Making films in Uganda is largely driven by self-taught individuals and enthusiasts who have to work hard to claim their expertise in the industry.
Paul Okurut, alias Nego (a Latin metaphor that means ‘I reject/refuse to give up’) has earned his place in the film industry as a profound cinematographer. Leila, the film he worked on in 2019 is the reigning best film at Uganda Film Festival (UFF).
“I chose the metaphor Nego because it says everything I want it to say. I did not come from a rich family but I always aimed for great things. I needed something that would keep me going, the reason I have been known by that name since 2009,” Okurut explains.
Okurut began his freelance career as a cinematographer following his graduation from the Uganda Film and Television Institute with a Diploma in Radio and Television production. Primarily a narrative cinematographer, Okurut has been at the helm of features as well as music videos, TV shows, documentaries and commercials.
Those who have worked with him say his work is defined by his composition, use of colour, camera movement and versatility to light and the ability to shoot all genres.
He says his initial dream was to become a doctor but had to drop out of school since his parents could no longer afford the costly tuition.
“I had to drop my course in medicine even after being offered a place at the Kampala International University’s Bushenyi Campus. My father still had to take care of five children and spending all the money on me meant five years of my younger siblings sitting at home,” he recalls.
“I did not know what to do next until my elder brother Amos Edeu, who had noticed a unique talent in me, advised me to join Uganda Film and Television Institute to pursue a course in Media,” he adds.
“Starting out, I had no money, and nothing else apart from the name ‘Nego’ inspiring me to keep going,” Okurut says. He notes that the camera he started with was given to him by Patrick Sekyaya, a friend, who was an already established filmmaker and the rest of the equipment was solicited from friends and those he shared classes with.
“I had initiated a film project together with students who believed in me. The film featured Albert Luswata who at the time was a big name in the industry because he was staring in Trick Stars, a popular TV Drama then,” he says.
Realising that he was determined to see his project through, Okurut says actors would not demand pay from him. He also went ahead to work on other projects that included his feature film, Solace. On most of these, he did not receive any payment but what he was looking for was for his name to be established in the industry.
He says on many occasions, he was asked to work and his payment was exposure and perhaps little facilitation until people started realising his potential.
“Sometimes I was called for projects and the producers either said they had no budget or they were giving me exposure and they wanted me to work for free. I accepted, because I needed experience and to prove to the industry stakeholders what I was capable of doing,” he recalls.
Nurtured by elders
At the Uganda Film and Television Institute, Okurut says he met TV and radio producer George Sengendo (R.I.P) who introduced him to the craft of filmmaking when he invited him as one of the best students of his production class to help him on the set of ‘Omuntu muntu ki, a TV Drama he was shooting.
He says Ssengendo became his source of inspiration and he gained a new love for media, especially film and television production.
Okurut, who currently charges from Shs1m depending on the nature of the project, has a lot of benefits to count given his dreary start in the film industry.
“Shooting with my own equipment ranges between Shs500,000 and Shs4m depending on the job and equipment required to have it done. Sometimes, I am only required to appear on set to shoot but the equipment is provided by the client. Here, I charge from Shs100,000. I once shot a project with all equipment provided and it only required my technical knowledge and I earned Shs3.5m in one day,” he narrates.
He says his most paying gig was a documentary on South Sudanese Refugees in Adjumani refugee settlements that was commissioned by a Swedish film company. Okurut says he was paid Shs7m for a two-day job.
His first award came in 2014 for best screenplay writer at the Pearl International Film Festival and later got a nomination for best actress and actor at the 2014 UFF and best cinematography in 2019 for his role on Richard Mulindwa’s film, Leilah.
Film in Uganda
Okurut believes that film in Uganda has a bright future much as stakeholders still have a lot to do. “The potential of the industry is unmatched. Film inﬂuences culture, politics, the economy and the future generations. We need to tell stories that tell the good about Uganda,” he notes.
Okurut says local TV stations must start showing Ugandan movies and the government should provide reliable distribution channels if the industry is to grow.
Okurut says in 2019, unknown people broke into his office and stole all equipment, went away with some of his clients’ work and damaged a lot of property.
He adds that film is expensive and raising money to fund productions poses the biggest challenge. He also says there are no reliable film schools to train more professionals, the reason he wants to build a studio set where film makers can work on their projects.