Review: Donald Mugisha's 'Bicycle Thieves'-Like Ugandan Crime Drama 'The Boda Boda Thieves'
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Review: Donald Mugisha's 'Bicycle Thieves'-Like Ugandan Crime Drama 'The Boda Boda Thieves'

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Inspired by Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 drama "The Bicycle

Thief," director Donald Mugisha’s "The Boda Boda Thieves" gives

a vivid look into the life of a Ugandan teen on a mission to save his family’s

livelihood. Produced through the Pan-African filmmaking collective Yes! That’s

Us Films, the feature recently screened at the Seattle International Film

Festival.

On paper, the stories for this film and De Sica’s are

similar – the fate of a poor family hinges on the father’s bicycle business,

and when his bike is stolen it throws their world into chaos. Here, the

patriarch Goodman runs a boda boda (motorbike taxi) business while his wife

breaks rocks for a living. Though the economic conditions are just as

depressing as 1940s Italy, this story is fast paced and offers moments of

comedy to punctuate the overall dramatic tone. Mugisha also treads new

territory by telling his story squarely from the perspective of Goodman’s 15-year-old

son Abel.

From the first, Abel is cast as a young thrill-seeker itching

for mischief. His parents want him to go into town to find a job; he’d rather

hang out gambling with friends. To manage his parents’ expectations, he does

what any savvy young man would do – he lies. First-time actor Hassan Insingoma,

whose real life influenced many of the events in the movie, gives a natural

performance as Abel that makes the character easy to like, even as he makes all

the wrong choices.

Insingoma’s Abel is just as aimless and irresponsible as any

modern-day American teen, but in the unforgiving big city of Kampala his

actions come with a price. When forced to take over his dad’s boda boda

business, the responsibility of providing for the family is suddenly heaped on

his skinny shoulders. It’s not by chance, but by Abel’s willful decisions that

the motorbike and his family’s livelihood are soon thrown into jeopardy. In a

community corrupt at every level, he tries to get out of trouble while only

managing to drag himself deeper into it. As such, the film becomes a coming-of-age

tale with a morality lesson attached. Abel wants the bike, but he needs to grow

and become better.

Though morality is threaded throughout the film, it’s

even-handed enough to avoid being preachy. The classic story of a flawed hero

struggling against all odds is as effective as ever, especially when the odds

involve the shifty characters of an East African big city. Camera work is solid

with handheld shots adding to the tension in Abel’s story.

Mugisha has said that similarities between Uganda and De

Sica’s Italy inspired him to make the film, but again, it’s tough to avoid

comparisons to the present-day U.S. or any nation where teens have the freedom

to simply be teens. Even as the story forces its hero to grow up, there’s the

sense that he shouldn’t have to, at least not to the extremes that poverty and

his environment demand. The harsh realities of the story’s setting, and the

conflicting ideals explored within, make it poignant as well as entertaining,

and definitely worth a watch.

"The Boda Boda Thieves" is currently screening at

film festivals. No word yet on distribution.

   

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