The Last Breath – A Film from a ‘Woke’ Ugandan filmmaker Jordan Braise.

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Sometimes I wonder why I keep writing and putting out work, this may occur when I get into an occasional funk, but the beauty of life is that it creates events to remind one why they are on the journey they are on. Such an event was at the Durban Film Festival when myself and Jordan Braise crossed paths. Carrying a very quiet and calm demeanor I was always curios about Jordan. It wasn’t till we all went home that we connected. After a few exchanges I suggested that I write about his Grad film from Uganda Film School. His wisdom far exceeds his age, his love for the continent is tangible and his connection to his inner self is worthy of respect.

The Last Breath entails “A dying Ugandan mother gives her young daughter, Nina, a red balloon as a final lesson to deal with grief. Protecting the balloon and her mother’s last breath at all costs, Finally learning to let her mother go, she and her father send up another balloon into the sky containing their message of love.” The film touches on loss and depression, because of misunderstanding it is taboo in many societies. A short film that won Best Student Film at the Uganda Film Festival, Jordan’s future as a filmmaker is cemented in time.

The Reel Nthabiseng: Your film “The Last Breath” is sentimental, touching and has the ability to pull at the heartstrings. Is this a story inspired by personal events?

Jordan Braise: I remember when I had just started writing, this was before I joined film school. I was teaching myself how to write screenplays. So I downloaded a free book and started reading it. I remember in this book the author said “If you want to know a director’s personal experiences, go and watch his/her past films.” As artists, directors and writers, we usually write things that connect to us. Most of the professional filmmakers I meet tell me never to write or direct something that doesn’t speak to me. In the case of my film, at first I didn’t realize it but later after it was done, I saw a bit of myself, for a long time I was a person who was always driven my emotions, some people hate me for being a sensitive person. Instead of hating it, I express human emotions visually in film, and recently with a help of a mentor, I realized it’s the central purpose of my work. Bringing out human emotions that have been hidden for so long. Adding to this, I remember when I was still in film school, one of the lecturers asked why I wanted to be a director, my response was “I want to make people cry”. It’s all about emotions with me (grief, joy, depression, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, and love) they speak to me and I put them on paper.

TRN: Tell me the process of conceptualizing “The Last Breath”?

JB: Film is a visual medium. First you need to know what a story is. In my opinion a story when it comes to film is a culmination of events, episodes, conflicts and actions that happen during the journey of the character and are presented in a dramatized structure in a screenplay. Without conflict, there is no action. Without action, there is no character. Apart from the idea you get at the beginning and the research you make about your idea, you have to know your main character; what he or she wants, what’s her main goal and what is her backstory. You have to have a well detailed biography of your main character, this helps in situations where you get lost in the screenplay. The biography speaks to you and you get to understand the direction or the action that he or she (the character) has to take in a specific event, incident or episode. A good character is built through knowing his personal, private and professional life. Know your character’s needs well or the main obstacle which will help you know the journey of the screenplay from the setup, confrontation and resolution. As Syd Field says “Your character has to be active, has to be doing things, causing things to happen, not just reacting all the time.”

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With fellow Talents at the 2017 Durban International Film Festival.
With fellow Talents at the 2017 Durban International Film Festival.

TRN: Was this your Graduation film from Kampala Film School?

JB: Yes this was my grad film. When I joined film school, I made a promise to myself to make 5 projects by the time of my grad, I fulfilled my promise. This was my fifth project and my final film.

TRN: Tell me more about Kampala Film School, how has it aided you as a filmmaker?

JB: During the time I decided to take a career in cinema, I searched for film schools around Uganda and I found Kampala Film School, it’s a well-established film school and it was a solid foundation for my career. I don’t know where else in Uganda I would have got the knowledge about cinema as a craft of visual storytelling. A lot of people, or organizations will show you how to make a film but a few will show you how to make a film in a cinematic way, that’s the knowledge I got from my school. I met people like King Matovu who was my cinematography lecturer, this is the person who changed my perspective towards film as an art. The person who introduced me and my other colleagues to the cinema world. Missing his lectures was like a priest kicking a person out of church service. They were spectacular, incredible. Cristiano Civitillo, the head of the school now, who was my directing lecturer. I remember in his first lecture, he showed us work he had done for big brands like Nike, shot documentaries about famous soccer players. I looked at his work and deep down in my heart I wished to myself to be like him. We really learnt what it meant to be a film director during his classes, I never missed his classes. The other classes I really enjoyed were the Film Analysis classes, Arlen Dilsizian was my lecturer, the person who introduced me to the history of cinema, we studied the European History of cinema, the French New Wave, and we analyzed different films in his classes. I loved his classes, they taught me a lot about the great masters of cinema like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg. They had different ways of approaching storytelling visually to speak to the audience.  I learnt that film as an art can be made in different forms and styles. That was interesting to me and I believe it is a profound school.

TRN: What is your chosen skill set in film?

JB: I’d like to think of myself a Film Director and Writer, though I do also edit. I would love to explore the field of cinematography a bit more. While in school I enjoyed the classes and I loved the theoretical part of it but I didn’t engage myself more in the practical world, because I was more immersed in the craft of directing and writing. It’s something I want to explore more of.

Hanging out on the Uzalo TV set.
Hanging out on the Uzalo TV set.

IMG-6301TRN: Tell me about the process of the film from concept, to writing and shooting. How long did it take to get to the final draft and were there co-writers or people who guided you to get the film where it is now?

 JB: With my film the process was similar with other films, it all started with different ideas that I pitched to my mentor Ian Master and lecturer during the time. With the different ideas I had, the one of a girl protecting a red balloon containing the last breath of the mother was the most outstanding one. So we set up a logline, research, treatment, outline and then script. The writing of the script took about 8-10 months. After the first draft of the script, I think that’s when Ian shifted and settled in Nairobi, so we started communicating more through email. The good thing is by this time we had already had one on one sessions and we knew what the story was about, characters and their journeys in the screenplay. All the script drafts were written by me and Ian. After the last draft, we pitched it to Savannah Moon Productions, they loved the story. We did a partnership between the school and the production company and the shooting of the whole script took four days.

TRN: Talk about Ian Master being your mentor.

 JB: When I joined film school, I asked the head of the school, if we were going to have script writing classes, because I could see it on our time – table but the lecturer wasn’t showing up. I was always excited for these writing classes because that’s what I wanted to do. The head of school told me we were going to have the writing classes, but the person responsible had just settled in the country, he needed time to catch up with a few things. Then I was informed when the classes would begin. This all happened during the time I didn’t even know who Ian was. I was just there every day making a countdown to the day of the first class of writing. Ian is the foundation of my writing journey, he is like a father-mother figure of writing to me. If I get an idea he is the person that I will run to, if I need some advice about writing, he’s still the person I will run to. Ian is the person who introduced me to the craft of screenplay. Before I joined film school I had written a script but it wasn’t written in a crafted way of cinema and it didn’t connect to me, I was just writing. But when I met Ian, he introduced me to the craft of script writing. How to tell a story visually using pictures, actions and events. The first person to show me how to see the film visually before you even think of shooting it. Ian Masters is a British script writer who has written many feature films and some of them are; The Last Reel directed by Ms. Sotho Kulikar, Departed –Cambodian TV feature for BCC, Ujan Ganga Naiya –Bangladesh TV series for BCC, Jinxed directed by Gary Mugisha.

TRN: How long was production and post-production before the official release of the film?

JB: The production or the shooting of the film took four days and the editing process took about 4-5 months. I edited it with a friend and good editor Bellion David.  Editing is like writing, the first draft of the film is trash, you have to re-edit the film until you can tell a story that speaks to you as an editor, if it doesn’t speak to you as an editor, there’s a higher chance it won’t speak to the audience too. In most cases when you are editing you can either follow the script or do without it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a must for an editor to read the whole script and understand it well but he can decide with the director to shift the story line in a different unique way that will speak to the audience more than the actual story line. Most films, if you watch them and go read their scripts, they are a bit different on script. This is because there could be a scene that was omitted during the editing process or the director changed the direction of the film. Instead of going for a linear style of editing, he used the nonlinear style. Editing is writing.

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TRN: The young girl in the film mourns the death of her mother. In most African societies children do not go through a process of therapy or given time to mourn, what has been your thinking around this and displaying it in film?

JB: You are right, definitely right. You know, it took me a long time to know what depression was. Before I could get depressed, and I don’t even know that I’m depressed. It’s later when I read about what depression was that I found out it’s something that I have gone through many times. This is the thing, in Africa majority of the people have no idea about different emotions, and people are depressed and have no idea what it is or what to do about it. I believe there are a lot of people who die in hospitals not because they’re sick but because they’re killed by sadness, grief, fear and depression. Depression is a devil of the mind, that’s how I call it. Nina the character in my film goes through different emotions; depression, grief, fear and later acceptance. How does she accept? She accepts through her father buying her another balloon that she uses to send to her dead mother her own last words of love. This is a time she accepts that her mother is gone, and it’s time to move on, her father’s form of acceptance is by sewing for her a different dress (Green) that is different from the (Red) dress her mother was working on before she died. She puts on the green dress at the grave when she’s sending her last words of love. This shows us that if someone is passing through some bad emotions like depression, find that one thing that makes you stronger, it might me a talent, a person, or watching a game. The sooner you find it the faster you overcome depression, grief, sadness or fear. Nina found her strength in a balloon her mother left her, and after it’s gone she finds another balloon to send to her mother. She got purified.

With his award for Best Student film at the Uganda Film Festival 2017.
Jordan with his award for Best Student film at the Uganda Film Festival 2017.
Jordan receiving his certificate from the Maisha Screenwriting Lab founded by filmmaker extraordinaire Mira Nair.
Jordan receiving his certificate from the Maisha Screenwriting Lab founded by filmmaker extraordinaire Mira Nair.

NM: Your film deals heavily on death and mourning, it is therapeutic in a sense. In the mind of the child, she is doing everything possible to hold on to her mother. The father also is reeling from the death but he has to put up a brave face and still face raising his daughter, quite a daunting task. How is the daughter-father dynamic that you are trying to relay in the film.

JB: At the beginning of the film there’s a gap between the father (Elvis Andrew Mutebi as Cyrus) the daughter (Tona Rucci as Nina). This is because the father hates the balloon the daughter is playing with. In his mind he believes the balloon led to the death of his wife (Lillian Mbabazi as Phionah), though we don’t hear him say it. This is expressed by the way he grabs the balloon from the daughter and throws it outside. He doesn’t care how much the balloon means to the daughter. He hates it. It’s later that he realizes how much it means to his daughter and this is towards the end. He buys for her another balloon that she sends up in the sky. His showing of care to his daughter even if he hates the balloon, is shown when his sewing a red dress her mother was working on shortly before she died. He thinks this dress means something to his daughter, so he tries to proceed with the job that was left unfinished. But he realizes that the daughter doesn’t like the red dress, he later gets her a green dress that she likes. Through grief and sadness they try to find the things that can help them go through the hard time and later these are the same things that make their bond stronger than before. Visually this film was more of showing the lives of the characters than using dialogue to express who they are. As the masters of film say “Film is showing not telling”, that’s why in the beginning we had silent films that had no dialogue, but people still went to cinemas to watch them and understood the stories.

TRN: How was the casting process?

JB: The casting process was a bit tricky especially selecting the right girl to play as the main character because I knew I needed someone who would bring out the emotions in the script. With the help of Nana Kagga and Meme Kagga the Executive producers of the film and owners of Savannah Moon Productions, I was able to find good actors and actresses that would do the job I wanted. We sent out a word on social media and also called a few friends that we hoped could help. We set up a date for auditions, then those who were able to participate showed up.The process was a bit tricky because in some cases I could look at someone not doing the scene well but I could see something else that’s unique about him or her. Let me give an example of the mother: some of the people who came to audition for the mother character, they would do it well, act it out perfectly but when you look at their appearances, they don’t fit a role of a mother. At least not the mother in my film. Some looked way young than the one I needed. That was a big challenge. But we were later able to get amazing actors.

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TRN: The film has been picking up awards and receiving recognition, how do you feel about that and what are the plans for the film?

JB: I feel great that my film is getting recognized, not only in Uganda put Internationally. It’s really a good feeling. Being recognized is one of the things that pushes you to think about another project to work on because you have this feeling of your art being appreciated, this makes you feel important. Sometimes I look at the awards that the film has been able to get and then remember how far I have come, all the lows, setbacks and I remember I have passed through all this to get here. I know the struggle is still big, and I still have a lot of challenges to pass through to get to where I want to be but that doesn’t deny me celebrating and enjoying what I have today however small or big it is. The good thing is that I see my destination clearly but the journey to that place, is what I’m creating now. Like a screenplay, our journeys to our destinations have a beginning, middle and end. Apparently I’m creating a strong foundation that will be strong enough to hold my destination. We are still submitting the film to different festivals then later we shall release it for public viewing.

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TRN: Talking about Kampala, how is the film landscape like there?

JB: This is a question I usually try to avoid to answer, because I wouldn’t like to be in trouble with the authorities. To talk about the challenges filmmakers face in Uganda, I don’t know of any support or fund that is preserved for filmmakers in Uganda. I think it’s the last sector that is even thought about. Being a filmmaker is a bit harsher in Uganda, than anywhere else. I have not been to many places but that’s the way I see it. But that has not limited us or made us surrender. Many young talented filmmakers are still coming up, schools are being formed, and production companies are coming up. The industry is really developing so fast. One thing people usually forget, is that right from the beginning we live in a world driven by art.  We wouldn’t have known about the human history if the great writers didn’t write about themselves and the events that were happening during their time. These are the things that give us a glimpse of the past, how it was or how it felt being in that time. It’s all about art, without art life would be meaningless. Another example; if previous artists didn’t document the world wars or the Vietnam wars, then it would have been a time lost in history. But because we have footage of what happened during those wars, we can see how they’re among the greatest disasters in human history. I believe all filmmakers have to be thanked and appreciated, it’s not an easy path to take in a world that doesn’t respect them. Like writers and painters we also preserve the history of our time. The only difference is, we preserve it in a moving picture, either dramatized or not.

IMG_1557TRN: We met at the Durban International Film Festival, how was that experience like for you? What did you take away?

JB: I take DIFF, to be a wake up call for me. What people don’t know, shortly before DIFF, I was on a mission to quit film making. I was passing through a bad time that I felt like I needed to quit cinema. The only challenge I was facing during this time, is that I was asking myself a question that I did not have an answer to, and that question was “If you quit film making, what other profession are you going to take on?” I didn’t have the answer to that, all my thoughts were leading me back to film making. I really hated myself. Film is a home to my thoughts and actions, like a woman that I married too and never wants to leave me no matter the challenges we pass through. So during this time I received an email that I was invited by Durban International Film Festival to be part of the 30 talents that have been invited. It was the greatest feeling of happiness that I felt, it was like me and my wife (Film) had got our first child. So I said to myself, let me go and be part of this program, after that I will decide what’s next for me. Now reaching Durban and being around different professional filmmakers from all over the world blew my mind, this was a wake up call for me. It was like seeing a reflection of myself in a near future through these filmmakers. Interacting with other talents, forging relationships every single day with not only the talents but even professional filmmakers, this was an incredible, amazing time. It was like an event that God had set up for me. I remember going to the hotel and saying to myself to hell with what the world thinks, to hell to what will happen in the future, it will never change I will always be a filmmaker no matter what challenges or setbacks I go through, all I need is to create a plan of how to reach my destination. Right there, I gave up my fears. So to me DIFF was more than what people think, it rescued me from my darkest time and changed my mindset through the people I met.  I received mentor-ship from Alby James, the first person to challenge me with the question most filmmakers think they have the answer too, and that is “Why do you want to be a filmmaker?” it’s seems easy in the eyes of every filmmaker but you would be challenged if you faced Alby. Most filmmakers will tell you, “they want to tell stories” or it’s a passion they have had since childhood and they want to take it on as a career.  Believe me if you face Alby you will be challenged, it’s actually more than that. The good thing is that, I found my reason as to why I want to be a filmmaker and it is; “I want to capture human emotions” then the usual answers can follow. I have passed through most of these emotions and they are part of me, as a filmmaker I pass them over to my characters through a dramatized way of storytelling. Whenever I get an idea about a film, I see my character(s) passing through these emotions.

TRN: What are your ambitions as a filmmaker? And how do you view Africa?

JB: I remember one of my lecturer’s when I was still in film school said “Wherever you go, you will always be seen as an African filmmaker.” That statement opened my mind in a way that I got to know I will always tell African stories. Why? Because they’re the stories I’m attached to. You know because we grew up watching western films, some African filmmakers want to tell stories in a western way. That is how I was too, but after that statement from my lecturer, I changed my mind set. I’m African and I will tell African stories. I believe the western world doesn’t like to see a story that looks western but shot in Africa by an African. They want to see something that speaks to them in an African language of storytelling. I believe in Africa we have a lot of stories that haven’t been touched, we should do those. I have many ambitions but one of them is to be a better filmmaker tomorrow than I was yesterday. I want to be part of the changing world of African Cinema, you never know I might be part of the African New wave of storytelling that would be recognized internationally.

TRN: Last words? 

JB: Just a few words from the masters of cinema most of us look up to “The older I get, the more I look at movies as a moving miracle. Audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them special effects…but they’re easy to please if it’s a good story.”- Steven Spielberg.

James Cameron said “Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as Director. Now you’re a director, everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee.

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Jordan Braise on Facebook  click here.

The Last Breath on Facebook click here.

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