Douglas Sebamala: On Being Human

Douglas Sebamala is an Advocacy Filmmaker, Actor, Designer and Multimedia Journalist from Uganda, representing fresh new forces to embed higher consciousness in Uganda’s nascent film industry and foster capable people to co-create high quality entertainment. Douglas has also performed internationally on the stage and in films. In 2018, he won World Bank’s Blog for Development (Blog4Dev) for his essay “Uganda Can Use the Arts to End Gender Based Violence” based on his years of advocacy work that uses creative and performance arts to raise awareness on various issues affecting marginalized groups including women. He is currently producing films exploring gender equality like Black Glove and 7_Hills, through his company Sebamala Arts. Founded in 2019, Sebamala Arts creates critical theater and social change films in East and Central Africa as well as the United States. Crucial to Douglas’ work is transformation of narrative about Africa through artistic intervention for more qualitative, inclusive development. Douglas shares with LEFLI his life’ story and its impact on his work, as well as his vision for the film industry in Uganda and beyond.





LEFLI: You have come a long way and accomplished a lot at your age. Could you please share with us your experiences growing up in Uganda and what drives you as an advocacy artist?

Douglas: My parents separated when I was young. I did not see my mother for years and my father, who served in the military, was largely absent from my childhood. My aunt raised me. At the age of 13, when my aunt passed away, I went to live with my father who had already started a new family. I had difficulty fitting in, was never fully accepted and often felt unwanted. When I turned 16, I requested to rent close to avoid the daily commute to my high school, but it was an excuse to leave home that I did not belong. Luckily my father had the financial resources to rent a small apartment for me to live independently. This is also the time I started building a close relationship with my biological mother. Apart from being impoverished living in a slum in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, her life story was very emotionally traumatic and heartbreaking because years from prolonged domestic violence. On this journey of fully discovering my mother’s unbearable sufferings, I would at times walk for two hours to visit her and offer my support. I started writing my mother poems and short stories based on her story. She cried. We’d cry together, and this was the beginning of her great turnaround. I am proud to share that she now runs her own small business and enjoys her freedoms and financial stability – she has completely transformed her destiny!


In Uganda, mental health is not widely understood, acknowledged or addressed. The injustices committed against marginalized people and consequently impact on mental health and the difficulties of poverty in the slums, are deeply engraved in my heart, so gradually I developed the determination to contribute to rejuvenation and empowerment of vulnerable communities. In retrospect, by doing so, I was able to relieve my pains of growing up, thus creating hope in the midst of brokenness. As I’ve grown older, what was anger towards my father has gradually faded away and I’ve replaced it with empathy. My father was actually a teacher of Literature, but perhaps the years of military service changed him into the authoritarian he became, and blocked his true nature and his inherent creative pulse. Growing up, I channeled a lot of my energy into being the best at my studies and using the arts for expression. In 2007, I was selected to perform my poem “The Destitute” for Queen Elizabeth II on her CHOGM tour in Uganda. The poem depicted multiple challenges in Ugandan society but it was thoroughly edited by authorities to avoid being critical of British imperialism and a corrupted government. The experience offered me profound realization of how powerfully art can penetrate layers of camouflage to reach the essence of issues and bring people closer to the truth.


While I studied Journalism and Communication at Makerere University in my country, I started working to earn and save some money. My first job was in reservation at a large hotel where I got exposed to different customers and cultures. At the age of 18, I was awakened to my true identity as a global citizen and decided my life’s goal was to contribute to the global arena while supporting the development of Uganda. I bought myself my first smart phone and learned as much as possible from the Internet. People often asked me how I got into the film industry. I used to audition but it almost feels like most jobs in the industry found me as I refreshed my determination for my dream. Each job had its own challenges and each difficulty turned out to be self-growth opportunities to improve my skills, cultivate wisdom and polish my life condition. Eventually I found the courage and inner resolve to start my own business, to be the solutions to the challenges the industry and society face, but through the power of art.


LEFLI: Difficulty either destroys us or brings out our innate potential. Your story is true embodiment of life’s profound capacity. Thank you for being a great example. Much of your work has a focus on gender inequality in Uganda. Gender is such a dynamic multifaceted challenge affecting the progress of Africa and the humanity in general. What do you think is the deep-rooted cause in Uganda and what are your interventions through films?

Douglas: I believe gender equality conceives of prosperity in terms of deeper sources of durable human well-being. Women in my country have limited access to livelihood-enhancing opportunities and resources. Many also suffer from gender-based violence. Colonialism definitely left unhealed wounds in governance and a general sense of “inferiority” in the undercurrent of the society. There’s patriarchy embedded in the traditions. This still prevails in dowry culture especially in rural areas where the man (groom) brings tokens, money, livestock to the wife’s parents. While the original intention may be to offer appreciation for raising the daughter (his bride), the shadow of such practice is that marriage becomes transactional when parents marry girls off because for financial agreements decided on her behalf. Men (husbands) then value women as property, calculating the amount paid in exchange of a wife. Even though dowry and the intention can be genuinely from the heart, once women are objectified and dehumanized, their life is prone to manipulation and control. This ‘ownership’ diminishes their own agency and sovereignty. Globally, patriarchal systems are still ubiquitous - being in families, businesses or public administrations. There is no easy remedy and it requires collective cooperation to create an environment conducive to cherishing all people in a non-discriminatory way. The stories in productions I develop or write and produce are rooted in challenges of young people like myself, women and minority groups. My new film Black Glove, currently in production, is for women empowerment in contemporary Uganda, exploring women’s life choices, predetermined glass ceilings and the stigma they experience. It is about the fight against negative endowments of patriarchy or the ‘dominate-and-control’ paradigm. The story, which unfolds in quintessential metropolitan Kampala, tries to get close to women’s vulnerability and bravery. It is designed to be thought provoking while showing off magnificent scenery and the richness of Uganda; to challenge single story perspective that depicts Africa as a land of war, hunger and disease. Our rehearsal and production process is coordinated with gender workshops and inequality solution exercises, safe spaces for shared experiences, women supporting women, and men holding space for women in the industry, with respect, inclusion and equality.



Pictures:

1. Some of the cast and crew on production set of Black Glove (19th Dec 2020) listen to the Director, Angella Emurwon; 2. Prepping for sound. Lead female Sound Designer/Recordist, Rebecca Amulen dresses lapel mics on Sraha Nansubuga ahead of her scene with Nathan Nuwamanya as Joshua (Sound Assistant) props the set; 3. The Black Glove rehearsal and production set is a woman's world. Actor Sarah Nansubuga animatedly speaks to the Director Angella Emurwon, while sound Designer Rebecca Amulen swings her boom; 4. The Assistant Director Brenda Tendo on the production set of KEYCARD in Kampala, Uganda


LEFLI: You also have done quite a few works regarding LGBT rights, which is a very risky area as the Government passed the Antihomosexuality Law and there is strong stigma in Uganda against this community of people. What are your observations and how does art help change the perceptions of the society and consciousness of the time?

Douglas: The Anti-Homosexuality Act passed in 2014 broadened the criminalization of same-sex relationships in Uganda by introducing a life sentence for same-sex acts and by criminalizing any advocacy for LGBT rights. The films in Uganda are highly censored with directors facing jail time for exploring or including anything LGBT related to in their film as with other sensitive political issues. A transformative conversation I had in 2016 with then 17-year-old Gerald, who had attempted suicide jumping off the 7th floor rooftop of Tirupati Mazima mall in Kabalagala-Kampala, really fueled my efforts to address this issue. I approach it from a mental health perspective. That encounter with Gerald inspired my play, SWALLOW (Raped for Tape). Many LGBTQ Ugandans have faced brutal Police arrests like at Uganda’s Pride Celebrations in August 2016. There’s rational fear of social stigma and un-spoken inaccessibility to equitable health services in the midst of risks like HIV. My other works; Love Is Religion and DALLIANCES, discuss similar themes of mental health of young people, human rights abuse, sexuality, gender and advocate for policy change. Uganda needs safe spaces for free expression. Advocacy offers solutions through community sensitization. I think films and plays capture the audience’s heart through multisensory engagement – the colors and sceneries, the emotions of words, music and movement, etc. offer a different way to make sense the world, and understand diverse human experiences through written characters. There are many signs for hope, including a robust community of LGBT Ugandans who are fighting to turn their homeland into a more accepting place. Interestingly, traditional Ugandan cultures were historically more tolerant and valued life, so our people would never have called for death. Tradition paid high reverence to ancestral spirits, treasured the land, were more in touch with the ground, the soil upon which food grows, and we believed in eternity of life (i.e. each person is respected as an entity with a soul). It was more accommodating in some sense compared to the modern society. For example, there is a historical document that King Mwanga (1866-1901) was homosexual. The colonial regime’s imposition or forced import of their religious beliefs changed that dynamic in Ugandan society. Every thing traditionally Ugandan was branded evil, acceptable sexuality which included polygamy were branded as sin, and thus people’s discernment of what is good vs. what is evil changed. One can only hope that within the ancestral spirit of tolerance and acceptance that pulsated in each Ugandan’s heart, new and ancient culture can be cultivated and embraced once again. In many ways, art is the liberation of human spirit within. Through art forms such as films, I hope to use the medium of arts to contribute to the creative freedom of every person so that true peace and shared prosperity can take root in Uganda.


LEFLI: You have played several important roles in Ugandan films including starring in the Second Change series. Now you are screenwriter and executive producers of your own films. Could you share the changes you wish to create?

Douglas: I started my own production company, as a means to correct my negative experience in the industry filled with abuse and exploitation. I experienced firsthand producers who do not pay, witnessed directors humiliating actors and other inappropriate treatment of actors. Things were missing in the industry from efficiency, quality, talent development and a genuine human connection to conscious content. In 2020, at the crush of the economy amid the pandemic, I devoted all personal savings under my Non-Profit, Sebamala Arts, to kick start annual film apprenticeship programs for youth and women filmmakers. This resulted into Artist Development Workshops and three film productions (Keycard, Black Glove and 7_Hills). I want to use this production process to combat Uganda’s unemployment crisis, while developing talent pipelines and training more advocacy artists. The work is driven by principles of Advocacy and Equality, both in pedagogy and practice; creating on-job skills training for women, girls and youth from minority groups. Black Glove, a fashion noir set against stunning backdrops of Uganda’s tourism gems, is now employing over 50 artists from Uganda, Congo, Burundi and African diaspora in New York with over 60% women filmmakers. Sebamala Arts productions have intimacy direction workshops to explore identity, addresses issues affecting women who face violence and protections in the work place. Creating equal opportunities encourages women to take up leadership roles in film departments predominantly run by men. This is important to me. My productions create paid employment with targets to increase industry payments, contribute to professional resumes for artist’s self-sustainability through creative markets, to support welfare of youth populations.



Picture: Douglas Dubois Sebamala in a scene during a filmmakers' master class at Ngalabi Short Film Festival in Kampala 2018


LEFLI: What is your vision of Uganda film industry compared with Nollywood, Bollywood and Hollywood?

Douglas: Ugandan film industry is still in its nascent stage. Popular movies worldwide often glorify violence or even justify killing without examining the totality of the circumstances that govern the behaviors of wrongdoers. This leads to some indirect extreme consequences on violence at home and in neighborhoods, as well as how audiences think about foreign affairs and criminal or justice systems. There is also tendency to propagate shallow love without getting deep on the true meaning of love within the larger context of the world and how it may apply to creating a more caring and connected world. Thus, there is the need to address the lack of advocacy films. People need to be educated on the issues in different counties in today’s increasingly interconnected world. For example, our consumption behaviors could influence livelihoods of the vulnerable communities on the other side of the globe. The film industry in Uganda can develop differently if learning from the experiences of already established regions allows us to embed meaning, purpose and quality to prioritize stewardship towards life-affirming culture in the 21st century. The purpose of film can be to raise a consciousness of the people so we can live together in harmony and realize each other’s unique potential in life. My long- term goal is to develop Sebamala School of the Arts, spearheading programs and production studios for Advocacy Films from Africa. By fostering future leaders in consortium of youth organizations, using the skills I have acquired in Journalism and Performing Arts around the world; I would like to empower the young generation to build better and more inclusive societies. I strive to create global art for advocacy and sensitization on peace, social justice and youth development. Where other filmmakers create film for simply entertainment, my work shall bare enterpainment (using entertainment to explore pain caused by injustice, stigma, discrimination etc.), edutainment (education + entertainment), and social justice.


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** To learn more about Douglas’ work, please visit https://www.sebamalaarts.com