How I quit my job to become a full-time artist

It started with Maisha Film Lab. When I was selected in 2006, I got the green light I had been searching for all my life. Before that, I stumbled about blindly, not knowing if my writing was any good, not knowing if I had that something that makes you a good artist. I did not have confidence to even think of becoming a full-time artist, so I snuggled comfortably in my salaried job. In Maisha I met people like Steve Cohen (RIP), who thought I had something. He took me under his wings taught me screenwriting, by helping develop The Felistas Fable, over a four year period. That was my film school. Then there was Musarait, the then Program Coordinator of Maisha, who pulled me aside one day and asked, ‘Have you ever thought about directing?’

At that time I focused only on writing. I wanted to be a novelist, to write short stories, to be a screenwriter. But Musarait saw something in me (I guess the storytelling gift) and she encouraged me to seriously think about being a full-fledged filmmaker.

I dived into it. I bought a camcorder and started filming things. I later realized I had made a stupid mistake in buying the camcorder, it cost me a million shillings and I didn’t even ever get to use it. It still sits on my shelf, a reminder to research every piece of equipment I buy. I made three silly films with that camcorder, the first being Under Sarah’s Bed, and I got a sense of what it takes to make a film. I was proud of these film. I thought they were masterpieces, especially after Under Sarah’s Bed attracted around five thousand YouTube views. I showed it off proudly, yet they were so horrible that people laughed at me. One person, Jennifer Gatero, who I met in the 2007 lab in Maisha, made me see sense. She said, ‘This guy is so confident in his outrageously amateurish films.’ Or something to that effect.
Watch: My Short Films

Documentary film still, from Kitgum
Behind the scenes. A photo of me, as I talked to subjects of the documentary a film, in Kitgum district, Northern Uganda
Me, at the Durban Film Festival, 2008. First time I saw the sea!

During that lab, I had a script, What Happened in Room 13. I was amazed at how people received it. I think they saw Under Sarah’s Bed and they looked at the Room 13 script and could not believe both came from the same person. People used words like ‘genius’ to describe it. Hollywood big shots patted my back with words like ‘This guy might just break away.’ Other participants did not see what these big guns saw. They told me to stick to writing, that I’m not a good director. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not a director,” Felipe Barbosa, a Brazillian filmmaker, told me. “You’ve never been to film school and you haven’t even seen a tenth of the films I’ve seen, but the way you move people on the screen, I’ve never seen anything like this.” I didn’t understand his words. I still don’t.

Read about: The Trouble With Afrofuturism

He believed in me so much that he tried to help me get into Sundance. It didn’t work out. All of a sudden, everyone was trying to help kick off my career, and it sparked this great sense of excitement in me. I felt like I was on the verge of something big. I wanted to quit my job, but something held me back, something said ‘wait.’ You see, festivals never got excited about Room 13, and their rejections watered down my excitement. I was later to learn that they wanted to see a certain type of films from Africa, not dark comedies about adultery.

Still, this thing, excitement or whatever it was, this feeling that something big was about to happen, continued into 2008. And when I got my first nomination, for the Million Writers Awards, it went out of control. I was riding a balloon above the clouds. My name was being passed around. Since I did not live in Kampala, hardly anyone knew me. Now, people were whispering ‘Dilman this Dilman that’. When they eventually met me, they would be disappointed. ‘I thought Dilman was a white person,’ one lady (I think Tindi’s sister) told me to my face. I started getting big job offers. I was invited to write for a TV series that MNet had commissioned, for US $600 per episode. I pulled out because I thought the producers did not know what they were doing. (My instinct was right, MNet cancelled the contract). I produced a short film to show at CHOGM in Kampala (Who remembers CHOGM?), and then in 2008, the balloon turned into a rocket. UNICEF asked me to direct a short film with a US $12,000 budget, and Mira Nair as Executive Producer.

That job put me on a plane. For the first time in my life. I was supposed to go to Moroto to research the film, and I thought they’d tell me to jump on a bus. No way. It was a plane.

Read: Is Science Fiction Really Alien to Africa

I arrived in Kajjansi airfield an hour before dawn, for the 7am flight. I shivered there until the sun came up. Before boarding, the pilot meticulously took our weights, since the plane could only carry a certain load. This was a small plane, maybe eight-seater, we weren’t more than ten people onboard, including the pilot. One lady’s bag was three kilos above the limit allocated to her, and the pilot said, ‘No way. Leave it, or reduce the kilos.’ She could do neither, so she arranged for it to be shipped by road.

Before take-off, the pilot said a lengthy prayer, asking God to protect us and ensure we reached safely. Now, I got really worried. First, all that fuss about weight, now this prayer. What was the condition of this plane that it needed God’s intervention to reach safely? I wanted to jump off. I could get on a bus and be in Karamoja two days later. No sweat. The roads were bad that time, and there was insecurity. Too late to jump off. The plane was already taxiing, making too much noise, rattling so much I feared it would fall apart. Then I knew I was going to heaven, not Moroto.

Somehow, we made it up, and were soon flying above Kampala, then above River Nile. I thought I saw Kamuli, my home. Then, something happened to my ears. There was pain, a sucking sound, as if things were tearing up in there. I became partially deaf. By the time we landed in Moroto, I could not barely make out sounds. Voices and car engines sounded the same.

A UNICEF driver came to pick me up. He talked to me, and I nodded as though I understood, afraid to tell him that my ears were burst. I thought it was a common thing to happen during flight, and I didn’t want him to know this was my first flight. So I smiled when he smiled and laughed when he laughed. The pain lasted about an hour.

Manyatta in Moroto, Uganda
A photo I took during my first flight. The wonderful sight eased the ear pain.

A few months later, I boarded a much, much bigger plane to South Africa, and I still suffered from ear-planes (that’s what they call it, and Zippi gave me a hint: eat chewing gum while in flight). I don’t suffer from it much these days. I don’t know how many flights I’ve been on now. This year alone, I visited five new countries. In total, I’ve been to fourteen countries, all in the name of art. I’ve lived in three of them for more than one month.

Discover: The Darkness Behind My Book

But at that time, as I took my first flight, I could sense that I was going to be a frequent flyer. The machinery that was trying to help my career get off the ground to an international level was working tirelessly, and it helped me secure admission to NYU, Singapore campus, for an MFA in Film.

And, I resigned.

Getting into NYU’s MFA in Film is the dream of every wannabe filmmaker.

I resigned. Too early. Before properly planning. Before counting the costs. In retrospect, I should not have resigned. I should have properly analyzed the NYU offer. But I was living above the clouds since What Happened in Room 13. I had even climbed onto a plane! All this got into my head. I could not think clearly. I read about the experience of other artists and now I know that the first success you gain, the first buzz your art creates, puts you in a certain state of mind. It fills your head with dreams of glory. This, after all, is what you’ve been gunning for all your life. You’ve made it!

My brother, my sister, don’t fall for that crap. It’s just that, a buzz, and indicator, not the real thing. Keep your head on the ground. I wish someone had told me that!

There was no way I could afford to take up NYU’s offer. I had to pay tuition of US $90,000. Well, there was a student loan to care for that, but I had to pay for my air-tickets, and for my upkeep in Singapore, yet my savings could barely buy me an air ticket. Steve Cohen gave me advise, when it was too late, not to take up the offer, that he had seen many artists’ careers ruined because of student loans. I wish he had told me before I resigned.

So, I did not go for the MFA, and now I had no job.

I thought, well, no sweat. Surely, the buzz would to sustain me. There would be more job offers. The big production companies in Uganda at that time had previously offered me gigs, which I could not take up because I was tied down in Kamuli. One had offered me 2.5 million a week’s work (three month’s salary!). I thought I would still get such offers.

But no. No. No.

The moment I resigned, the offers dried up. I went to this lady and I told her, “Now I’m free, in case you have any gigs,” and she told me, “I have no job for you.” For a moment, I considered forwarding to her an email she had sent me, in which she had urged me to resign and focus on filmmaking, since she would always have gigs for me. What was this now?

Even the machinery that was trying to boost my career to global levels stopped functioning. After I failed to go to NYU, I think they told themselves that I’m not worth the bother. It all went away, just like that, as if they met somewhere and colluded to ignore me.

A friend told me something that sobered me up. “In Kampala, people don’t know directors. They know cameramen. If you want to survive, become a cameraman.” Not a filmmaker. Not a director. A cameraman. To film weddings, and such things.

Yep, a ‘fock!’ moment.

To rub salt in my stupid decision to resign, my former boss told me that they had been planning to promote me to a national coordinator position. I would have been swimming in money. I wanted to die. I had burned all that up for a dream.

My savings started to run out. I lost my girlfriend, who thought I was a ‘spoiled kid’ for quitting a job just like that. My family thought someone had cursed me. “How can you leave a job in Plan to go to the street?” Other people thought I had been fired. “You can’t just resign from such a good job. No way. You were fired.”

For about a year, I was in a gloom. I remember writing on facebook something like ‘I’m no quitter, but I’ve finally quit living on dreams.’ I wanted to give up. I needed a job.

Luckily, I got a second chance. I applied to volunteer overseas, and I was sent to Nepal. The job had something arty in it, as I would work with Nepali organizations to incorporate video in their advocacy and awareness campaigns. A second chance indeed.

I used my two years in Nepal to plan properly. Even as worked on my day-job, I made a number of creative documentary films, which I used as a sort of track record for my company. When I returned to Uganda two years later, I was properly ready for life as a full-time artist. It has not been a smooth ride, with more downs than ups, but I’ve reached a point where I can think about opening that bottle of wine to celebrate. But maybe not yet. Maybe I should wait for a really good reason, not just an anniversary. I don’t feel like I’m there yet.

Now that you are here, I have a small favor to ask. I regularly make science fiction short films and I’m looking for your support. It’s very difficult to make it as a filmmaker in Africa, where there is virtually no market to encourage big film investments, and so any dollar you can spare will go a long way into changing things. Please pledge on You only pay after I make the film, and you can stop payments at anytime. For other options, like donating via mobile money or PayPal, please go here

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Maisha Gardens, Buziga
Me at the Maisha Gardens, in Buziga. On the other photo, I’m standing beside the tree I planted. Mira Nair required every student to plant a tree in the garden. Last time I visited mine, it had blossomed and had pink flowers.

Note: This article was updated on 26th Nov 2023 to fix formatting that got broken when I changed my site’s theme and builder.

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