The political activism of pop stars is, as a rule, on the restrained side. Those who make their allegiances clear still tend to keep all factions in their fanbases sweet by limiting divisive rhetoric, or filtering their politics through broadly palatable humanitarian causes; those who speak a little more frankly still risk the wrath of the public, the internet and their record labels alike. Yet for Ugandan singer Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu — better known to his adoring fans as Bobi Wine — there’s both everything and nothing to lose by getting a little more directly involved in national politics than most such celebrities would dare. Entering a presidential election against corrupt, long-ruling incumbent Yoweri Museveni is, he knows, both a folly and a necessary symbolic stand — a certain path to honorable defeat that “Bobi Wine: Ghetto President” documents with angry urgency and bitter gallows humor.
With censorship rife in local broadcasting, the international documentary scene has of late been the most welcoming platform for depictions of dysfunctional government and election process in African nations. Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo’s punchy, plainspoken film continues in the vein of such recent festival successes as Camilla Nielsson’s Zimbabwean-centered “Democrats” and “President,” as well as Sam Soko’s “Softie” — a pretty direct analogue for “Bobi Wine,” tracing as it does a single underdog electoral campaign in the adjacent country of Kenya. If there’s no feelgood uplift to the film’s trajectory — Museveni, after all, is still firmly in power — it’s Bobi Wine’s own irrepressible star quality that makes this Venice premiere a crowdpleaser, sure to be picked up by doc-oriented fests and distributors.
In a country still reeling from the brutal military dictatorship of Idi Amin through the 1970s, the 1986 election victory of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement was hailed as a fresh democratic start: “We’ll walk with swagger in the new Uganda,” crowds sing in introductory archival footage. That optimism has palled, however, over the course of a 36-year premiership — enabled by a one-sided constitution amendment to abolish term limits — that has seen Uganda drawn into multiple neighboring conflicts, with state corruption on the rise and social inequality stalled.
Restless for change, the public latches onto the hit protest songs of Bobi Wine, a scrappy striver from the poverty-stricken townships of Kampala vaulted by his music career into the social elite. His lyrics are not especially poetic or subtle — one catchy tune unrolls a laundry list of charges against the government including election mismanagement, excessive tribalism and the inordinate price of education — but this is not a population in the mood for subtext. His voice is loud, candid and cuts to the chase: Small wonder that, in 2016, he decides it can be put to use in the country’s political fraternity, and makes a successful run for a parliamentary seat.
From that position of power, the charismatic political newbie stirs up enough unrest — particularly in the wake of a further constitutional amendment to abolish presidential age limits, enabling Museveni to run yet again — to make the higher-ups nervous. Accused of throwing stones at a presidential motorcade, he’s arrested, held and tortured in a military barracks for several weeks — not the first time he’ll be penalized for his resistance, though the film’s occasionally blurry timeline does appear to conflate separate incidents. Still, the atmosphere of claustrophobic threat to Wine and his family comes through loud and clear, necessitating a temporary exile in the States for medical treatment, legal counsel and awareness-raising.
Uncowed upon his return, he sets about taking on Museveni directly in the country’s scheduled 2021 election — even if it’s a campaign largely fought with his hands metaphorically tied behind his back, often under house arrest, toward a result that nobody trusts will be honestly delivered. But the principle is the point, and the impassioned vigor with which he throws himself into this literal no-win situation — at least coming closer to beating the system than any of his constituents can — is what gives “Bobi Wine: Ghetto President” its emotional heft.
That current of feeling and conviction is what powers the doc through some uneven construction. Though the filmmakers largely keep their own voice and story out of proceedings — not easy, given that Ugandan journalist Bwayo faced his own degree of police and governmental opposition in the filming process — the film skips a little haphazardly between fly-on-the-wall observation and conventional talking-heads exposition, with the perspective of Wine’s steadfast wife Barbara, in particular, sometimes lost in the transition.
Elsewhere, the film startles with its immediacy, not least in moving, spontaneous scenes of Wine’s young children grappling with his absences and disappearances. It’s an unfailingly sympathetic portrait, perhaps guided a little by the subject himself — who, even in the face of defeat, seems to grow into a sharper, cannier politician every day. In one fascinating moment, he admits to a CNN interviewer his fear that, in Museveni’s seat, he’d fall into the same corrupt, power-grubbing habits: Empowering the people, rather than individuals, he insists, is the only way to break the cycle.