The making of 'The People’s President'

Security personnel block NUP presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine (atop car),  from proceeding to Kasese for a campaign rally on November 25, 2020. Photos/Abubaker Lubowa.

What you need to know:

  • The People’s President premiered to a 10-minute standing ovation at the 2022 Venice Film Festival in September 2022, where it sold to National Geographic before making its US premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival.

The observational documentary film Bobi Wine: The People’s President, follows the music star, activist and Opposition leader Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) and his wife, Barbara Itungo alias Barbie, during Uganda’s 2021 presidential election. 

It draws attention to how Bobi Wine rallied his base as he looked to unseat Mr Museveni as Uganda’s president. 

Bobi Wine rose from the ghetto slums of Kampala to become one of Uganda’s most loved music superstars. The documentary captures how he risks his life, as well as the lives of Barbie and their children, to square off with Mr Museveni.

Running in the country’s 2021 presidential polls, Bobi Wine uses his music to denounce the regime that he accuses of being dictatorial and support his life mission to defend the oppressed and the voiceless people of Uganda. In this fight, he also locks horns with the country’s security apparatus that needs little invitation to use violence and torture in an attempt to intimidate and silence him and his supporters. He is arrested and tortured while in incarceration. 

Addressing his supporters at a political rally, the film captures Bobi Wine saying: “I want this message to go to President Museveni on behalf of the people of Uganda. I am challenging you to a free and fair election.”

Barbie then says: “I met Bobi Wine at university. I didn’t know he was a musician. He was different,” Barbie says.

To which Bobi Wine says: “I did not have so many dreams. She (Barbie) impacted my life. She made me realise that we had to impact other lives. Somebody had to speak for us. The people thought I had the loudest voice.”

The documentary film also captures Dr Kizza Besigye, a four-time presidential candidate, saying: “No leader has ever handed over power peacefully [in Uganda]. This is a military regime dressed in a civil facade.” 

After Bobi Wine is arrested, Barbie asks: “Why is my husband held in a military barracks? If I could see him then I would know what I am actually dealing with.”

While inside a police van en route to the barracks, Bobi Wine hollers: “I am not a criminal. I am a presidential candidate.”

Bobi Wine is shown walking on crutches after his release from captivity. 

“We are non-violent and we continue to preach non-violence,” he says.

His wife agrees, adding, “Nothing will stop him.”

Bobi Wine frames this as an existential battle, declaring thus: “We must get our freedom or we shall die trying.”

Once-in-a-lifetime heroes
The documentary film, which spans 118 minutes, was directed by Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp. John Battsek, a two-time Oscar winner, produced it, and had by March 11, 2024, gained 252,602 views on YouTube. 

“Originally, we thought we were making a film about a musician with social consciousness. Bobi Wine was a big star in Uganda, and his music was everywhere. But it wasn’t just that,” Sharp and Bwayo say in a statement. 

They add: “We followed Bobi around Uganda and then around the world. We filmed him trying to convince the West to care. They played little more than lip service to the plight of a nation whose president they had enabled for 35 years. We filled up 50 terabytes of hard drives; it was hard to know when not to film. Bobi’s life was perilous and unpredictable. Anything could happen at any time.” 

The directors describe Bobi and his wife as once-in-a-lifetime heroes who take great personal risks to dislodge and liberate a nation from a regime that has been in power since 1986. 

“When we started, we thought we’d find cracks in Bobi and Barbie, human failings which would need to be demonstrated in our film to make it an objective piece of work, but they didn’t materialise. The more effective Bobi became, the more danger there was for everyone around him. There was murder, torture and grief. Moses was shot in the face and spent nights in prison,” Sharp and Bwayo say. 

“We tried to focus on a few of the many characters in Bobi’s life. With Paul Carlin, the editor, we fine-cut six hours of film. In the end, we reduced it to just two. We weren’t able to include most of the horrific violence we witnessed. We didn’t include the numerous torture victims we interviewed,” they add.

They say their goal as directors was “to create a film that is an authentic representation not just of the dramatic events unfolding in Uganda.” They were also swayed by “the raw and genuine spirit of an inspiring group of people.” 

Sharp and Bwayo proceed to disclose thus: “In a world that presently feels more tyrannical than ever, where truth has become expendable, we have a duty to celebrate those who stand against violence and offer hope in the face of autocracy.”

Sound of music
Bobi’s songs that form part of the sound tracks include Time Bomb, Freedom, By Far, Afande, Situka, Everything Is Gonna be Alright, Coronavirus Alert (written and performed by Bobi Wine and Nubian Li), Uganda Zukuka (written and performed by Bobi Wine and Nubian Li), and Tuliyambala Engule (written by Bobi Wine and Performed by Pastor Bugembe, Hilderman, Nubian Li, Irene Namatovu, Irene Ntale and Bobi Wine).

“Bobi uses his music as a means to communicate with the people. He originally sang about life, girls and subjects that a young musician would typically draw inspiration from. This changed as Bobi felt compelled to articulate the injustices he was witnessing in Uganda,” Sharp and Bwayo note. 

They add: “As the government became increasingly nervous about Bobi’s popularity, it tried to stop his audience from hearing his music. They banned concerts and prohibited radio stations from playing his songs. However, music is a very difficult thing to stop. Amusingly, Bobi once told [Sharp] that Museveni hands out money to his oppressed people to buy their support, and they use the money to buy beer and then listen to his music!” 

One of the biggest challenges they faced while filming Bobi during his whistle-stop tour of Uganda was digesting the violence they encountered on the campaign trail. 

“We filmed horrific violence, stories of individuals who had been tortured in what can only be described as medieval methods. We spoke to people whose loved ones had disappeared. Originally, we thought we would include more of these interviews in the film. We had limited time and ended up focusing on experiencing the story through our main characters,” Sharp discloses, adding, “However, it is hard not to feel like it is something of an injustice to the victims not to include them. Certainly, both Bobi and Moses felt the film doesn’t convey the extent of the horror, although they fully understand the rationale behind that choice.”

Oscar nomination
Bobi Wine: The People’s President received a nomination in the Documentary Feature Film category at the 2023 Academy Awards competition commonly known as the Oscars.

“It is such a humbling moment to see the story of the Ugandan people’s strength and resilience make it to a platform we never dreamed of—the global stage of the Academy Awards! Today, the fight for democracy in Uganda and around the world lives on. Thank you for this recognition,” Bobi and Barbie said.

Sharp and Bwayo said they were “absolutely delighted that the Academy has recognised” the documentary film. They added that Bobi and Barbie’s recent house arrest as Uganda hosted the Non-Aligned Movement summit made the “nomination a timely reminder of the continued fight for democracy, around the world.” The film and the nomination, they proceeded to note, have “the power to influence the future of Uganda and its 44 million people living under the current regime.”

The 96th Oscars were held on March 10, 2024, at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood, USA. The Documentary Feature Film award went to 20 Days in Mariupol (Mstyslav Chernov, Michelle Mizner and Raney Aronson-Rath). 

The other documentaries in competition were: The Eternal Memory (Maite Alberdi), Four Daughters (Kaouther Ben Hania and Nadim Cheikhrouha), and To Kill A Tiger (Nisha Pahuja, Cornelia Principe and David Oppenheim).

Rave reviews 
Bobi Wine: The People’s President premiered to a 10-minute standing ovation at the 2022 Venice Film Festival in September 2022, where it sold to National Geographic before making its US premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival.

The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival under the working title Bobi Wine: Ghetto President won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2022 Hamptons International Film Festival.

Screen Daily hailed Bobi Wine: The People’s President as an “intimate portrait of a hugely engaging figure that also serves as a sobering warning about the seeming impossibility of democratic change in a dictatorship.” 

The film’s working title comes from Bobi himself, a term he has used to describe his unlikely rise to fame and the opportunity to make a difference for the people of Uganda. 

“My people, the Ugandan people, are familiar with my journey through music, politics, imprisonment and torture, but this film is a microcosm of my country’s larger struggles under an unrelenting dictatorship that has been operating with impunity for decades. I can’t wait for global audiences to see the reality of the situation and question their leaders’ support for this regime,” Bobi Wine said. 

Battsek added: “There isn’t a better home for our film. My experiences with National Geographic Documentary Films have always been the very best. They match the passion and care that the filmmakers bring to making films in the way in which they market and release films. We really couldn’t be happier to have them as our partners on this film.”