Friday February 13 2009

Our very own screenwriter

By DENNIS D. MUHUMUZA

After fumbling through my cluttered notebook and finding the blank leaf on which to write, she switched off her phone, took a deep breath and with a smile, said she was ready. What I had thought would be a fire-and-respond approach turned out to be a light exchange like we were long lost chums. ***image2***

It pretty had much to do with my interviewee’s modesty, charm and fluency. Judith Lucy Adong was here to share her experience as the only Ugandan of the six writers of the new Kenyan series which started airing on M-Net East on January 20, 2009. The others are Kenyans and one Tanzanian.

The Agency, which runs for an hour every Tuesday at 8p.m. and at the same time on M-Net West on Saturday with a repeat on Sunday, digs into the politics, rivalry and intrigue in the world of advertising.

There are records of local actors featured in films that have garnered international acclaim but little is known about screenwriters. And being the only Ugandan screenwriter for M-Net, Adong has set the precedence that should inspire others to take the first step on the worthwhile journey of screenwriting.

But it takes hard work, voracious reading and deep interest all made complete by a resolve to get there.
For Adong, it began with writing for theatre and radio. Her first venture into film was in 2006 when she wrote a short film script titled Shadows of Tinted Soul, a story of a 12-year-old child soldier who returns home but cannot adapt to the new environment because of the suspicion with which he’s treated.

It was combined with another and later turned into a high-profile feature film called Imani.
She has also written and directed Downcast, a 15-minute film of a woman struggling for acceptance after declaring her HIV/Aids status. To spite her family because of the rejection she receives, she deliberately infects her nephew, something for which she’s banished.

Adong who with Patricia Achiro Olwoch, were the only Ugandan finalists in the 2008 Maisha Filmmaker Lab, has scripted and directed many NGO commissioned films to raise awareness. Dangerous Opinion is for example about a man who gets meningitis but thinks he’s been bewitched, while Together Fighting Hepatitis E is a documentary that sensitises people about the disease.
 
An actress and a professional story-teller who last year represented Uganda at the prestigious Swedish Storytelling Biennial, Adong was tipped off in 2007 about the M-Net search for screenwriters from East Africa.
She applied and soon enough, received a congratulatory message telling her she had gone through. She was meant to relocate to Nairobi where M-Net’s regional headquarters are located but the decision was reversed following the post-election violence in Kenya.

As it is, the writing of The Agency began last year.
“For every episode, you are given a one-page overview called the hook which you develop into a detailed episode of between 45 and 50 pages,� she said.

Judith talks about the huge difference therein writing for M-Net and for a local film company.
“Writing for M-Net,� she says, “is a lot more demanding in terms of deadlines and the quality but at the same time, more interesting because of the creativity involved.�

She also gives her verdict on local films: “I used to be very hard on Nigerian films until I saw Ugandan films. People just go in without understanding the technicality. The plots are largely superficial; dialogue is too simplistic to challenge the intelligence of the viewer and writers solve the situations for characters. But it’s good people are making films because they do learn from the mistakes.�

Adong who also lectures creative writing and writing for radio and TV at the Institute of Languages and the Department of Music, Dance and Drama at Makerere University respectively, wants to ride on the M-Net exposure and write more for big networks because she believes in doing professional work and getting professional pay for it. Like all good writers, she believes writing gets better the more it’s done, but also admits that one must have talent and love for what they do. It’s because of the latter that she has never stopped writing.

“I don’t wait for anyone to contract me to write; I just write,� she reveals. “I’m not trained in screenwriting but when I sent in my samples, my new bosses were impressed.� Somewhat believable, seeing she was hired, but the reader needs to watch The Agency to gauge the truthfulness in her words.

Otherwise Adong can brag all she wants. Besides, it’s been long coming and as she says, it’s an honour working with gifted producers, directors, creators and writers where art is at the forefront. She puts you in the mood when she delves into the pleasure of writing independently and the suspense of not knowing what the others have written yet the series have to maintain a certain level of consistency of situations and characters.
But it is when she starts talking about the second episode of the series which screened on January 27, which she crafted, that Adong is overcome with feeling.

“I’ve seen my name roll in credits of message-suffocated NGO films but for me seeing my characters and incidents come alive on screen in a production where your imagination and talent are your first bosses and on a huge TV network beats every human emotion possible!�

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