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Review: Donald Mugisha’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’-Like Ugandan Crime Drama ‘The Boda Boda Thieves’

Review: Donald Mugisha's 'Bicycle Thieves'-Like Ugandan Crime Drama 'The Boda Boda Thieves'

Inspired by Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 drama “The Bicycle
Thief,” director Donald Mugisha’s “The Boda Boda Thieves” gives
a vivid look into the life of a Ugandan teen on a mission to save his family’s
livelihood. Produced through the Pan-African filmmaking collective Yes! That’s
Us Films, the feature recently screened at the Seattle International Film
Festival.

On paper, the stories for this film and De Sica’s are
similar – the fate of a poor family hinges on the father’s bicycle business,
and when his bike is stolen it throws their world into chaos. Here, the
patriarch Goodman runs a boda boda (motorbike taxi) business while his wife
breaks rocks for a living. Though the economic conditions are just as
depressing as 1940s Italy, this story is fast paced and offers moments of
comedy to punctuate the overall dramatic tone. Mugisha also treads new
territory by telling his story squarely from the perspective of Goodman’s 15-year-old
son Abel.

From the first, Abel is cast as a young thrill-seeker itching
for mischief. His parents want him to go into town to find a job; he’d rather
hang out gambling with friends. To manage his parents’ expectations, he does
what any savvy young man would do – he lies. First-time actor Hassan Insingoma,
whose real life influenced many of the events in the movie, gives a natural
performance as Abel that makes the character easy to like, even as he makes all
the wrong choices.

Insingoma’s Abel is just as aimless and irresponsible as any
modern-day American teen, but in the unforgiving big city of Kampala his
actions come with a price. When forced to take over his dad’s boda boda
business, the responsibility of providing for the family is suddenly heaped on
his skinny shoulders. It’s not by chance, but by Abel’s willful decisions that
the motorbike and his family’s livelihood are soon thrown into jeopardy. In a
community corrupt at every level, he tries to get out of trouble while only
managing to drag himself deeper into it. As such, the film becomes a coming-of-age
tale with a morality lesson attached. Abel wants the bike, but he needs to grow
and become better.

Though morality is threaded throughout the film, it’s
even-handed enough to avoid being preachy. The classic story of a flawed hero
struggling against all odds is as effective as ever, especially when the odds
involve the shifty characters of an East African big city. Camera work is solid
with handheld shots adding to the tension in Abel’s story.

Mugisha has said that similarities between Uganda and De
Sica’s Italy inspired him to make the film, but again, it’s tough to avoid
comparisons to the present-day U.S. or any nation where teens have the freedom
to simply be teens. Even as the story forces its hero to grow up, there’s the
sense that he shouldn’t have to, at least not to the extremes that poverty and
his environment demand. The harsh realities of the story’s setting, and the
conflicting ideals explored within, make it poignant as well as entertaining,
and definitely worth a watch.

“The Boda Boda Thieves” is currently screening at
film festivals. No word yet on distribution.

   

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