In a captivating scene, residents of a village are debating the authenticity of reports that a spade is slapping residents for particular offences.
A pastor shows up and attempts to assure them that it is all made up. To make his point, he asks them to kneel down so he can pray for them. Before he can complete the prayer, the spade shows up, slapping the pastor and forcing everyone to scatter.
This is a scene from the Ugandan made movie Sitaani Ataamye, but the troubling aspect is that while the actors are speaking Luganda, there is also ‘voice over’ commentary by VJ Junior in the same language, supposedly to enhance the drama.
Jane Nambasa, chief executive officer of the Uganda Federation of Movie Industry, says commentaries by video jockeys (VJs) have become a phenomenon to reckon with.
“When you go out there, distributors keep telling us that movies don’t sell unless they have commentary by a VJ, usually Emma, Jjingo or Junior,” she says. “So, some of the filmmakers are asking and paying the VJs to voice over these movies.”
However, while the matter of voice-over commentaries may be common in the local market, several filmmakers are actually upset by them.
Michael Wawuyo, an actor, long-standing filmmaker and producer, says voice-over commentaries are killing the industry.
“They translate movies so crudely, making jokes that are far removed from the main idea that the producers are intent on portraying,” he says. “The VJ’s work may be humorous but the viewers end up with an exaggerated view of the movie.”
Wawuyo is upset that the trend borders on breaking the law.
“Sadly, this problem is like a virus – it has captured everyone’s imagination, even the television stations just relay these movies wholesale, without any regard for the copyright law, inadvertently promoting piracy.”
His view is shared by another filmmaker, Robert Nkambo. “The aspect of ‘vjaying’ movies in Uganda is deplorable, but it is popular, with the public left to enjoy these sham products,” he says. “These people are infringing on our copyright and no one seems to care. They do not approach the producers for permission before they ‘translate’ these movies.”
However, when contacted, VJ Junior (real name Marysmarts Matovu Junior) insists he is not in the practice of infringing on copyright.
Seated in his Kajjansi Videos office, VJ Junior says he is usually approached by film distributors and some filmmakers to ‘translate’ the movies into the local language for a fee.
“I don’t wake up and translate a movie into Luganda just for fun; I’m paid to do this work, because they know we have made a name and it sells movies,” he says. “I also don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright; it is the filmmakers who bring their movies here.”
Wawuyo and Nkambo admit some filmmakers approach the VJs, but most only wake up to translated versions of their movies.
“Some filmmakers who come up with weak story lines are not confident in themselves and rely on the VJs to sell their films,” Nkambo says. “They believe if a VJ can sell a Hollywood movie, he can do even better with a local film.”
When confronted about foreign movies that he has translated, VJ Junior argues: “My job is only to translate and the film distributors are more concerned with copyright matters”.
Nambasa is aware of this trend, in relation to foreign movies.
“I’m aware that some distributors download these movies online and pay the VJs to translate them, since the market favours these kinds of films,” she says. “On that one, I can say that is also a major issue of copyright infringement.”
VJS BECOME PRODUCERS
Wawuyo argues that VJs have become the filmmakers in their own right.
“The translators are selling more movies than the producers after convincing distributors that a film can’t sell unless it has a VJ’s signature,” he says. He adds that VJs are also affecting the filmmakers’ budgets, contributing to poor-quality movies.
“The so-called translators are making a lot of money at the expense of the producer; some VJs make Shs 3m per film compared to an average of Shs 5m for the cost of the film,” he says. “This leads to poor pay for the actors and other film crew.”
This, he says, explains the proliferation of poor graphics in many locally made movies. He argues that unless something is done about the VJs’ forays into film, the entire industry is doomed.
“The police should take action and arrest those engaging in piracy and the television stations should say no to ‘translated’ movies,” he says.
However, Nkambo is more reconciliatory, calling for improvement in a “dubbing industry”.
“If you watch some of the movies that come in from South America, you can see that the sector has developed professionally.
“When a movie is done in Spanish, they are able to translate the actor’s dialogue properly, without affecting the integrity of the producer’s work. What we have here in Uganda is a disaster,” he argues. “There is a need for all those who want to handle our movies to approach the producers before they mess them up.”
His interesting analogy is: “Even if it is true that many viewers love these movies, it should not be that if people love sugar one should break into a shop to get it for them – which is what these people are doing.”
The Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB), which is in charge of observing copyright laws, is yet to act on the problem. According to the director for Intellectual Property at the URSB, Mercy Kyomugasho, they are yet to act since no one has registered a complaint.