Since “Bobi Wine: The People’s President” — a frontrunner for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar according to IndieWire’s Anne Thompson — premiered in July, the title subject has been arrested yet again by the Ugandan government. Originally a musician, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (who used the stage name Bobi Wine in his music career) entered politics in 2017, and ran for the presidency in the 2021 Ugandan election. He focused his platform on criticizing authoritarian president Yoweri Museveni, who has held power in the African nation since 1986.
“I see how even more relevant it is to today’s politics with the rise of totalitarianism all over the world,” Moses Bwayo, the co-director of National Geographic’s acclaimed doc, said. “There’s more need for people to see this film because this film highlights what you will get if you don’t have a democracy in place.”
After Wine lost the election, which he claimed was a fraudulent result, Museveni’s regime placed him under house arrest. He was eventually given permission to leave the country, which gave him the opportunity to finish what became Bwayo and Sharp’s documentary. After the film’s release, he returned to Uganda this October, where he was placed back under house arrest.
“Bobi continues to lead the National Unity Platform,” Bwayo told IndieWire Awards Editor, Film and TV, Marcus Jones. “It’s the biggest opposition party in Parliament. They continue to fight for freedom, for democracy.”
Co-director Bwayo appeared at the November 15 screening of “Bobi Wine” as part of IndieWire’s Art of the Doc screening series, presented by National Geographic, at the Landmark Westwood in Los Angeles. After the screening, he spoke to IndieWire Awards Editor, Film and TV, Marcus Jones about the making of his film. “Bobi Wine” focuses on the 2021 presidential election, exploring how Wine went from a popular pop star to an outspoken advocate against Museveni’s anti-democratic rule.
As Bwayo explained during the event, Wine rose to fame through making afrobeat and reggae-inspired music in the early 2000s. Initially apolitical, his music shifted throughout his career to become more responsive to Ugandan politics, and he joined the country’s parliament in 2017. Bwayo and Sharp became involved in making a film about Wine around that time, and Bwayo, who made his directorial debut with the film, said that part of the reason why he was interested in directing the project is that Wine’s activism helped him grow more passionate in politics.
“Around that time, Bobi was encouraging every youth around the country to get involved,” Bwayo said. “Including myself. I had never voted at that point. This was 2017. I thought, ‘Wow this guy. He’s onto something here.’ Just charismatic, and really, it was speaking to my heart.”
In the time since the film’s beginnings in 2017, Afrobeat music has grown significantly in terms of American and international popularity. Due to his arrest, Wine’s music has been banned in Uganda, with radio hosts who play his music risking prison sentences, but he continues to make music and release it through YouTube, and still remains popular.
“With this film, you can see why the arts are important,” Bwayo said. “The arts, as much as they are meant to be enjoyed for arts, they’re also voices for a time. And he projects these messages for freedom and the struggle back home. It’s really relevant, but lots of musicians back home, because there’s this self-censorship all around, are in fear and not so many people speak up about how they feel. But he’s put himself as an image and embodiment of this fight.”
There are bigger and broader lessons to be taken from the film, lessons that apply to the global struggle for democracy. “Leaders like Putin and the like do not just appear and become leaders,” Bwayo said. “There’s a progression to where they get to invading a country, you know, they start with small things. You see Putin in 2014 invades Crimea and the whole world is like, “Oh, is it…? What’s going on?” And then three or four years down the road it’s actually now part of Russia and now he invades the whole country. Should we act surprised? No! Because there were these signs. What you see in Uganda is an example of what’s happening in my African countries — world countries. This film is relevant today because it highlights the need to protect democracy.”
“Bobi Wine: The People’s President” is currently streaming on Disney+ and Hulu. Watch the full interview with Bwayo above.