Bewulira: A seasoned actress who’s stretched her creative muscle for the arts

Joanitta Bewulira Wandera

What you need to know:

  • She aids her sight with light from a phone. She occasionally picks and sips on a bottle of beer before getting engrossed in her literature again as she puffs on a cigarette.

Joanitta Bewulira Wandera loves reading. Against a concrete hedge in a corner in the open space behind the main auditorium of the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC), she keeps flipping pages over in the dark evening hours.

She aids her sight with light from a phone. She occasionally picks and sips on a bottle of beer before getting engrossed in her literature again as she puffs on a cigarette.

It is on rare evenings such as these during the Covid-19 lockdown that you won’t find her in that spot. One early evening while she enjoyed her beer, her novel in hand, she heard her name being read out in the auditorium.

For a moment, Bewulira thought she had not heard right. Half absent-minded, she was recognised as winner of the Award for Best Supporting Actress at the Pearl of Africa International Film Festival (PIFF) Nonetheless, her attention was caught and she became more attentive. Then, a tribute was read of a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, for her work in film in Uganda.

In her heart, everything pointed to her fellow actress, Mariam Ndagire who she felt was deserving of the award. As she put her book aside to give applause for Ndagire, Bewulira’s name was read.

The organisers had not invited her for the gala night. As she composed herself to take in the announcement, a group of film enthusiasts joyfully ran to collect her and take her into the theatre auditorium to receive her award.

To her recollection, she was casually dressed, and told the audience as much in her acceptance speech. Bewulira is one of Uganda’s distinguished artistic achievers whose film profile comes heavy and colourful.

Starting out
From her first stage appearance at the age of seven, in the 1960s, she has featured and contributed to many notable works. “I have enjoyed working on so many films. It is not fair to say that my highlights have been the international films but they were very unusual because not everyone gets to work on or act in a Hollywood film without ever having gone there and I have done it twice now, first on The Last King of Scotland as the casting director and Mrs. Mariam Amin and then on Queen of Katwe,” she reveals.

What sets her experience high above for the two films, is having worked with people who are nationally and internationally acclaimed thus giving her a lot of exposure as well as showing her the way things are done professionally, boosted her confidence and belief that there can be artistic discipline,  and the reality of seeing so much being achieved in a slated time. 

Working on Queen of Katwe
“Lupita Nyongo told the producer that she and David Oyelowo would need me in South Africa for five weeks’ shooting to help with the pronounciations of words in a Ugandan way. Already, I was helping to coach the children who were going to act on set with their English,” Bewulira recalls.
That was in addition to  her Queen of Katwe role as Mrs. Gali. The opportunity to travel to South Africa for the shoot was both exciting and eye-opening.

“On the day of work, part of the team approached me saying they wanted to return home to Uganda and I understood it. Some native South Africans, I supposed because of their history, are angry and unhappy people and they want you to share that anger as well. They are not nice people to work with, I am sorry to say. It was an uncomfortable experience. Strangely, I made friends with the white South Africans who I initially feared would be racist,” she discloses.

In her artistic fabric, the seasoned artist says that the role she took on as Mrs. Banda in Centre 4, a 2002 television series, stretched her creative muscle. Mrs. Banda was wife of the Local Council chairperson (LCV) Five of the area, and one of the voices that were helping to put things into perspective especially to the young ones who were going through a delicate phase when they would easily give in to boys and get pregnant.

“I had to be Mrs. Banda and then be me because I was the training director on the project as well. I had to go through different phases of emotions that tested me to the limits of my acting abilities. They challenged me beyond my best because when you are on stage, you do a show and end but for a television series, more is needed from you. The camera does not lie. It picks up everything on your face; every nuance, movement of your mouth…if you sllip-up even a tiny bit, it shows. It is almost like being in a cage,” she narrates.

A younger Joanita with her family. Photo | Courtesy.

The controversy
The other role was in The River and the Mountain, a play about intrigue at work but ended up taking the controversial road owing to having a gay character in it.

“Of course the producers had done it. They wanted to garner funds for their work. We were supposed to put it on at the National Theatre and Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) stopped it. We ended up doing it at Happy Tilapia in Bunga and at Mish Mash on Acacia Avenue because the owners were foreigners. The director of the theatre, the late Walugembe wanted it shown because it didn’t promote homosexuality but was just a beautiful play,” she adds.

Bewulira played the role of the mother of the gay character. She took him to a witchdoctor, a commercial prostitute and a pastor, hoping these would heal him in vain. So she had to go through the emotional turmoil of being a Ugandan mother with a gay son.

“I have never done a role as well as I did that one. There was anger, pain, humiliation, hypocritical piety in the church and then the acceptance and beautiful tears at the end of it all. The producer was jailed but it was all stage-managed,” she adds. 

The reel
Her other works include, Dwog Paco (Come back Home) a documentary on child soldiers in the northern Uganda, Looking for John Akii Bua, a documentary on one of Uganda’s best known long distance runners, Jamaa by Michael Landon Junior, Africa United  directed by Debs Gardner Patterson, and Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe  where she brought Mrs Gali to life.

She has also worked on Maisha Filmlab short films like The Black Hill, Must be a God-fearing Christian Girl and Looserpool. She has also been part of different local feature films such as, Dilman Dilla’s Felistas Fable and Rain by Matthew and Eleanor Nabwiso. 

The film was lauded by critics that it was not surprising when it won several local and international awards.
For Bewulira, the biggest accolade she has received is not the physical one but her peers or audiences acknowledging her for being natural in bringing out a role on set.

As such, singling out an actor and actress who has pulled off a movie role so well that it left a mark on her is such a tall order that gets her scratching her head for minutes.

“One of the actresses that I respect is Meryl Streep. I have seen her in several films but one where she did a whole garment of emotions was The Devil Wears Prada; she was this powerful woman, owner of a top fashion house and magazine, a woman of steel that everybody was so scared of. In the course of the film, she divorced her husband, lost herself and looked broken and but then bounced back.”

The actress, director, dialogue and dialect coach juxtaposes that role to the one Streep plays in Mama Mia as a happy, carefree woman, who comes off in what Bewulira describes as a ‘moving acting workshop’.

She admires Idris Elba for his versatility as an actor who can easily switch between action movies and then a detective, and perfectly handle the amount of work, tonality of voices, authenticity of acting and range of emotions they have to deal with and swim through.

“I like Philip Luswata. In Queen of Katwe, he gave David Oyelowo a run for his money. That was a scene where you looked and asked who is the international and Ugandan movie star. It is a shame that that scene didn’t go on for a little bit longer,” she adds.

She also has respect for Irene Kulabako whose interfacing scene with Lupita in the same movie, left Bewulira proud. In her observation, some actors and actresses hold back from giving roles their all and end up failing to deliver as expected.
To that end, she credits local comedy outfit Fun Factory who wholesomely embrace and step into characters. “That is why their performances are really superb,” she adds.

The unwanted child
In the East African context of the arts, Bewulira says Uganda is the destitute child whose government does not prioritise the arts. “We’ve been told that to our faces, repeatedly; there are no funds to promote the arts. There are no companies to put money into the arts. Many people struggle to support their festivals and art projects. The funds are limited. We are trailing behind Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania because of inadequate funding. We have the talent,” she observes.

She commends Ugandans for using what they have. She points out Mizigo Express, again by Fun Factory, which is shot on a lean budget but with good entertainment, thanks to the high quality acting. 

Her heart beats for the arts and particularly acting. “I have done a lot of theatre and stage and so much on radio but when it came to film, I realised that it was my dream; doing television series. Centre 4 was the first television series that I worked and trained on,” she recounts.

The series was built on the basis of dissemination of health messages on treatment and myths by explaining to people the need to visit hospitals as opposed to seeking traditional methods of treatment.
Her dream is to set up a film school where enthusiasts can train and get mentored. At the moment, she is working on a television series titled Prestige by filmmaker Nathan Magoola.

In brief;
Joanita Bewulira Wandera is a seasoned actress and casting director whose work has impacted different people on both the theatre and film industry.
She was one of the different Ugandans that contributed to international films Queen of Katwe and The Last King of Scotland as a casting director. While for local film she has been part of dramas such as Centre 4, Felista’s Fable and Rain.
She is currently one of the actors on Pearl Magic Prime’s Prestige.