Imani -- Film Review

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BERLIN -- The 40th year of the Berlinale Forum gets off to a low-key start with Ugandan-Swedish co-production "Imani," in which director-producer-editor Caroline Kamyi -- a Kampala-born, London-trained graduate of the festival's Talent Campus -- makes a half-hearted transition from shorts and TV to the big screen.

A disappointingly conventional choice for a Berlinale section designed to showcase innovation and risk-taking, "Imani" (which, according to press-notes, translates as "Faith") is essentially a trio of shorts chopped together into a feature. The whole is less than the sum of the parts, and those parts aren't any great shakes to begin with. Festivals highlighting African cinema and female filmmakers may want to take a look, but otherwise prospects are dim.

The main problem is the script by Kamya's anthropologist sister Agnes -- one strand of which is "partly inspired" by Judith Adong's child-soldier story "Shadow of Tinted Soul." Rather than properly developing any of the three stories, the Kamya sisters instead cut somewhat arbitrarily between them. An opening on-screen title-card that quotes Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" indicates their model, but the Kamyas do little with what's become an overfamiliar school of scriptwriting.

There's potential in each story: Kampala maid Mary (Rehema Nanfuka) must quickly raise cash to bail out her sister, a victim of domestic abuse who has apparently killed her violent husband; traumatized "child of war" Olwenyi (Stephen Ocen) returns home to the countryside after a spell in a "rehabilitation center"; breakdancer Armstrong (Philip Buyi) must deal with a gang-lord ex-schoolmate as he tries to stage an inner-city music event.

Nanfuka and Buyi are engaging performers and cope well with underwritten characters. But each story is dramatized in such perfunctory fashion that it's hard to care about the characters. We're never actually told, for example, if the introverted Olwenyi was a child-soldier, or if Mary's sister actually killed her husband. When the film ends, it's a jarringly abrupt termination rather than a satisfactory climax for tales whose characters' paths never actually cross.

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The digital RED camera is used -- reportedly for the first for a Uganda-shot feature -- by DP Andrew Coppin and yields slick images of cityscapes and dusty rural vistas, but director Kamya deploys Ragnar Grippe's synth-electronic score (along with vocal and instrumental tracks by local musicians) in heavy-handed fashion with counterproductive consequences. Her occasional directorial "flourishes" -- brief slow-motion or shuttering effects -- likewise fail to energize a frustratingly inert enterprise.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival -- Forum
Director: Caroline Kamya
Screenwriter: Agnes Kamya
Production: iVAD International Ltd., Kampala: Cinepost Studios AB, Stockholm
Cast: Rehema Nanfuka, Philip Buyi, Stephen Ocen, Vincent Ochen, Paul Ssenyonga
Producer: Caroline Kamya
Co-producers: Adel Kjellstrom
No rating, 82 minutes
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