SFF 2023: “People Power, Our Power” — The pop star fighting Uganda’s regime

This review is part of Tharunka’s continued coverage of the 70th Sydney Film Festival. Read the rest of the reviews here. 

When celebrities engage too closely with politics, it tends to leave the public either utterly bewildered by their involvement or dismissive, considering it a mere ploy to maintain relevance. However, in the documentary Bobi Wine: The People’s President by Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo, I was captivated by the profound impact and unwavering resolve of Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, known as Bobi Wine, as he transitions from being a pop star to a political contender in Uganda.

Wine’s songs directly challenge the militaristic government of Uganda. Having grown up under President Yoweri Museveni’s regime, Wine astutely dissects the corruption that plagues the nation. The opening scenes of the film capture his recording process, with those around him passionately joining in as he addresses topics such as economic mismanagement and unabated extrajudicial killings. While his vocals may not strive for intricate melodies, his aim is not to impress but to inspire the people of Uganda. With straightforward lyrics like “This oppression is worse than apartheid,” Wine’s music resonates deeply, fueling a sense of empowerment among his fellow Ugandans.

The phrase “People power, our power – our power, people power” is intricately intertwined with Bobi Wine’s electoral campaign, resonating strongly among the crowds as he rallies with Uganda’s population. However, a regrettable association with Wine’s rallies is the recurring presence of military personnel. Disturbing scenes unfold as rally goers are frequently subjected to harm or unexplained fatalities at the hands of officers. It is evident that Museveni and his government recognise Wine’s influence and are willing to exploit legal measures to suppress him.

The documentary explicitly depicts hegemonic violence from start to finish. The directors employ a fusion of timelines to emphasise the pervasive surveillance prevalent in the country. Although there are instances where the merging of timelines might appear unnecessary, individual footage alone is already jarring and disconcerting. For instance, the repeated military confrontations, where Wine comes face to face with the state’s armed forces, becomes a distressingly familiar sight. However, this familiarity reaches a breaking point when Wine is ultimately apprehended and subjected to brutal treatment by the militia on the mere allegation of throwing stones at the President’s vehicle. It becomes evident that Wine is dehumanised, reduced to a target in need of elimination. The audience remains unaware of his whereabouts, receiving only passing comments that allude to his deteriorating health. This state of uncertainty is shocking and deeply troubling, yet it carries an air of inevitability.

The documentary maintains its captivation by capturing the essence of incarceration. Immediately following Wine’s arrest, widespread protests break out within Uganda and beyond, resulting in the tragic loss of many lives at the hands of the military. Among the supporters, some don striking attire emblazoned with the provocative slogan, “My life ends with Bobi.” Despite his physical incapacitation, Wine’s influence not only endures but intensifies. It becomes increasingly apparent that his impact is not diminishing; rather, it is assuming an even more radical and far-reaching nature.

One of the most compelling instances showcasing Bobi Wine’s influence is through the words of his youngest daughter, Suubi. At just eight years old, she flawlessly recites the very same phrase for which his supporters are being arrested and subjected to torture, all the while unaware of her father’s whereabouts. Suubi, unprompted, embodies the essence of Wine’s aspirations. Despite her limited political understanding, she symbolises the promising future that Wine both admires and believes can thrive. This fleeting moment, given only a fraction of the film’s attention, manages to subvert the entire regime of Museveni. 

As a depiction of Bobi Wine’s political odyssey, the documentary maintains a compelling sense of impartiality by abstaining from any narration apart from the influential individuals shaping Wine’s life. Among these figures, none is more prominent than his wife, Barbara, and their four children. The film delves into the profound personal ramifications of raising a family within a hostile environment, highlighting their difficult decision to relocate their children to the United States while Wine remained under house arrest. While the documentary offers valuable insights into these personal struggles, it somewhat understates Barbara’s influence, primarily portraying her as a supportive figure who stepped in when Wine faced obstacles. In reality, Barbara played a pivotal role in persuading Wine to embark on his political journey, often refining his candidacy’s vision.

Bobi Wine distinguishes himself from his constituents through his candid perspective on democracy in Uganda. When confronted with the question of whether he, like Museveni, would succumb to corrupt temptations while in power, Wine provides a sincere and unreserved reply. He expresses unwavering certainty in one aspect: the imperative of transferring power to the people of Uganda. He sees himself as a servant to the public, and is committed to safeguarding against any transformation into something different.