After Uganda’s first movie premiered on Netflix, director Ali has lessons for peers

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Wednesday, 5 January 2022 11:29
Logo for Netflix (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

Uganda’s first movie, ‘The Girl in the Yellow Jumper’, premiered on Netflix on 26 December. The movie is about a man who escapes a hostage situation and returns home with a story to tell. Its director, Loukman Ali, who wasn’t known beyond the boundaries of the film industry in Uganda, explains to The Africa Report how he made it to Netflix and offers lessons for colleagues in the industry across the region.

When Ali was conceptualising the 80-minute movie in 2019, his dream was to produce the best film in the world. When the actual work started, however, he found it hard to turn his dream into reality because of financial constraints. The movie was completed in early 2020, but its premiere in Kampala – scheduled for April of that year – was disrupted by the pandemic.

With the pandemic raging, Loukman made a trailer for the movie, which he circulated widely on social media.

Luckily, someone at Netflix watched the trailer and contacted him with the delightful news that they were interested in it. Perhaps one of the many initiatives that the video streaming company is using to win subscribers on the continent.

Targeting the African audience

Since its arrival on the continent in 2016, Netflix has been on the hunt for subscribers from within Africa’s 1.2bn population.

  • In 2018, Netflix introduced new Mobile and Mobile+ plans for African subscribers, priced much lower than what audiences from other continents pay.
  • In September 2021, it launched a free plan that allows people to watch Netflix ad-free on Android mobile phones in Kenya.

Seeking to bring more African films to its platform, Netflix and UNESCO inked a partnership last year that will see the launch of an innovative short film competition dubbed ‘African Folktales, Reimagined’. Six winners from across sub-Saharan Africa will be trained and mentored by industry professionals. They will also get a $75,000 production budget to create short films that will premiere on Netflix in 2022.

In August 2021, Digital TV Research – a London-based research firm – forecasted that subscription video on demand (SVOD) would reach 5.11m at the end of the year, with Netflix accounting for 51% of subscribers. The firm says subscription numbers will reach 15m in 2026, but the share of the market attributed to Netflix will decrease to 39%.

Criticism, praise

Some Ugandans have applauded The Girl in the Yellow Jumper saying it is a monumental achievement for a local movie to make it to Netflix. However, there are critics who insist that the movie isn’t good enough for Netflix.

When people watch these movies, they will be like, I like the place where this movie was shot… But if they stop us from shooting from some of those nice places, we are going to shoot in the slums and that is what the outside world will know about Uganda.

Ali agrees that his critics aren’t wrong given that it was his first movie. “What they don’t like about the movie, also I don’t like it,” he says. In 2021, Ali made two short movies – Sixteen rounds and The blind date – and he invites his critics to watch them on YouTube to see the improvements that he’s making.

Lessons learnt, lessons for peers

Ali tells The Africa Report that he realised global video streaming platforms prefer entertainment movies, rather than those centred on morality tales, which are what’s common in Uganda’s film industry.

Filmmakers aspiring to have their movies premier on Netflix, Ali says, should produce better movies than him and ones that can attract viewership from across the region.

“The movie needs to be regional. Kenyans should be able to watch it, Ugandans should be able to watch it and many other viewers,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a movie specifically for Ugandans [so] that if you’re not […] Ugandan, you can’t relate.”

Ali signed a non-disclosure agreement, but he says Netflix is a big deal in terms of pay. Still, he is cognisant of the fact that the video streaming company didn’t pay him much money because the Ugandan market is slim. However, depending on how his movie performs, they may start paying more money and taking more movies from Uganda in the coming years.

“Depending on how many Ugandans watch the movie, it will create an impression in the algorithms of Netflix. They will know that Ugandans actually have [the] internet and they watch movies,” he says.

Message to the government

The Girl in The Yellow Jumper was largely shot in slums. Ali urges the Uganda government to let film producers make use of beautiful sceneries, such as national parks and game reserves. He believes that this can be one way of attracting tourists.

“When people watch these movies, they will be like, I like the place where this movie was shot,” he says. “But if they stop us from shooting from some of those nice places, we are going to shoot in the slums and that is what the outside world will know about Uganda.”

Before the pandemic, Uganda was earning more than $1.6bn in revenue from the tourism sector, which was about 7% of the GDP.  The revenue has since gone down by 75%.

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