Imani is a slice of three very different lives in one day in Uganda. Given that I couldn’t call to mind anything about Uganda that didn’t seem to be about Idi Amin, this was a refreshing and observational but not necessarily critical look at the dichotomised society of contemporary Uganda – town and country, rich and poor, peace and violence. Imani (meaning “faith” in Swahili) is a dichotomy in itself in that its slow moving pace gives the impression of not much happening while, in fact, the day that unfolds is a momentous one for our three protagonists.
Our protagonists are Mary (Rehema Nanfuka) a young single mother who leaves her son in the village to work in town as a maid in the Kampala home of a wealthy young woman not even a generation older; Armstrong (Philip Buyi Roy) a teenaged hip hop dancer who has traveled the world with his talent and now puts on dance performances in local community centres; and Olweny (Stephen Ocen) a young boy not even yet in his teens, who is leaving a rehabilitation centre for former child soldiers to return to his family after four years absence.
It’s hard at first to figure out where the film is going and, with its slow pace, director Caroline Kamya’s skill seems to be in keeping you watching – avidly. Perhaps it’s the undertone of violence which we’re all too often led to believe pervades the lives of Africans and which is evident, for instance, in Mary’s sister’s face, beaten to a pulp by her husband, or in the fact that Olweny is on his way home after having spent years doing things that child soldiers do – but none of this violence is actually seen on screen. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is a very gentle, non-confrontational film. Even when Armstrong, our hip-hop dancer, meets up with a someone he used to run with in his past life, now a “Ghetto King” (this being his actual nickname), anticipation mounts of the obvious stand-off that’s about to happen but which never does.
But, let’s be honest, violence, in whatever form it takes, has been done to death (no pun intended) on film. What Kamya does here instead, is stealthily observe the ways in which people, regardless of their own station in life, try to exert power over the lives of others. In Olweny’s case we see the aftermath of that power, a seemingly naturally gentle, introverted, loner of a child who has to come to terms with a past which, while short in length, will surely be far reaching in its impact on his life. And then what? Does escaping and/or leaving behind war automatically mean entering peace? Well, the battles might be different, but when Armstrong’s less than savoury past catches up with him in the form of King, it’s not so much to harm him physically, but to remind him that King, and the nefarious lifestyle he leads, still has influence over Armstrong, an influence which King is only to happy to exert, and which will always tentatively but instinctively be a draw, even if only to ask for abeyance. Even when Armstrong returns to his dance troupe unscathed after his encounter with King, you get the feeling he’s not altogether out of the woods. And as for Mary, while she herself is a resilient woman doing her best by her child and sister, as a maid, it would seem that her service to others is pretty much cut and dried but, surprisingly, it’s from a less likely source that her personal tormentor is to come, and that it comes on the back of the guise of help makes it all the more stomach churning.
My own personal dichotomy with regard to Imani is that I found it to be both an engaging and yet disappointing viewing experience. The three stories do unfold slowly, but there’s always the quietly building anticipation that something’s going to happen soon. Perhaps the three interwoven stories would connect at some stage, but they don’t, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And just as it seems that things are beginning to warm up, the film ends. Not necessarily abruptly, but somehow I was left feeling that I’d watched the first episodes of three different Ugandan TV dramas, and that I’d have to tune in next week. Which I actually would, if this were actually the case and I’d been given the chance.