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Doc about singer Bobi Wine and his fight against Uganda's leader is up for an Oscar

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Now a look at one of this year's Oscar nominees for best documentary feature film. It's the story of an opposition leader in Uganda, Robert Kyagulanyi, a hugely popular singer who goes by the name Bobi Wine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUGAMBIRE KU JENNIFER")

BOBI WINE: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: NPR has been following news about Bobi Wine and his fight against Uganda's president for years. Here's Eyder Peralta back in 2018.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Because President Yoweri Museveni has stayed in power since 1986 by crushing dissent violently. But suddenly, Bobi Wine began singing about oppression and the indignities of poverty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We want to go (ph). These are our rights. These are our rights.

CHANG: The film is called "Bobi Wine: The People's President," and Kelly McEvers has the story. A warning - this piece contains the sound of gunfire.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Bobi Wine still lives in Uganda despite the fact that he is regularly followed, arrested, beaten and put under surveillance at his house. When the news broke that the film about him had been nominated for an Oscar, he was not in a place where he could easily get that news.

WINE: I had escaped from my own house, and I was in hiding. And my wife and I - because she's also as naughty as I am - she had found me. And that's when the news came, and I screamed. If there was any police officer nearby, I would have been arrested.

MCEVERS: I recently met Bobi here in LA with his wife, Barbie, and the film's co-directors while they were promoting the film as part of the Oscars campaign. The project started seven years ago. Bobi Wine had gotten famous singing these Afropop songs about corruption, and he decided to run for Parliament and won.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINE: I came to Parliament today to be sworn in as the new MP for Kyadondo County East.

MCEVERS: That's when co-director Moses Bwayo started following Bobi with a camera.

MOSES BWAYO: And the story we wanted to tell was this musician who had pulled himself out of the ghetto, you know, going on to build this great life for himself and now was inspiring a nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINE: People power.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Power, power.

WINE: People power.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Power, power.

BWAYO: But as we started filming, it grew and grew.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINE: I am going to fight on. And like I said, we must get our freedom, or we shall die trying to get our freedom.

BWAYO: And that's when violence was unleashed upon him.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)

CHRISTOPHER SHARP: I really felt that Bobi was going to die.

MCEVERS: That's Christopher Sharp, a British filmmaker who was born in Uganda and who co-directed the film. He says at one point, he and Moses realized that the fact they were making this film, the idea that the world was watching, was actually keeping Bobi alive.

BWAYO: We knew that the camera being around would act as a protection.

MCEVERS: But then authorities started targeting other people around Bobi. As he campaigned for president in 2021, more than a hundred of his supporters were abducted.

BWAYO: Lots of his supporters until today are missing.

MCEVERS: The film's co-director, Moses, himself was shot, arrested, interrogated and put in prison. And there were two attempted kidnappings of his wife. So he and his family fled Uganda. They're now here in LA, seeking asylum. Moses remembers his first morning in the U.S.

BWAYO: I could taste. I could smell. I could see color. I could recognize people's eyes and people's faces. And I did not know when those feelings had left me. And we take those feelings for granted. But those are the feelings that - you know, that's what it means to be alive.

MCEVERS: Bobi Wine says you shouldn't only have this feeling in America but everywhere. His wife, Barbie, says that's the lesson of the film.

BARBIE KYAGULANYI: This film should go as far as it can go so the rest of the democracies in the world realize how easy it is for them to lose their democracies and that they should ferociously protect their democracies.

MCEVERS: Bobi Wine lost that presidential election. He still leads an opposition party in Uganda. He's not allowed to perform live. Radio stations can't play his music. At the only public screening of this film in Uganda, three of his supporters were abducted. He told me the Oscar nomination made him feel a little bit safer. But then Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and lead character in last year's Oscar winner for best documentary, died in prison.

WINE: It made me think again. It affected my confidence so much knowing that if a world-known freedom fighter like Navalny would get eliminated, then that emboldens all the dictators. So officially I'm scared.

MCEVERS: That said, Bobi says he will go back to Uganda when all this Oscar stuff is over.

WINE: I'm not promising that I'm going to change anything, but I'm promising that I'm not going to give up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM")

WINE: (Singing) I say we are fighting for freedom.

MCEVERS: For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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