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Review: Boda Boda Theives

by Andrew Kaggwa


Boda Boda Thieves has been one of the most anticipated African films since its premiere in Berlin at the beginning of the year and sets out to illustrate the struggles of a teenager in a Kampala slum – from the drugs, peer pressure and leisure, to trouble with parents.

Set in Kireka, one of Kampala’s biggest slums, directors Donald Mugisha and James Tayler present us with Abel, a teenager who, after a tragedy, finds himself in te position of running the family’s cash cow – the father’s motorbike taxi, or boda boda.

However, with the temptation of quick money, Abel (Hassan Insingoma) doesn't hesitate to take up an offer by a city crook to become a snatch-and-grab getaway driver. He makes money and provides for his family, making much more than his father does by honest means. On one drunken night, things take a gloomy turn when Abel too is robbed off the Boda Boda.

Boda Boda Thieves is the kind of film that many Ugandans, and probably East Africans generally, can easily relate to – boda bodas are the most used modes of transport for people that want to get to their destinations without hazards like traffic. Yet again, in Kampala, where the film is set, boda bodas have contributed at least to sixty percent of the crime rate in the city; from violating traffic rules, snatching bags and phones to chauffeuring murderers, bodas are quite an epidemic. Donald’s film brings to life the common myth that a good driver is judged by the damages on his car. In this case though, it’s about the bike and the guy who captains it. His bike was shoddy in a peculiar way – neon lights; colored pipes had the same customer and those football stickers – all the queer things. He then goes on to separate the image boda bodas have created for the riders (a rowdy one) from the people themselves.

This film gives them a face, emotions and does the best to show us that much as they are rowdy and unruly, they are indeed someone’s son, father and husband. This makes us look at these guys in a different light, a reflection that before we rebuke and call them names, we have to know that they have feelings and just like us, they are trying to earn.

We see this play out when the father (Michael Wawuyo) has to make a decision to make Abel the new boda guy, the mother (Prossy Rukundo) is against it; “olaba ekubba gwe omukulu, naye ate ono omwana wange,” aptly interpreted as; “if the bike can hit an experienced rider like you, what will happen to my baby.” According to Donald, besides Wawuyo, the cast was majorly made up of non-actors. Isingoma, the lead, is indeed in reality a ghetto youth that has been arrested more than ten times for petty theft and gang violence. It was the backdrop of his real life experience that makes his character Abel more believable even when he’s not an actor.

“It was hard working with him because he often got arrested during production and we had to pay for his bail,” says Mugisha in an interview with a Ugandan newspaper.

At the age of 17, he became a proud father of one, but that joy didn’t last long;Isingoma is currently an inmate at Uganda’s Luzira maximum prison, he’s suspected to have been involved in a robbery where one person lost his life. Mugisha is a renowned music video director in Uganda, he’s worked with the country’s biggest acts like Jose Chameleone, Bebe Cool and Peter Miles among others. In 2007, he made history by directing Uganda’s first Channel O award winning video, Kube for Bebe Cool, Nazizi and Wyre.

It’s at the same time that his first film, Divisionz, was released; the film won the Best feature film at the Africa Film Academy, another first by a Ugandan film. It starred Bobi Wine (Robert Kyagulanyi), a local Ugandan artiste – in the film, Kyagulanyi was trying his best to get into the country’s music scene even when he was under privileged, also set in the slums.

Clearly, in between Divisionz and Boda Boda Theives, Mugisha has not shown much growth – these two films are set the same way, experimental and too stereotypical of their lead actors. Divisionz borrows almost half of Kyagulanyi’s real story and turns it into film and so does Boda Boda Theives on Isingoma – nowonder the acting is commendable – these guys were not acting, they were leaving their daily lives. In this way, it feels like with Boda Boda Thieves, Mugisha has simply redone his first movie or a spinoff of it, casting Isingoma, who happened to feature in the first one as ghetto rookie that stole people’s clothes and shoes in the same role – just that this time we got to meet his family.

There are a number of other questionable choices in the film, for example although Ugandans are known to be crazy about football, the director of photography gave a lot of emphasis to the Chelsea FC logo and other western brands, which dented its African identity. To a foreign audience the speech delivery was on point, but for many Ugandans, most of the times, the actress portraying Abel’s mother lacked emotion and got the pronunciation of the words in Luganda wrong – yet she was cast as a Muganda, not even the subtitles helped much, they were wrong at times. The film derives its inspiration from an Italian classic, Bicycle Theives, but lacks the kind of action we may have anticipated. Stealing Bodas is a dark business in Kampala, like a syndicate of sorts. Thus, we had planned to see something that took us to that evil but, we waited on and on, it was only at the end that it tries to but still never sets off. On paper, it’s a very relevant story that has to be told and seen, however, ways of projecting it to the screen failed it’s greatness – wasted anxiety and suspense.



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