Moses Serubiri turns on the television and watches the news unfold, in living and often riotous contradiction, in a programme that has viewers from Kampala to Kansas hooked on the hilarity, the spectacle and the harsh reality of Ugandan politics.
In an episode of Point Blank, police officers join in watching a carnival of rioting dancers, their heads garlanded with plantain leaves, sweeping the road with tree branches. Some of them swig beer while dancing along with the riot. Others curse while sweeping the road: “Batwaale bii waabwe!” (Let them take their shit!)
The six-minute feature on NTV Uganda, a subsidiary of Nation Media Group, relays an analysis of the day’s news that simultaneously highlights the sheer ludicrousness of news and analysis in contemporary Uganda, where the media are largely state-controlled. The show takes its name from ballistics, and although its “targets” are always close-range, Point Blank largely fires blanks. It readily mixes live reportage with staged material, and analysis with satire, often switching so rapidly between them that distinctions blur. Incongruities abound. In the Point Blank world revellers curse and cry, politicians dance, protesters party and policemen sing. It’s this combination of reality and satire that makes Point Blank so popular. To read the rest of this article online, subscribe.
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Over the past five years the show has built a significant following, not only across all levels of society in Uganda, but also in the diaspora through Youtube: the 2012 episode “Dancing Cops”, for example, boasted 21,566 views; “The Day Museveni met Museveni” (2011) clocked more than 32,000 and “Self Made-man” (2009) drew almost 35,000. Viewers are enthusiastic: “Seriously, I love Uganda. Here is another Point Blank video that had me giggling uncontrollably in the office,” comments one; “Haahahahah my God… this is too much… i miss my Uganda,” responds another; “Good stuff can make u laugh and get off stressful life i love my President Y.K.M,” adds another.
The episode “Hollywood in Kasangati” (2011) takes viewers to the home of Dr Kizza Besigye, the detained Ugandan opposition FDC party president, in Kasangati, Wakiso district, where the Assistant Superintendent of Police, Sam Omalla, is trying to subdue approaching rioters, unhappy about their leader’s detention. But the angry crowd Omalla faces is not wielding guns or knives or axes. Rather they’re armed with a set of dance moves that stuns even the riot police.
“Hahaha!” screeches the sarcastic Point Blank reporter, “Even the traffic officers could not stop them!” We cut back to the crowd, where a man shows off an impressive set of what looks like Zulu dance moves, thrusting and lurching, hammering the dirt with his feet. In the background, rioters continue dismantling the ekiddo (grass) or ebiggwa (thorns) road barricades. The police officers receive the Zulu dancer’s over-choreographed salute with stunned silence. “What is this strange salute afande (soldier) traffic officer?” the voice-over asks. The afande in his bulletproof jacket looks on dumbfounded.
Here, protest has become performance and politics has become nothing but a Hollywood spectacle, entertaining but empty. The viewer focuses on the saluting dancer in the foreground and forgets the riot police in full gear, the tear gas and the guns in the background. The real news is brushed away by the sheer spectacle of it all. Yet, there is nothing spectacular about the scene we are swept up in. The protesters, if anything, are simply ridiculous. What can the villagers of Kasangati do with those brooms? What can they do with those tribal dances? Indeed, what can that man do with that Zulu dance salute? What chance do they stand against the army’s power? Protest or resistance is not only ridiculous, it’s impossible.
Protest is also the target of Point Blank’s “Jobless Brotherhood” episode. In this staged instalment a pair of protesters, clad in ridiculous red academic gowns, carries a coffin to the Independence Monument in Kampala. Viewers immediately make the connection. The “Jobless Brotherhood” is a satirical take on recent student strikes on Makerere University’s main campus, with a specific reference to a protest staged against the government’s passivity in the face of Chinese power.
Again Point Blank doesn’t attempt to conceal its agenda. The media are the fourth arm of the Ugandan government and Point Blank is just one of its many digits. The show is quick to point fingers. It overtly ridicules the protesters as idle youth and accuses them of shaming not only their institutes, but the very institution of education: “Like these Makerere University students! Instead of reading books, they are carrying a blank head to the constitutional square and violating the undergraduate’s gown!”
In the video, we follow the gown-clad youths toward their destination. Once there, the often ignored statue is transformed into a beacon of political history by Point Blank’s skewed lens. So much so that when the protesters lay the coffin beside the statue, the commentator launches a vehement remonstration, deeming the statue “sacred”: “This country has gone to the dogs, countrymen! Youths want our country cursed by taking coffins to the sacred Independence Monument. They call themselves the Jobless Brotherhood. We should detest such actions!”
This view obviously reinforces the government’s position, but does it also represent popular opinion? I had to find out from a pedestrian source. I jumped onto the back of a boda boda and asked the driver if he knew about the protest in question. He had heard about it, he said, but the details were unclear. I explained that protesters laid the coffin at the Independence Monument. He’d neither heard of the monument, nor did he know its meaning. Yet he found the gesture of the coffin misleading: “Why didn’t they use something more direct, like pigs?” This was in reference to a recent protest incident at the Parliament. It echoed a similar protest in Nairobi a year ago involving painted piglets. I discovered in the course of the conversation that he’d read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. There he learned about the pig as a sign of corruption. Although related to death, the coffin was an indecipherable symbol to him. The boda driver’s final take was that this was all part of the design of power: “At the end of the day, all they do is to distract us. Some big office politician is funding this to fool us into believing an opposition exists.”
This is by no means a pedestrian analysis. In Uganda government penetrates almost every area of daily life. It is hardly surprising that the manic voice of Point Blank belongs to Agnes Nanduttu, an NTV staff reporter and the chairperson of Uganda’s Presidential Press Unit. But if, as our boda rider suggests, the protests are in themselves staged by the government, this makes the “Jobless Brotherhood” episode a satire of a charade. Here’s where things get more complex.
Cameroonian film maker Jean-Pierre Bekolo recently pointed to the role of television in opening up public space on the continent: “Television is being used … as a place where everything is possible. […] Right now there is a television boom in Cameroon. There are over 100 [local] TV channels.” Point Blank is a product of this boom. Certainly it supports the state’s agenda by distracting the public from real news, but, as the boda driver attests, that reality is itself suspect. In this regard, Point Blank displays a surprising degree of self-awareness. As a news show that satirises news shows it could also be seen to show the impossibility of news in a space where even protest is government-owned.
And Point Blank’s take on Ugandan political culture isn’t new. Irony is central to the way Ugandan society remembers its violent past. One of the many narratives often represented with irony and humour is that of the bush. The Ugandan Bush War happened between 1981 and 1985. Its main protagonist was the National Resistance Army, fighting against the Milton Obote regime. Trained by FRELIMO, the liberation army of Mozambique, a young Yoweri Museveni led the NRA in guerrilla warfare.
Ugandan media regularly invokes animal-like images when referring to the bush war, as in The New Vision’s tribute to the NRA commander Sulaiman Ssemakula: “The tough, fearless, carefree, gallant fighter Col. Sulaiman Ssemakula did not fall by the bullet of an enemy… ‘We knew him as Lion of the jungle because he was as strong physically and fearless as a lion,’…”
The New Vision story exaggerates to evoke the violence of civil war, when, in fact, there is no such conflict happening currently in Uganda. Instead, the media fill a particular void, using violent and vulgar language to engage with post-war emptiness. Stories of a bush free of armed rebels accompany news features in which former commanders dance with wild abandon. Yet, even with relative peace and stability under the ruling NRM, there is fear of civil war returning to Uganda. Media sketches, such as those in Point Blank, project rebel uprising, abduction of civilians or another coup d’état. Here fantasies and fictions of violence serve the purpose of archiving collective memory of war, while, at the same time, nursing present anxiety and fears about the return of violence.
In Kampala, it sometimes feels like we are also still in the bush. The memory of civil war infects the everyday. The poet Rehema Nanfuka writes about a generation for whom “a boom of any kind leaves us with sweaty palms and quaky limbs”. When he reads this poem, the audience almost always reacts with laughter. It’s a laughter that echoes with both nostalgia for the simplicity of the war years and its overt forms of violence and a fear of the covert violence that haunts contemporary Ugandan life.
Booms, screams and gunfire provide the soundtrack to the opening of the episode of Point Blank entitled “Terror Attack Drills”. The narrator quickly placates us: “Don’t get scared, it’s Point Blank.” And in this case it is. The chaos we are watching is merely a drill, an enactment, a preparation for some unnamed terror to come. Bullets pop, voices scream, police officers are shown falling into trenches clasping their heads and limbs and “demonstrating how victims of violence must suffer”. So a farce of a farce. A spectacle of what many have called the “Spectacle of Terrorism”. Life can no longer be seen as divided into reality and fantasy, rather as a continuous unfolding and enfolding of them.
The narrator adds to the ambiguity with an ironic comment: “Terrorism must be stopped to safeguard our country… and to give freedom to our investors.” In the final scene we cut to a group of seemingly Arab men dancing to music in a club in Kampala. “You can see how our investors enjoy their freedom,” says the narrator as the “investors” thrust their pelvises forward in a vulgar display of power and freedom.
Point Blank is full of displays of vulgarity. Police officers dance lewdly, soldiers swear, politicians are quoted out of context to give their words added sexual connotations. The grotesque and the obscene are signs of what Achille Mbembe calls regimes of domination; the cultural and political work by which state power comes down to the level of the greatest number of people; how, in short, power “vulgarises itself”.
Violence and vulgarity are omnipresent in Ugandan life. I recall a recent incident at my barber’s during the imbalu, the traditional manhood ritual of Gisu. Outside the makeshift barbershop, there was loud drumming and thumb piano music. The boys were going to fulfil their rites of manhood. Men and women cheered them on dancing wildly. One barber recognised a woman dancing in the ensemble and made an observation: “Ha! There are some people who appear normal and dignified during the day. But when you play local drums they lose it. I don’t know what magic possesses them.”
Facing the man, my barber rose to defend the tradition: “I’ll put you on the chopping block. Then, I will stretch your thing like a chicken’s neck.” He positioned himself like a butcher, sharpening his knives. In his hand, his shaver turned into a huge meat cleaver. Then, he released the heavy knife on the invisible penis. Kaboom!
This kind of exaggerated theatricality is the life blood of Point Blank. The episode “Hollywood in Kasangati” ends with an exaggerated standoff, not between the police and protestors, but rather between Superintendent Omalla and Member of Parliament Semujju:
Voice-over: Afande Omalla Come! Come! There’s work here!
Omalla: If you are in parliament, do I come and disturb you, there? This is my parliament!
Voice-over: Tell them! Tell them Omalla, they think they are untouchable.
MP Semujju: This country belongs to us!
Voice-over: Which country belongs to you Mweshimiwa?
Omalla: You go away from here! I will embarrass you!
MP: You can embarrass me as you want.
Voice-over: And even before your voters? Alright!
Omalla: Push this man out of this place.
Voice-over: Didn’t I tell you, MP Semujju? Omalla is bad news, bwana!
In Point Blank, “bad news” is good news. The last line of the voice-over is a warning to Semujju of the violence the army officer is capable of. This scenario reinforces the dichotomy between parliament and the bush, and between political and military power in Uganda. The politician must submit to the threats of the army officer, or else! The army officer’s assertion (“This is my parliament!”) reflects the modes of domination and submission in postcolonial Uganda. Other dichotomies emerge in the episode: we celebrate brutality and we look down on intellectual talkers; we celebrate freedom fighters and we mock protestors. If the public is to have any regard whatsoever for our politicians, the latter must display the ruthlessness of a bush veteran. More often than not, revered Ugandan politicians are former military officials. Museveni is a case in point.
We watch Point Blank because it turns even “bad news” into good news, indeed something laughable. Our desire for news and analysis is fulfilled without us having to face the reality of that news or to dwell on the analysis. It allows us to ridicule those in power while at the same time upholding their power. Perhaps, most profoundly, we watch it because it allows us to laugh; it provides a six-minute release from the mass anxiety about a return to civil war, and ,through making fun of violence, allows for a cathartic release from an unending history of violence. We make it laughable and thus tolerable. [/ppw]
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