Ugandan actress raising eyebrows with new film 'Kyenvu'

Friday July 6 2018


By Angela Ruhinda

Every year, Zanzibar becomes more than just a serene island for the fatigued, it becomes a networking hot spot for film makers from all over the world.

This weekend for the 21st consecutive year, film makers and enthusiasts will converge at Stone Town for the annual Zanzibar International Film Festival. For the next 10 days film stakeholders will engage in workshops, network and screen their pieces of local and international work for a panel of judges and diverse audiences.

Kemiyondo Coutinho is going to be part of those in attendance where her film ‘Kyenvu’ will be at ZIFF and she will be flying down from Los Angeles to see the audience’s reaction in person. ‘Kyenvu’ is a social commentary on Uganda’s mini-skirt ban nestled within an East African love story.

Is this the first time Kyenvu screens in East Africa?

This is the African premiere outside of the private screening it had in Uganda. I am elated, excited, but with that, comes nerves. Screening for an audience closer to home presents the unique opportunity for your work to be understood on a deeper level, or at least you hope.

With my experience in touring one-woman shows both back home and in the US, there was a deeper reaction to the work at home because people could immediately identify with every single character presented.

The humor lands easier because so much of humor is cultural but also the issues hit harder. I look forward to hearing what an African audience takes from this work. Of course there will always be concerns - will they think I represented us right? Will they see its intended purpose?

You’ve screened in a few cities in the U.S already. How has the reception been thus far?

Amazing. I have truly had a blessed experiences. When it was first screened at The Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, it won the grand jury award. I don’t take that for granted because it is truly a blessing and I feel so grateful. What always surprises me and also disheartens me is how relevant the themes are cross-culturally. Sexual harassment is not an African issue, it is a global issue and whilst I am glad the audience here can identify so strongly, it does make me sad for the general state of affairs in the world.

It would be very interesting to see how Ugandans react to the film. Do you have any concerns about that?

I don’t have concerns per se. I always present my truth the closest way I know how and ultimately that’s all I can do.

How it is received is not up to me, I just hope that a conversation can be had about it. I recently ran into a Ugandan journalist who did not agree with the film’s approach. What upset me wasn’t that she did not agree with the approach but rather that she left out all my responses to her questions which presented my case. I do not aim to be liked or for my work to be liked, I only aim for it to be understood. My concerns are founded on that.

What inspired Kyenvu?

The Anti Pornography Act was set in Uganda in 2014. Parliament passed it into law, which blamed pornography for the sexual crimes committed against women and children.

The Law, at its introductory stage had a clause prohibiting women from wearing the mini skirt, hence the media label “Mini skirt bill.” However, when the final bill was passed, it held no clause on the banning of the mini skirt. The media, who had picked the nickname, failed to inform the public that that particular clause was struck out. The ‘miniskirt ban’ was being loosely interpreted by mobs as an excuse to target and strip women thought to be improperly dressed.

What is your fascination with the color and why do you feel it’s important to incorporate into your work?

I just love yellow. It demands to be seen. Not everyone can pull it off. It is the colour of the sun and light and just barges into a gloomy day and asks you to be joyful. I incorporated it into my work because I try to leave traces of myself in my work. There are clues about who I am in all my writing.

I like writing to feel personal. At the end of the film there is a revelation about needing a garment to stay yellow. The character is asking for her world to stay joyful and bright and full of light.

Was it important to you to find Ugandans to be a part of the film in every way?

I wanted to change the narrative that Ugandan films that do well internationally required “outside filmmakers.” I started hearing conversations around film that would say “Its so professional, they flew in so and so” and that bothered me. I knew we had the talent and I knew I just had to look.

I wanted the film to become a business card for all the people involved. For a product to come out of Uganda that we could say “see, we can do it!”

In your opinion, what does it mean to be an African feminist in 2018?

My idea of feminism is constantly evolving because the world is evolving and who I am as a woman is evolving. I think there is no term or one size fits all version of feminism. I believe that we need to accept people in their journeys of feminism, where ever they are and be accepting of their interpretation of it. I personally take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and I do my very best to make sure my work and life allows for women’s voices to be heard. This is what i am passionate about. That we have equal opportunities and the only way that will happen is if we start listening to women.

What other projects are you working on?

I just premiered my short film ‘Green’ that was a part of the Kevin Hart filmmaking fellowship with his Laugh Out Loud Network. It premiered at the American Black Film

Festival and was truly an amazing experience. I am writing a satire horror film about colonization called ‘The Whites’ which I hope to shoot by next year. Yes, I am sticking to this colour theme!

What advice would you give to fellow up and coming African film makers and actors?

The same advice Ava (Duvernay, ‘Selma’, ‘A Wrinkle In Time’) gave me when I asked her for advice at a Q&A - just do it! She kept quiet after that and let me sit with that. I started writing ‘Kyenvu’ the day after that. Just do it.

‘Kyenvu’ will be screening at the Maru Maru hotel on July 14 at 10.25 a.m. I encourage all of you to be there to witness greatness in the making.