There’s a special thanks at the end of “Bobi Wine: The People’s President” to all the Ugandans that contributed footage to the film who could not be publicly credited for fears that it would put them in harm’s way while still living under the rule of Yoweri Museveni, who has served as president of the country since 1986. Title cards carry an unusual amount of weight in Christopher Sharp & Moses Bwayo’s doc when Museveni has maintained power in no small part because of how he’s controlled the flow of information in Uganda through military force and every other power available to him as president, going so far as to shut down the internet during times of elections and rendering the democratic process essentially moot despite the people who show up to vote.
Surreptitious footage of rallies broken up by police with gunfire and bamboo beating sticks may be easy to come by, but difficult to get out into the greater world, and Sharp and Bwayo often only have words to support how Museveni has quieted potential threats to his leadership, with potential political rivals and their supporters arrested on specious charges if not more permanent forms of erasure. It’s no small thing then that Sharp and Bwayo were able to collect as much footage as they do from anonymous sources, effectively reflecting the untold masses who found a voice in Robert Kyagulanyi, an artist more well-known as Bobi Wine. A socially conscious pop star who slips in lyrics about government corruption and starvation, Bobi may joke that he’s the president of the ghetto, but pursues a career in government that’s no laughing matter, easily securing a seat in parliament in 2017 when his legions of fans show up at the polls. Sharp and Bwayo don’t give much of an idea of what he runs on other than ending Museveni’s presidency, though it is quite obviously a righteous fight when shortly after he’s elected Museveni and his cronies seek to rewrite the country’s constitution allowing for a fifth term in office, extending his rule to nearly four decades without much to show for it except his own enrichment.
Given Museveni’s predilection for violence, “Bobi Wine: The People’s President” unfolds less like a campaign chronicle than a war film once Bobi declares his candidacy to run in the 2021 general election, dodging bullets that catch members of his security team and political staff and ultimately force him to retreat abroad for a time after being brutalized by police. Though Sharp and Bwayo spend some time with Bobi and his fiercely supportive wife Barbie, the picture that emerges is far less a personal portrait than the wider canvas detailing a broken political system as Bobi isn’t shy about raising the point that foreign aid to the country intended to go towards foundation-building for the entire society often ends up being directed towards military coffers, which in turn helps a strongman such as Museveni maintain his control.
The president makes for an easy villain who largely allows his actions to speak for him, arresting those daring to distribute food in the streets during the pandemic and accusing anyone that dares to question his authority as the opposition in otherwise slippery interviews, while Bobi is positioned as his polar opposite, all but impossible to adore with a million-watt smile and a message of promoting freedom that’s as easy on the ears at a rally as it is in one of his songs. However, the uncomplicated race at hand opens up the untenable reality that none of the other of many pressing issues facing a society can be debated until the sanctity of the democratic process itself is settled and beyond the visceral shock of seeing an election being manipulated through military intervention, there’s the uncomfortable notion that this could happen nearly anywhere in this day and age, making the music of Bobi Wine a bit more resounding around the world, even if it’s now illegal to listen to on the streets he grew up on.
“Bobi Wine: The People’s President” will next screen at CPH:DOX.