early this year which came from a trauma I suffered as a child because of a disability and other children would laugh at me and say, “If war breaks out here, we’ll run and leave you behind.” So, when I start writing about this child, though I’m not writing anything about me, it still draws up things that I used to experience when I was a kid, and some of them I thought I’d forgotten about them completely. There’s a way it can make an impact on you.

MERRILL: In another setting, you mention that disability is something that perhaps propelled you into the life of an artist. Is that true?

DILA: Yes, I think it did because it is what people nowadays call invisible disability because at first sight, you won’t think I have a disability until maybe you see me limp when I’m really tired. But if I’m in my good moods and I’m like fresh out of bed, you probably won’t notice it. And sometimes people know me for years and haven’t noticed that I have a disability until one time when they see me limping and then they ask, “What’s up today?”

But as a child, it becomes really pronounced because children play a lot of games. They run a lot and you can’t run like others so those around you immediately know that you are not like them. And so if they are selecting a football team within themselves, you get left behind, unless there’s nobody to fill up to the numbers, to the numbers they like. And this kind of trauma, it weighs down on you and I think it forced me to become what you’d call an indoorsy person because I would have to keep indoors all the time, and that forced me to read a lot and eventually to write a lot.

MERRILL: Because the reading propels the writing.

DILA: Yeah, of course.

MERRILL: You were a mentor at Writivism, an organization that focuses on literature produced in Africa. And this organization emphasizes literature not only produced on the continent but then consumed by Africans. Can you tell me what prompted you to work for Writivism and what the experience was like, perhaps if that has shaped your own thinking about writing and filmmaking?

DILA: I think one reason why I volunteered, because it was not working but really volunteering to mentor at Writivism, is because we don’t have a very strong publishing industry in Uganda. Apart from Writivism, I also tried starting a journal, a magazine, that had too much work so we put it on the shelf after a few six issues. But basically, the driving force was to help other writers come up with really good stories and good writing, basically. Because to build an industry, you need a lot of writers putting out a lot of good literature, not just like outside literature coming in. Most local writers focus on textbooks and school materials, NGO related works which are distributed for free and then the readers stop liking local literature. So that was one reason that encouraged me to do that.

I think it changed my writing a bit because the effort I put into writing, or like into even learning the craft, I think I was putting in a lot of effort when I was trying it out. When you mentor some people, you get the feeling that they’re not really that much interested in it. Some people come just because there’s a training to be good, so sometimes it’s a bit frustrating for it. But it kind of opened my eyes that to get really good writers, it’s like a whole commitment, a lifetime commitment.

MERRILL: Of the whole person.

DILA: Yes, of the whole person. Through this, I was able to identify a lot of young writers who are really very interested, and I try to work with them as much as possible. Sometimes like, because I produce films as well, and when there’s like a film or a job to write for a TV series, I’ll ask them to come on board and they get paid and it’s kind of a motivation for them.

MERRILL: Well it also seems to me that you do something of the same thing in your work as a filmmaker, because just as the literary infrastructure in Uganda needs to be built up, some of the same holds for the film industry, is that right?

DILA: That is right, for the film industry as well. And most of the film industry because in practical terms, that’s where a writer can make actual money on the continent. But it suffers a lot because most of the people who end up producing films in their country are not really well-trained, they don’t bother to learn the craft; they want to make a quick buck. And so, what happens is they flood the market with very poor-quality stories and then the audience loses trust in anything branded Ugandan film. So, in my organization I started in partnership with a Dutch organization called Stichting DOEN. We started a film training initiative called The Mobile Film School, which focuses on quality storytelling. We call it mobile because we do not focus on cameras and high-end equipment to make films, we work with whatever technology is available in up-country Uganda, most of the time, not just in the city. So, this has been the first year and it was a bit inspiring to see people who have never made a film before and it’s their first time to handle something. But because they are making it with their phone and not with the proper camera, they are very comfortable and the kind of stories they tell are so…At least, they are much better than anything that is being produced in the market.

MERRILL: I can imagine that they might produce more intimate stories cause they’re so comfortable with their phones.

DILA: Yes. I will give the story of one lady. She got married at a very early age and she has one child. And when she got married, I think her father had died and there was nobody to pay for her school fees. So, she met this man who convinced her to marry him, to get married to him. And then he promised to send her back to school. And then after she had given birth, he told her things that really hurt her and said, “I’m not a charity organization. If you want to go back to school, you have go and find an NGO.” So, she made this film about girls wanting to go back to school, and you know we’ve seen this story so many times, mostly in NGOs making them to push their agendas or to make money. But this is someone who is doing it not because someone had promised money or to raise money for anything, but just because she wanted to share her story. And it was more touching and even the actress who was in the film had also gone through the same experience and she cried like really crying, and she wasn’t even acting when she was saying some of the lines. And those are the kinds of things that we go through when we are there.

MERRILL: In your interview with New Vision, you said that “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 films.” So, building on that story you just told, I wonder if you could tell us what you think is unique about Ugandan film that something that Western films wouldn’t have.

DILA: I think for one, there is less pressure in terms of money and financial resources. People, when they are making films in the West, they have to focus so much on the kind of cameras they are using and also the technical productions become so prohibitive.

MERRILL: Overwhelming.

DILA: Yes, overwhelming. I mean, it’s still a young industry, but I think the good thing about it, which is one thing that made Nollywood popular or famous, is it doesn’t restrict itself with these kinds of money issues and one producer deciding what happens. In some of the productions I have gone through, it’s very much a collaborative issue which sometimes is not a good idea, but sometimes the films come out really, I know, by accident? But if they are trained then they can make really good films, Because it’s collaborative, it’s not one person directing the film. Everybody contributes to the directing and everybody contributes to the story, everybody contributes to everything, practically. It kind of brings out a certain kind of story which is relatable to everybody. I know it may not be a very good thing, but I have seen a few films produced that are very touching, especially to the audiences.

MERRILL: Can you name some titles?

DILA: Um the titles would be in the local-

MERRILL: Oh, the local languages.

DILA: Yeah.

MERRILL: But it sounds like they have learned how to make a virtue out of necessity. I think in the same way, you’ve done that with your online presence, with social media and I wonder with six million views of a film on Youtube, I wonder, do you think that using the online platforms allows you to achieve the goal of the building a Ugandan or an African audience?

DILA: I think it does and I know many people, not only me, who have set up Youtube channels. Most of them, of course, focus on comedy because it’s easier to produce and cheaper to produce. Comedy as in, it’s mostly skits, kind of. And there if you like who are really famous now, there’s an actress, who is still a stage actress, called Anne Kansiime. So, I see the problem with broadcasting in Uganda and the continent is it’s run by people who, they’re so much into making profits that they’re not thinking of investing into local productions, because local productions are much more expensive to produce. And here they can buy TV series and stuff from outside, from Turkey, from South America, from Eastern Asia for as little as twenty dollars an episode. And you’re telling them they have to produce an episode of a local drama for maybe one thousand dollars and above. So, they see that and they think, it’s better just to buy something instead of investing. And with the Internet, it’s then easier to show people, it makes it easier to distribute films and of course there is piracy and once you put something online, everyone will download it. It’s just figuring out how to monetize it in the local context, without adverts or anything. YouTube provides the platform to monetize and everyone’s on YouTube and they run the adverts, so it’s easy to make money off of YouTube. But I think with time, we are going to see more and more people putting stuff online, on their Internet and building their own broadcasting channels online.

The big issue is that we don’t have free Internet, or unlimited Internet, so every time someone’s watching something, it costs money. So, it hasn’t yet taken off completely. I’m seeing in the future, it’s very much in the near future, like three, four years from now, Internet will be much cheaper, probably there will be more free Internet and then selling films online will even be easier and much more profitable than it is.

MERRILL: I want to circle back to the question of invisible illness or disability, because you also said in your interview that growing up in Tororo, your hometown, you felt culturally lost because the place was culturally fluid and neither of your parents came from there. So, you have come from a place where things were fluid, you spent a lot of time indoors because of an injury, and you managed to turn all of that into literature of the first order and films that are quite popular. That’s a really attractive story, and I love the idea that you have done that and now it’s available on the Internet, easily downloadable for us in the West, let’s say. I wonder how that narrative, that narrative arc of your life, how you think that has shaped your work?

DILA: I think by being culturally lost, it’s also one of the insults I had to endure in a child. Because by saying you are lost, it was saying you don’t know where you come from or you don’t belong to anywhere.

MERRILL: An outsider.

DILA: Not exactly an outsider, but…

MERRILL: A misfit, maybe?

DILA: Yeah, it’s a phrase…maybe I can put it this way. You know the term for a white person in much of East Africa is Muzungu, and what it means is “somebody who wanders around aimlessly.” That is the original word for it.

MERRILL: That makes sense.

DILA: Because in the 1800s, when they were just coming into that part of Africa, they seemed to be wandering around aimlessly. Of course, now we know they were looking for wealth and something like that, but people thought, “Hm, I wonder what these people are doing?”

So, for someone to say you are lost, it also means…it has that kind of connotation, like you don’t know where you belong, you don’t know where you come from. It has those kinds of connotations. They might accept you, like in Tororo, it’s the only, the first town in Uganda that elected an Asian into Parliament after independence. I think that had never happened before, and I think that reflects the kind of fluidity in the town.

So, whenever I am writing, normally I don’t know where to culturally ground my stories. Sometimes I make up the names that sound like they are African names, but they don’t really belong to any community or any culture, or any ethnic group. Sometimes they will be vaguely Luo or vaguely Bantu or a mixture of Luo, Bantu, Nilotic, kind of things. I think that kind of background, it helped me become diverse I think in my thinking and also open to new ideas and open to novel ways of doing things, because I don’t stick just to writing, as some people would, or filmmaking, but any technology or any form that comes up, I try to jump into it.

MERRILL: So that becomes in the end the new cultural ground of your work.

DILA: Yeah, something of that kind.

MERRILL: I wonder before we wrap up our conversation, could you tell us about what else you are working on now? And also, what are you reading and if you have any recommendations for our listeners?

DILA: Currently I’m reading two books, I keep switching from one to the other. One is Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler. She’s one of the writers who encouraged me to write science fiction because one of the first books I read with people of color, with protagonists of color, and it was her book, I think it was Wild Seed. It’s one of those books which is good science fiction that talks about humanity in a way that putting it in a real-world setting would not have been able to do it, because it talks about race and enslavement and free will in a very subtle way and even gender issues and things like that.

The other book is American Gods by Neil Gaimon. I’ve just started reading it, I can’t say much about it. I didn’t read it because of the TV series that has just come out; that of course encouraged me to pick it up, but a few years back, like two or three years back, I was getting into comic novels, graphic novels, and someone told me, “You have to read Neil Gaiman’s books,” so I started with the Sandman series and things like that. So, when I came here and I saw American Gods I picked it up without a second thought, because I saw Neil Gaimon and then I realized oh, it’s actually a popular thing and everybody’s talking about it.

MERRILL: So, you have found yourself in the center of the culture almost without thinking about it. Well Dilman, thank you so much for making time for us.

DILMAN: Thank you..

The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.

Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available November 15, 2018 on ApplePodcasts and SoundCloud where guest host Kathleen Maris Paltrineri talks with Japanese writer Yoshimasu Gozo.   

Additional Information

Dilman Dila
October 15, 2018

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