Loukman Ali on Filmmaking

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Loukman Ali (LA) on Filmmaking

RK: It is a pleasure to have you on #360Mentor, how are you Loukman?

LA: Thank you, Sir.

RK: Your story has taken Uganda by storm. Tell us, what are you? Are you a filmmaker or a producer?

LA: I will be frank with you, I don’t know what a film producer does on a film set. I have one because I see them in other movies but I don’t really know what they do. Maybe they produce stuff, I don’t know.

RK: I will tell you, at my former workplace, at the end of the credits of every local production, I would always be credited as the Executive Producer. I had no idea what it was all about.

LA: Executive Producer is the one that pays.

RK: I was the money man.

LA: Producers are the ones that are supposed to source things. They are supposed to make sure that you don’t spend more than you have to but I am yet to get someone to help me with that.

RK: So what are you?

LA: A filmmaker. I generalise it like that. I have been involved in the different disciplines of filmmaking over the years. From drawing, to graphic design. All the things I have been doing in my past, I have brought them together to help me with the current work. Where I could have had 30 people, I get to do it all. It’s hard for me to choose but I will say a filmmaker in general.

RK: How are you able to bring all these skills together?

LA: I grew up in a family of people today you would call bullies but when I was growing up, I thought that was normal. People who do not settle for mediocrity. I remember growing up and making these drawings and everyone at school tells me I am the best but at home each one of my parents would criticise the drawings. Because of that, it pushed me to work extremely hard to get their approval and I eventually got better and that pushed me into exploring other avenues of doing my art. Then I realised I needed to make the drawings more digital. That’s how I learnt photoshop. Then I learnt that I could actually make these images move. Then I moved into 3D animation. Then I realise I can afford a camera, shoot these things and edit them myself. So I went through all these things. And I started working quite early at around 14.

RK: Let’s first put a pause on this, we shall come back to it. There is a fascinating story I would like you to share with us. The most puzzling thing I could not tell was your man; Loukman Ali. Where are you from?

LA: I am a Ugandan, born and bred. But my dad’s dad comes from an island called Comoros.

RK: So your grandfather was from Comoros?

LA: Yes. He married a Ugandan wife and they settled here. They had my dad from here and I too was born here.

RK: Which part of the country?

LA: Here in Kampala. In Kibuli. My village is Kibuli.

RK: I am a history buff. Out of curiosity; do you know how your grandfather met your grandmother?

LA: I have no idea, but it has to be my grandfather that moved.

RK: Let’s agree on one thing; you are going to find out that story and then do a documentary about it, is that a deal?

LA: Definitely. I will ask my dad if he is not too shy to tell me.

RK: What was your family like, and how did it influence your work ethic?

LA: My dad is a softie. It is my mother that is hard to impress. My mother is a tough woman. I think that is why my movies tend to have women as strong people. The influence is from my mum. I don’t know why my mother was hard to impress. Maybe it’s because of her father. Her father is a veterinarian. He was a very strict father.

There is this story about my mum that I usually tell.

RK: What’s the story?

LA: I had a challenge with learning. I didn’t grasp things in class. I was always drawing and that did not settle with my mother. She wanted me to have a proper job. She wanted me to become a lawyer.

RK: Like me?

LA: Yes. Something like that. Someone once told my mum; “I like your son, he is always buried in books.” What this person didn’t know is that I was always buried in a drawing book. They always assumed I was reading notes. They were proud of me. My mum took the compliment but deep down she knew what I was doing.

RK: She knew her son better.

LA: When she came back home, she said she didn’t want to see me drawing again. Drawing  for me was like an escape. It was like watching a movie. It was like my favourite pass time so I had to do it. One day I was hiding under the bed with my feet peeing out and she saw me.

RK: Oh dear! You thought you were hiding?

LA: I would kind of do a voice over as I was drawing. So she walks in on me and she stands by seeing what I was drawing and saying without my notice and when I saw her I hid my work. I watched her face change from being annoyed to being extremely sad and emotional. And after that she put aside what she was doing and encouraged me to draw on. She said no one should ever stop me from drawing. I stopped hiding my drawings. I used to be among the last 20 in every class. That was when I was like in P5. From that time on, they supported me even when I was not performing well in class.

RK: You told me you have a severe problem, would you like to talk about it?

LA: I don’t mind. I am also impressed with how I have been able to do some things. I have dyslexia. I will give you an example; it is very difficult for me to write because the way I process words is more of images for me. You can write a sentence like a boy want to school and I will read it like the boy went to school. For some reason, even if the word is missing, my head will put them there. It also affects when I am writing. I can skip like two words or spellings and this affected me a great deal in school. My teachers were always wondering what my problem was. In discussions I sounded like I knew what I was talking about but when it came to writing, I could not articulate anything. When I started working for an advertising agency, I would never attempt to write anything. I always had ideas but I was afraid to write anything. I was afraid that someone would find out my problem and use it against me.

It took me a long time to overcome. When I started writing my short movies, I knew no one would judge me. But when I was writing commercials and I had people paying for them, it boosted my confidence. But to date, I still struggle with these things.

RK: Loukman, this is the thing that fascinates me about you; you have dyslexia and you have explained how hard it is and yet you are the script writer in a movie that has gone international. How were you able to overcome this? There’s lots of people who have fears and yet here you are excelling.

LA: I think for me, it’s been mainly a lot of help from my family. I released earlier on that writing correct spellings is not writing good ideas. So at the point I realized that if I had a good story in my head, I had to share it. The challenge with many of the filmmakers in Uganda, people have amazing stories but you have to make the story that is personal to you to be personal to someone else. And the best example is if we found two people fighting and you knew them, to me they will be just two random people fighting. But to you, they will be people fighting with a background. It will affect you different. Their fight is personal to you because of the prior information you have about them. And that is not even a technical problem.

When I am writing, I come up with a good idea, I record myself and type it out. Those are the things I try to figure out. I have to think of the characters. Funny thing is that I don’t have to care about spelling issues, I let technology take away the burden I had before. Tech helps me to fill the gap.

RK: Mentally, how are you able to free yourself?

LA: I think it has a way with how my parents never used to encourage mediocrity. When I made drawings which were lacking, they did not just encourage me because I was their son, they told me the truth which made me my own critic. So everytime I do something and I know it can be better, I try to make it better.

When I watch movies that are being created in Hollywood, I take away the money and ask myself; if these people did not have the money, what would they be able to do? Whatever they can do without the money, I should be able to do. I can’t accept that someone can do something simply because they are in the US that I can’t do.

I try as much as I can to learn new things. I don’t go out. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I really have no life outside what I do. I think it gives me time to concentrate and perfect whatever I do.

RK: I would like to take you back to your childhood story, the thing I find very interesting is that as a child you buried yourself in drawing, what made you focus?

LA: Maybe it was the absence of toys. And social media at the time, I didn’t have a lot of options actually. Growing up, I thought we were rich. My parents always provided for me and that made me feel we were okay. As a child without toys, I watched movies only on Saturday but I would want to watch again. So the only way to do it was to recreate that moment in my head.

RK: Was that your way of processing and understanding the movies?

LA: No, I think it was more like capturing the experience and feeling. Because I couldn’t save a film on the computer and watch it later. But there are those images that stick out. So I would want to draw it. The reason I would concentrate was because I wanted to remember everything the way I saw it. That processing takes the mind off everything else. By the time you are done, it is like 8 pm.

RK: So you had this air of replaying these images in your mind?

LA: Precisely. And at school, I would just pull out that book and start narrating the movie using the drawings. And for me that was better than studying.

RK: At what age did you start drawing?

LA: I have been drawing for as long as I can remember. I might have been about 5 or 6 when I started. When I was 14, I was making better drawings. At about 16, I was at the New Vision learning from Mr Ras how to draw cartoons.

RK: Wait a minute, how old are you now?

LA: 31.

RK: AT 16, you were at New Vision without me knowing.

LA: There used to be a drawing competition in the new vision. That was the time when William Pike was there. When I reached form four, I told my mother I wanted to draw cartoons for the newspapers. Mr Ras asked me to always carry my drawing book to him and I learnt so much from him. Not only in cartoons but also in terms of image. He took me in and showed me these things and I am grateful.

RK: Tell us about the journey that led you to the camera and to film.

LA: I used to draw and while I was drawing, a friend of mine introduced me to photoshop.

RK: What is photoshop?

LA: I will give you an example, we would cut our heads and put them on the bodies of people with six packs and people would be amazed. A friend saw my work and introduced me to photoshop. When I was in form one, I asked my father to buy me a computer. He didn’t know what that would do for me but he saved up and bought me one. I was one of those poor kids who owned a computer.

While I was finishing up school, I learnt about facebook. So I started sharing my drawings on facebook. Then Steve Jean saw my work and he told me: “if you transferred the knowledge you have with this into making videos, you would be amazing.”

I had just got my first job out of school.

RK: Sorry for interruption; how far did you go with school?

LA: After form 6, I kind of knew where I wanted to go. My dad gave me what I think is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever got. He asked me to figure out what I wanted to be and if what I wanted required me to go to university. He told me to go to university but not to sit with people in year one, he told me to go to the people of year three to see what they were learning. He said if I found out that the stuff they were learning I could not teach it to myself, I could stay. But, if it was something I could teach myself, there was no need to waste my years at the university. Instead he told me to go and do that stuff with people already doing it.

RK: Wow! What does your dad do?

LA: He is in sales.

RK: Tell him I want to have coffee with him. I need to learn a few things from him.

LA: Sure, I will. So I went to Makerere University and Kyambogo University. I was going to two different universities at the same time.

RK: You are another one. You and Uncle Mo.

LA: Yes. At that time I was more into the internet, I was learning about all these things. I was seeing guys at university doing wood curvings and I was thinking there are robots that can do  these things faster and better. At that point I decided not to go back. I was there for like a month.

RK: At both universities?

LA: Yes. One was even worse. It just looked like people were not supposed to be there. It’s like people were just there to get the paper.

But one thing my dad told me is that we don’t live that long. We can’t spend all these years of our lives trying to look for what to do. He told me you need to find a way of reducing the amount of time you spend doing something.

After that when Steve called me, I just went. I started by learning from his studio and spent like three months there. My work was improving and I was sharing my work on social media. Then another agency came and offered me more money, I moved to that. Then another agency and another. Then while at Scanad Uganda, I got invited by a Norwegian company that was starting up a motions graphics department. They had worked with a Ugandan and this was leaving. So when they asked him to recommend a successor, he recommended me. they gladly took me on.

At Scanad, I was used to working from 9am to midnight or till morning. We were handling a lot of companies. In Norway, I worked from 9am to about 5pm. I had so much time, a fast computer and very fast internet. That must have been the most important time of my career. I had a lot of time to practice. With things like 3D, sometimes the computer can limit you. With a faster computer and internet, I did all I could. I saved up some money and bought myself  a camera which could also record videos. I started shooting birds, snails, simple things you find around home. I would share that stuff online too.

That is when I realised my competition was beyond Uganda, I had to match my work with other people in the world. I improved my work the best way I could.

I did my first film while still in Norway, the film is called Monday.

RK: How long were you there?

LA: Like for three years. After getting some traction to attract other actors. Monday, I used my girlfriend at the time as the main actor. When I came back, I pitched to my friends and we made another short film called The Bad Mexican.  

I was trying to be different. After that, I went into commercials where I raised some money which I used to make A girl in a yellow Jumper.

RK: Girl in a Yellow Jumper and Netflix, how do you decide you’re going to the big league?

LA: That was one of the hardest things for me to do. I went in blind. I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought it was going to be like a short film. I had started making the film when I went into a lot of issues. I ran out of money half way through the film. People were turning against me. I had to get an entertainment lawyer. The film was taking too long and I didn’t have the money. That is why we ended up having people wearing masks in the film. It was never intended to be like that. Whoever was available that day, wore a mask and did the work. Had I not had the experience I talked about earlier, it was going to fail.

The moment things were failing, I would find a backup. There was a time we were shooting in the forest and we got kicked out. We ended up with people holding branches and shooting with a pretend forest. We shot with a low angle. Once it was edited, it looked like we were in the forest.

Shooting ended around the end of 2019 and we started marketing the film but then covid happened. I thought that was the end of it. I spent a lot of time with the movie and watched it many times. As an artist, you are never satisfied with what you have done. You keep going back to the work and that is what I did, started not liking it and started making new movies to help me get over it.

I made two more movies thereafter.

RK: How were you able to make two more movies when there was covid?

LA: I think the first one was so bad, it went nowhere. We almost died. The car we were using had no breaks, but we almost died. It’s called The Blind Date. My intention was to correct the things which had gone wrong on The Yellow Jumper. After that I made Sixteen Rounds which is also on youtube. It got like 200,000 views on youtube in less than a month.

That was quite big. I felt about 80% with that one. I am now making a feature length version of that called Ddamba. That’s how it is. Then I got the news of this one being on Netflix and I was happy.

RK: What do you mean you got the news?

LA: When I made the Girl in a Yellow Jumper, I made a really nice trailer. So the trailer had all the good stuff and it kind of went viral in the movie world in Africa. I started getting calls from different movie authorities. They connected me to someone in charge of acquisition at Netflix, then this person told me I needed a distributor who would recommend me. The distributor, luckily for me, was already a fan of my small videos that I was doing. It was not a big process explaining myself. We signed paperwork and left the rest of the work to them.

RK: What would you say to young aspiring people who would like to do motion pictures as content? What are the principles?

LA: I would tell them that unless this means the world to you, don’t bother them. It is extremely difficult. Filmmaking is like selling diamonds. It is a good business but you have to be rich to make it work. For me to make a movie where I can get $100,000, I will need at least $ 70,000. But, no one is going to give you that amount. And if you spend very little, it won’t be a good product.

It is very complicated. You have to spend a lot. And in Uganda, you don’t have so much support. You have to love it that much.

RK: Well, I am offering you my farm, it has a lot of coffee the next time you need a forest. How does it work with having your work on youtube?

LA: I have this urge to always carry on. Once I finish the old drawing, I have to carry on. It’s an endless cycle. You have to keep improving. I recently retired from drawing. I made a beautiful drawing of my mum and she was very impressed. That is one thing I have always wanted.

Until I get the same satisfaction I got with drawing, I don’t think I can stop.

For one looking for mileage, they have to be extremely creative because there is so much. Shooting to something that is better than the rest is not enough. There has to be something that people will gravitate towards.

RK: I am going to make you an offer for you to meet Solaire Munyana and Cindy Magara.

Cindy Magara: I would like to congratulate Loukman. It always feels good to be the first.

Brenda Onyuta: The things you are accomplishing in Uganda today are the things we will look back to and say that is where we had a turn around. To fellow filmmakers, we need to come out of our silos and we work together.

Comrade Otoa: How do you guard against piracy?

LA: There is something we were going to try out; to do a video on demand. Most platforms give you what they think you deserve, not what you deserve. My plan is to collaborate with a payment company so that they make it easy for people to pay me. There are people willing to pay.  I am confident it will work.

You cannot do away with piracy but you can find a way to survive.

The Music Man: Do you ever feel like you are too late to do something?

LA: I will never feel like that. If I can still do things when I can, I will do as much as I can. Unless the body fails, I have no intentions of stopping. With filmmaking, you get better with age.

RK: Thank you Loukman for sharing with us your story. To you all, take Loukman’s lessons to heart.

LA: Thank you for having me, Robert.

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