How can one explain the fact that unlike conventional movie houses that struggle to attract patrons, video halls (popularly known as bibanda in the widely spoken Luganda language) easily take in an estimated 120,000 viewers each single day at the price of USh100 (US$0.07) per head? These viewers sit not in easy, comfortable seats but on wooden benches inside dark structures made of reeds, wood, cardboard, and stone watching high action, violent films, complete with mind-boggling stunts, coming from video cassette recorders and Video Cassette Players on television monitors in front of them. Often situated in the densely-populated neighbourhoods, Kampala has 800 of Uganda’s estimated 3200 video halls that are quickly becoming an industry offering jobs, and affordable and convenient entertainment to the people who otherwise cannot afford to watch films in Kampala’s two commercial cinemas whose tickets cost US$7 per head.
Among those who have taken note of this new cinema culture is the United States embassy in Uganda who, in 2005, funded a study on these video halls in Uganda. The study, Survey of Content and Audiences of Video Halls in Uganda 2005/2006, was conducted by Katerina Marshfield and Michiel van Oosterhout in 2005-2006. It not only shows that Ugandans are willing to pay more money to watch local films, but identifies VHs as a largely untapped distribution network of “infotainment” to underprivileged communities. “Though VHs owners and operators express their interest in the suggestion to bring more local, varied and educational or informative content to their audiences and to respect their specific needs, their access to such materials and their expertise in how to select them is very limited,” the report suggests.
It adds that, “Likewise, the audiences are hungry for films that they can relate to and that cannot only entertain them but also inspire and motivate them by sharing with them knowledge and skills that can be helpful in improving their lifestyles.
The role of VJs
As noted above, the bibanda culture is complete only with video jockeys or VJs as they are popularly known. These VJs translate and interpret films live, much like soccer commentators. And the audience hangs on their every word. The image of VJs as idlers and never-do-wells whose ambition in life appeared to just spot dreadlocks and smoke bhang while watching videos in bibandas in 1988 has since vanished as these people appear to have polished their act and have become the envy of many.
In a country in which many people are non-literate and can hardly read sub-titles nor understand English, VJs have taken on the role of English film sub-titles, translating, interpreting and simplifying film for movie-goers. “Historically, VJs and video halls are inseparable in Uganda. The existence of video halls dates back to 1987. The period before this was turbulent and video operation could hardly exist as curfew reigned in most parts of the country,” says Prince Joe Nakibinge, President of the Union of Videojockeys/Translators Association (UVJA). But Benon Tibanyendera, a former general secretary of the defunct Union of Video Owners and Operators Association, says video halls began quietly in Kampala in 1982.
Nakibinge adds that it was in 1987 that one Ntanda founded a video hall on Mutebi Road at Katwe. A year later, he says, the first VJ—Lingo—appeared at this hall, offering a unique package of translation as the films were shown. Without a microphone, the late Lingo moved from the front benches to the back to ensure all his audience got the message! But it was not till 1990 that the VJ phenomenon really took off, with the young, secondary school-going Nakibinge joining the fray in 1991 with a view to making some money with which to pay for his school fees.
“In 1998 we started recording films simultaneously as we translated them. We put our recordings in libraries so people could borrow them,” Nakibinge, who is now a celebrity VJ, says. He has just returned from a two-week visit to Barcelona, Spain where he had been invited by the organisers of a community television festival to give them a taste of the VJ work in Uganda. With some 800 video halls in Kampala alone, not each one of them can have a resident VJ and so many of them borrow recorded VJ-translated films from video libraries for their patrons.
But these works by Ugandan VJs are being used even in countries like Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and parts of the Congo where people can understand Luganda in which the videos are translated. This growing demand is forcing some VJs with foresight to embark on learning languages like Kiswahili, Spanish, Arabic and French to widen the scope of their repertoire. As good a business as it may be to video hall owners, VJs and the estimated 3 million viewers annually, this bibanda and VJ phenomenon is not compliant with the legal framework of copyright, intellectual property rights or taxation. Many of the films shown are either downloaded from the internet, borrowed from the ‘libraries’ or acquired from film pirates.
The video hall sector
Operating from temporary structures, neither the local nor central government collects any revenue from them in terms of film royalties or license fees. But it may also appear unfair to bring the government in an initiative that is wholly driven by the private sector and still lacks a policy to regulate it. But as in Nigeria where the government now collects revenue from the home video sector that was initiated and cultivated the home video that is turning into a veritable film industry, the government of Uganda may come in to harvest the crop it has not cultivated.
Indeed, Benon Tibanyendera, the then general manager of the Union of Video Owners and Operators Association (UVOOA) said in an interview in 2006 that players in the video sector—the Ministry of Information, the Broadcasting Council, Kampala City Council, police and other stake holders—were in the process of establishing structures to formalise the video hall sector. Tibanyendera said the sector had just started paying statutory taxes to the exchequer as UVOOA had since 2003 been registering video halls all over the country to ease future reform implementation. As the sector reforms itself, it also needs to look at the issue of gender equity as all the 300 VJs in Uganda are men while all video halls are owned by men.
To ward off government suspicion of them and safeguard their interests, video hall owners and VJs have at different times tried to come together in lobby groups. This was the case in 2002, for example, when the government of Uganda tried to close down these structures arguing they were dens of criminals (robbers, drug addicts), and that they distracted children from studies besides being unsafe as they could fall on people. Their livelihood thus threatened, investors in the video halls business came together and formed the UVOOA to lobby the government which listened to them and asked them to regulate themselves.
Represented at grassroots level, UVOOA had the power to enter and inspect any video library and screening hall, Tibanyendera said, admitting that many of these halls screen pirated videos as the Uganda copyright law of 1968 is hardly ever enforced. Also formed at this time was the equally short-lived Union of Film Operators and Owners Association. Three years later, the Union of Videojockeys/Translators Association (UVJA) came into being.
The art of the VJ
The VJs, like video hall owners, are living well from their work. Many of them have built spacious brick houses and cruise around Kampala in relatively good cars. It may be self-explanatory that people shun cinemas because they can ill-afford the ticket fee, but why does any one require a VJ in this 21st century? According to the Housing and Population Census conducted in 2002, 80% of Ugandans can neither read nor write and therefore do not understand English, the language in which most audiovisual media products are made. Videos, therefore, must be translated or voiced over live in Luganda by VJs who also claim copyright to their works besides being paid by video hall owners.
In 2006, Tibanyendera said that at least 200 people entered a video hall each day and that VJs were crucial and no video hall could hope to exist without them. People would have no experience of film were it not for VJs, says Ras Jingo Kasujja, a VJ who also doubles up as the public relations officer for Amakula Kampala International Film Festival that seeks to inject professionalism among VJs through annual VJ slam competitions. The VJ Slam, say Amakula co-directors Lee Ellickson and Alice Smits, is aimed at celebrating the art of the VJ besides equipping the VJ with skills in story-telling, vocabulary, and appeal to the audience. It was through such collaboration with Amakula International Film Festival that Nakibinge was invited to Spain and other VJs invited to the ZIFF Festival of the Dhow Countries in Zanzibar to showcase and popularise their skills among humanity.
The video hall business grew from the demand generated by the effort of entrepreneurs who used mobile outdoor projectors and screens all over Uganda after Amin had expelled Asians out of Uganda. When demand for the traveling film shows grew, people began to create structures in 1982 that made even more money to flow into their pockets as viewers came in to watch videos.
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