Directorial Insights Into The Oscar-Nominated Documentary "Bobi Wine: The People’s President"
Moses Bwayo, co-director of "Bobi Wine: The People's President" (photo courtesy of Southern Films)
Steven Morrow reflects on "Maestro," his 4th career Academy Award nod for Achievement in Sound

It’s been an auspicious directing debut for Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp as their Bobi Wine: The People’s President (National Geographic) has earned assorted honors, including nominations for a couple of high-profile awards--the Best Feature Documentary Oscar, as well as the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary. 

Bobi Wine: The People's President has additionally already won varied prizes such as topping the marquee category of Best Feature Documentary at the International Documentary Association Awards.

The film follows music star, activist, and opposition leader Bobi Wine, together with his wife Barbie, during Uganda’s 2021 presidential election as he rallies his people in a dangerous fight for freedom from President Museveni’s oppressive regime, which is now in its 38th year.

Sharp recalled first knowing of Wine from his music. Sharp was a fan and actually met Wine and his wife in Europe back in 2017. At that juncture, the couple was about to take on the daunting and dangerous task of pushing for new progressive leadership for the country they loved. Bobi and Barbie could have easily lived a life of comfort. Bobi had become a beloved artist and could have enjoyed all the trappings of fame. But he couldn’t look the other way in the face of injustice. His music took on human rights issues, he became a leader protesting against government corruption, and he was elected an independent member of the country’s parliament. When it became apparent that Wine and his family were in jeopardy for opposing and organizing against Museveni and his power base, Sharp came to Uganda to again get together with Bobi and Barbie, asking them if they would mind if he and colleague Bwayo made a documentary about the movement they championed.

Bwayo and Sharp, who are both Ugandans, marveled over the courage of Bobi, Barbie and their family--including their young kids who on different occasions had to leave the country for fear of their safety.

Bwayo and Sharp captured a tremendous amount of footage over five years of chronicling Bobi and Barbie’s story--a story which is ongoing. Bobi faces constant danger, as does Barbie alongside him. Bobi had been imprisoned multiple times, was beaten while incarcerated, his health at a low ebb on different occasions. Sharp and Bwayo were also in peril, with the latter getting shot in the face by government law enforcement.

The situation, said the co-directors, became increasingly violent, especially as they drew closer to the 2021 presidential election in which Wine ran against Museveni. The violence started to spread to journalists. Bwayo had been arrested several times and jailed. The conditions of being incarcerated were terrible, related Bwayo, noting that “it’s unthinkable that they keep humans in some of those cramped conditions”  After the election, Bwayo said there were two attempted kidnappings of his wife. “We [he and Sharp] decided that before we could release the film, we had to flee the country. And now we’re seeking political asylum.”

But beyond protecting themselves and their loved ones, Sharp and Bwayo had another prized possession that required safeguarding--the footage for the documentary. “The major challenge really was to protect the footage” from being destroyed or confiscated, said Bwayo, adding that he and Sharp were under constant surveillance by the police and military who would break into their residences. Their phones were tapped. Bwayo recalled having to change his phone number numerous times. He found it useful for a stretch to maintain foreign country phone numbers for his communications, particularly those related to the documentary.

Sharp noted that their filmmaking was under constant stress. “It was just very, very difficult, knowing that so many people were being killed, abducted, tortured. Bobi and Barbie were two people we had really grown to love...So you always had this sort of horrible sinking feeling that something really grim was going to happen. But the film has really made them so much safer, and the more recognition the film gets--and the more it gets out there--the safer they become.” Sharp observed that with every award nomination, every festival engagement, as audiences build for the documentary--along with awareness of the situation in Uganda--Bobi and Barbie are in a better position. There’s more of a chance for democracy in Uganda.

Sharp related that Bobi and Barbie still live in Uganda, going back and forth to the U.S. where their eldest son now resides after having his life threatened. Sharp explained that Bobi has maintained that the only place he wants to be is with the people of Uganda. “Bobi Wine is the embodiment of the fight for freedom and democracy. If he left Uganda, it would derail that fight, that revolution,” said Sharp.

Bwayo shared that a prime lesson learned from his experience making Bobi Wine: The People’s President is reinforcement of “the saying that goes ‘bad things happen because good people don’t do anything.’ Good people have to stand up to do something when you see something bad happen--and I hope the world sees this as well.”  Bwayo affirmed that good-willed people, within and outside Uganda, need to take action to seek justice. Countries need to provide their financial support to the people of Uganda and not to the dictatorship there. Looking the other way--in effect doing nothing--as death, destruction, and abuse of power persist only serves to support the corrupt regime.

Sharp observed that among the biggest takeaways he and Bwayo experienced from Bobi Wine: The People’s President is “the fragility of democracy. Uganda had a pretty robust democracy. They had democratic institutions. They had term limits. They had age limits on who could be president of the country.” 

In fact, Sharp pointed out that President Museveni when he first took power ran under the assertion that the problem with Africa, and particularly Uganda, was that its leaders stayed on too long. But when his regime was up for re-election, he orchestrated successful efforts to remove all term and age limits. “He’s removed all the institutions that are meant to protect the people,” said Sharp who added that this situation isn’t exclusive to Uganda. “It’s all over the world. We worry about that in America as well, and in Europe.” 

Ultimately, Sharp feels Bobi Wine: The People’s President is “a cautionary tale. Once you’ve lost the institutions that are meant to protect the people, and you’ve lost your Constitution, you’re in a really difficult place--particularly when the army, the police force and the judiciary are controlled by a single person. You need someone to come along who is heroic, Now, Uganda has heroes in Bobi and Barbie.” But the film is just a five-year slice of what’s happened. It goes on. “Bobi was recently put under house arrest. There are still people being abducted and tortured...There were so many times when Moses and I thought that we’d lost Bobi--you know that he’s either going to be imprisoned or killed. But he is a heroic person who’s fighting an extraordinarily difficult battle.”

Steven Morrow
On the strength of Maestro (Netflix), sound mixer Steven Morrow recently earned his fourth career Oscar nomination for Achievement in Sound--and second for a Bradley Cooper-directed film, the first being for A Star Is Born in 2019. Morrow’s other two Academy Award nods came for La La Land in 2017 and Ford v Ferrari in 2020.

In Maestro, writer-director Cooper takes us on stage and off, capturing parts of Bernstein’s public life as a music icon while also diving into his private world centered on a loving yet complicated marriage to Felicia Montealegre Bernstein. Art and life come together in this love story pairing the protagonists portrayed, respectively, by Cooper and Carey Mulligan--with each leading actor earning an Oscar nomination. 

Mulligan’s performance is masterful as we feel her love for her husband and their three children juxtaposed with this fiercely independent woman’s frustration and at times loneliness in light of his string of male lovers. There’s also Leonard Bernstein’s work and music--a career which educated Americans on the joy and importance of the arts--which are a source of pride and inspiration to his wife.

Maestro garnered a total of seven Oscar nominations--the others being for Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, and Makeup & Hairstyling.

For Maestro, Morrow is nominated alongside audio colleagues Richard King (sound designer/supervising sound editor), Jason Ruder (executive music producer, supervising music editor), Tom Ozanich (re-recording mixer) and Dean Zupancic (re-recording mixer). Zupancic has two nominations in the category this year, the other for his work on The Creator. Morrow, Ruder, Ozanich and Zupancic have a collaborative track record, which also includes sharing the aforementioned Oscar nomination for A Star Is Born.

Maestro posed a vast array of challenges, mirroring a wide-ranging narrative which went from capturing the intimacies of an imperfect marriage to doing justice to rousing musical spectacle. The latter is embodied in Bernstein conducting Gustav Mahler’s second symphony at Ely Cathedral, a massive, historic venue in the city of Ely situated in Cambridgeshire, England. 

Cooper wanted the actual performance to be recorded and shot live--a dramatic departure from the norm of deploying pre-recorded music and playing it back while musicians mime along. While it was a daunting proposition to microphone assorted orchestra and chorus members performing live in a cathedral prone to echoing--much less the enormous amount of audio that generates for post artisans--Morrow fully realized the power that such authenticity would deliver to the film. Cooper, said Morrow, wanted “to ensure that the audience would stand on that podium with Lenny” and experience “what it feels like to be a conductor.” It made for an enveloping experience for a movie theater audience.

It was akin to what Maestro cinematographer Matthew Libatique, ASC, FPS recently shared with SHOOT in its Cinematographers & Cameras Series. Libatique related that prior to the shoot, he was greatly affected by a sound check in which the London Philharmonic performed Mahler at the Ely Cathedral. “They started to play and everybody froze,” said Libatique. “I sat down in the first pew and couldn’t take my eyes and ears off of what we were experiencing. It was so moving--for me and everyone there. I remember how the music touched me--and how it was our duty to have the audience feel that power and emotion in the film.”

Morrow noted that another logistical hurdle at the venue, beyond being echoey, was “a pigeon problem.” Mahler’s piece has its quiet moments and external noise could ruin that. “We got incredibly lucky that we didn’t have those issues,” related Morrow who added that at the end of the Cathedral Ely shoot, it was “such a relief to have pulled off something that had never been tried before.” He also credited Netflix. It had been pitched to Netflix that Cooper wanted to record the orchestra live--something you just don’t normally do in a movie because it’s extremely expensive and so much can go wrong with 200 people playing music, performing on camera for two days in a row. “If we blow it on set,” it becomes all the more expensive to re-do or fix it, Morrow noted. “But Netflix was so supportive.”

The quest for authenticity applied throughout the film, another example being party scenes. Cooper wanted everybody at a party to talk--the way things actually are at such a social gathering--which required extensive microphoning and audio coverage. When certain conversations are focused on, the participants have to speak up to be heard--like you would at a real party, such as when Bernstein and Montealegre first meet. The goal again is to make the audience feel like they’re at the party. It’s real--the event, the era and the setting where it takes place.

Morrow said that Cooper is immersed in the creative process. And the director involves his collaborators, including the sound team, in that process at an early juncture. Morrow said he’s grateful to Cooper for enabling him “to participate in the artistic expression  of  the film by being so involved early on.” Morrow hopes to “take that forward” and continue that way of working, if possible. This underscores the fact, he observed, that “you can have an impact with sound at the very beginning of filmmaking. It doesn’t have to happen all in post. I’m grateful to Bradley. He brings me in and he is fearless...He’s always willing to try something, which is a generous thing for a director to do.”

Morrow has witnessed first-hand how Cooper has evolved and advanced as a director--from A Star Is Born to his second directorial turn, Maestro. “I think Maestro is a masterpiece. He’s [Cooper] stepped up his confidence and allowed himself to make the movie with a ton of joy.” Cooper also infuses his crew with that same confidence and joy, affirmed Morrow.

(This is the final installment of The Road To Oscar, a 16-part weekly series. SHOOT will follow up with coverage of the 96th Oscars, which will be held on Sunday, March 10.)

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