Leilah Nakabira is a promising Ugandan actress adding her weight to the fight against sexual harassment in the industry after noticing the gross abuse.
“Sexual harassment is real and stories are many, producers, directors and other film-makers tend to take advantage of girls especially on set. I have seen and heard directors saying sexually loaded things to actresses and some groping,” Nakabira notes.
The problem is also perpetuated by women who knowingly use their sexuality to trap directors and producers to assign them roles.
Tackling the root of the problem
“Some women desperate for a leg up intentionally flirt on sets, encouraging male attention. The truth is we need to put preventive and punitive measures in place if we are to uproot this vice from our industry.
Firstly, we need to create an atmosphere where women can recognise when they are being abused. Secondly they need to know there is a place where they will be given justice not ridiculed when they report. Lastly, we need to increase the number of women in managerial roles which will reduce the sense of autonomy and temptation to either abuse that power or give into that power,” the actress states.
She adds that while women do get better roles in exchange for sexual favours, this eventually has a negative effect on their careers.
“This is a male dominated industry and they talk to each other. Landing a role as a favour blinds the legitimate directors and producers from seeing your actual talent most of the time,” she observes.
She says that most projects that have garnered notable nominations and awards have been those driven by legitimate film-makers who cast talent, not looks.
“It is so common for movie directors to call for auditions and indicate that the girls should be beautiful, light skinned, tall and boys with six packs with suggestions that the audience likes sexually appealing characters, which is not true. An actor should be able to carry off every role,” Nakabira states.
The actress is concerned by the astonishing lack of female producers and directors in the industry. Few women such as Mariam Ndagire and Claire Nampala are trying to fill the gap but there is a need for others to join them.
Through her Facebook group, Leilah Nakabira for Charity, she creates awareness surrounding sexual harassment in the industry. She points out that most victims choose to keep silent giving the perpetrators an opportunity to do it to others.
“These girls are afraid of what their family, friends and the general public will think of them once they open up about abuse. They are also worried that antagonising one director or producer might make them pariahs in the industry. They weigh the options and choose their careers over getting justice. This is the mentality my campaign is fighting against,” Nakabira says.
Abuse and discrimination are not the only hurdles Nakabira has faced in her journey to become a film star. Her own family was against her becoming an actress, a dream she haboured since she was three years old.
“My mother was not any different from many Ugandan parents who do not take the industry seriously. Apart from the moral issues surrounding the industry players, there is worry that it never pays enough and the income is not regular enough for one to make substantial financial investments,” explains Nakabira.
Her mother, Asia Nakiibuka (RIP) insisted she focuses on her studies and pursues conventional professions. Nakabira says she had always admired an auntie who worked as a financial assistant in a big business in Kampala; so she chose to become an accountant. She sat her A-Level exams at Mityana Mordern Secondary School in 2010 and passed with 20 points.
She was admitted to Makerere University for a bachelor’s degree in Quantitative Economics majoring in economic planning. Having completed her degree, she hoped her mother would be gratified enough to let her pursue her real love; acting. But her mother insisted she gets a job before joining the industry.
“I got a job with energy giant Sino-hydro which is in charge of Karuma Hydro Project. I had hoped they would let me work in Kampala so I could moonlight. But I was posted to Karuma. I had no option but to turn the offer down,” she relates.
The radical decision finally convinced Nakabira’s mother about how serious she was about the industry and she gave Nakabira her blessing.
“My mother trusted me and she trusted my decisions but she told me she was not sure about the returns I would make. Unfortunately she died before any of my projects became what they are today. She, however, was completely supportive and kept encouraging me whenever things seemed to get too difficult,” an emotional Nakabira relates.
Inspired by award winning Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, Nakabira set out to make a mark in the industry. Her first big break was the movie The Forbidden, a narrative feature film about an African girl child’s grim life. Directed by Samuel Kizito Savior, Nakabira acted as Dian, a girl on a quest to find her longlost father, who loses her mother during the search living her exposed to every manner of abuse.
The health of Ugandan film
Nakabira says it is exciting that Ugandan content is getting acknowledged at a global scale.
“Ugandan movies have been nominated in several awards, all we need is to fix issues in regards to storytelling and quality,” Nakabira says excitedly.
The actress ranks Uganda second in East African pointing out, it could do better if the industry tightened policy against piracy which kills originality and diversity.
“Most film makers tinker with stories that have been already made in other industries which makes it more irrelevant for the public to consume. They should notice that most of the films nominated abroad have original Ugandan stories, and learn from that” Nakabira points out.
The 26-year-old is looking forward to making more movies that bring the local industry global recognition but most importantly doing her bit to rout sexual harassment from it. She has written and directed a short feature story called April Baby.
The film about racism centres on a Ugandan girl who has a baby with an Indian man. The family does not only reject the baby but directs their son to kill the baby because she has their blood running in her veins. The girl must be constantly on a run to keep her baby safe.
She says she plans to take on her role as a producer and director with more seriousness than that exhibited by some of the local producers and directors she has met.
“I have no doubt that we would be doing better if only all the players committed fully to it. Most of our directors and producers do it as a side hustle. They are either businessmen or musicians who dabble in their free time. How can one expect to reap where they sow only when it is convenient?” Nakabira wonders.
She points out that another problem hindering the industry is poor or lack of personal branding.
“Actors have not invested in their personal images. In this area of social media, you find some actors without accounts. Others have not updated them since before they started acting, so you will find someone’s account saying they are teachers or some other such thing. This is the reason roles end up going to the same people when international producers come to Uganda; the rest are unknown,” says Nakabira.
Nakabira also decries the manner in which films are distributed in the country, explaining that even when Ugandans desire to consume locally made films they cannot find them. “People in Mbarara might never access films made in Kampala and those in Kampala will never hear or access movies made in Mbarara. Distributors are used to free films they download on the Internet, they do not want to distribute local movies because there is a price attached to them,” Nakabira notes.
Nakabira says her strongest attribute is confidence. “Before taking on a projecting or going for an audition, I make sure I make thorough preparations. This gives me the confidence which forces the people I am dealing with to treat me with respect and professionalism,” she states.
Her professionalism has paid off and she commands a handsome price.
“My charges depend on the film and script, but as standard the least I charge is Shs1.5m for two days if it is a local film. International films pay better,” the actress narrates.
The highest she has ever been paid is Shs2.8m for a role on Unseen, a local series.
To diversify her skills, Nakabira is planning to get professional dance lessons. Currently, she takes salsa lessons at the National Theatre
Awards and nominations
Nakabira is a self-taught actress, she has learned most of her skills from watching successful actors.
While still a student at university, Nakabira says she often went to Bat Valley Theatre, in Kampala to watch free acting classes then offered by popular screen director Mariam Ndagire.
She befriended actor Trevor Kaye who introduced her to a one Flavia Busuulwa of a Kampala-based production house called Vision One production who cast her in “Wasted” a Ugandan high school TV series.
“This was part of my training since it was a long project. Later on I landed other projects that included Dream America, a Gondaliya Paresh picture production which was later nominated by Uganda Film Festival (UFF) four times and also awarded best feature film in the Pearl International Film Festival (PIFF),” Nakabira relates.
I FEEL HONOURED
Nakabira was nominated this year at Golden Movie Awards Ghana.Her category includes Nigeria’s famed actress Rita Dominic , Daniella Okeke, among others for her role in a local feature film called Forbidden (high school drama).
“Being nominated alongside actresses of such great talent is an honour in itself. I grew up watching and admiring these powerful actresses. I feel like a winner already. This makes me hopeful that I am on the right track. The sky indeed is the limit,” she says excitedly.
Nakabira was also a nominee in UK based awards dubbed ZAFAA (Zulu African Film Academy Awards) in a category of best actress for a feature film called Forbidden.Nakabira’s most recent projects include Esther Nampewo’s horror film called The Spacemen, Slay queens (The Film) and April Baby a short Film she wrote and directed herself.