Film-maker documents African free software movement

By   |  January 26, 2006

David Madie is from Copenhagen, and he’s on an unusual mission in Africa: following a young computer entrepreneur, whose story he believes would show another face of what has been condescendingly called the ‘dark continent’.

Documentary film-maker Madie runs his own company called Eighty Days Productions. Its name is inspired by the novel by Jules Verne. “The story was about this man who didn’t know what he was doing, went out and then thought he wouldn’t make his round-the-world trip in 80 days. He makes it anyway but he was a day late because he had not counted the international date line and the extra day that gave him,” says Madie.

“I’m new to film-making, so I don’t always know what I’m doing.” His last project was a film shot in Nepal, and his latest endeavour is proving to be very different.

Madie says it is a character-driven film, more than an issue-driven film. The film is about Free/Libre and Open Source Software but the focus of the story is on the characters. The characters that fight for FLOSS.

“As much as it’s a film about FLOSS, it’s also a film about fighting for your beliefs,” says Madie. “This film will show the characters fighting for what they believe in. This happens to be open source, which I believe is an important agenda.”

Asked why he chose such an unusual, unglamorous and certainly technical subject for his film, Madie says it is because he used to work in the IT sector.

“I once ran a joint-venture company and came to learn about an African country like Uganda. I was very ignorant about Africa — as many Europeans are — and I was surprised by the skills and the talent, and all the modern science of a capital city like Kampala, that has skyscrapers taller than what we have in Copenhagen.”

“That was an eye-opener.”

Most Europeans don’t understand this, says Madie, because the only images they see on television are those from the rural areas. Images of hunger, drought, war, AIDS, corruption are the favourite topics of news and mainstream TV.

“I want to make a film that shows the life of the young, urban generation in the cities. In this way I can show people the reality of life is here. Because I think it’s damaging to a country like Uganda if people perceive it as a place that is so far behind, when in fact there is a middle class, when in fact the country is progressing. I hope this film will make a lot of people say, ‘Wow, we’ve never seen such a film before’,” he says.

Madie’s central character is James Wire, who he thinks of as a role model for Africans. Someone who fights for his beliefs, and someone who is very “internationally-oriented”.

Wire Lunghabo James from Uganda runs a firm call Linux Solutions in Africa, and has been part of the East African Centre for Open Source Software. From mentoring young techies just out of their teens, to working on local translation projects, Wire has done it all. He’s also quick to help spread FLOSS skills in other parts of the continent, and has been closely involved with a number of initiatives to spread FLOSS in the continent.

“I think he is also a role model in the sense that he combines doing a business, with doing social work. To him these things are not opposites; these are things that can perfectly work well together. You can do business in a social manner,” says Madie.

Madie met James when he started the joint venture in Uganda in 1999. Later, Madie started a Web development agency with local partners. “It was also a social business; We made money but we also started the Web industry business in Uganda. We were by far the biggest Web firm in Uganda. In one month, we hired 15 people and there were no Web agencies in the country
at the time. And then we started to work for the multinationals, the donors and the big local companies. And we trained people,” he says.

Madie had already been in the industry for five years. “Nobody then had that experience (here). We put in our systems, procedures. Our employees (from Europe) went to Uganda and trained the local staff. While I was in the business, I met James who was not doing websites, but server stuff, which we didn’t do,” he recalls.

“I sold my company after nine years but continued to work there for three more years. Then I felt it was time to do something new. I thought I had always been too busy to follow my more artistic inspirations, and by accident I came into film making,” he says.

And yes, he’s a self-taught professional. He took two years to learn the trade. Often attending short-term training courses.

When is his film expected? “It’s always hard to say with a documentary. But I guess it will be released in 2007. And it will go to documentary festivals, I hope, all over the world,” says Madie.

He sees this as an “international story, with an international subject”. Free/Libre and Open Source Software is on the agenda in many countries. “I don’t think such a film has been made before. We hope to sell it to broadcasters; but it’s important to get it around to film festivals, to an audience that really cares about documentary films,” says he.

“When I started this film I thought I was going to make the kind of documentaries with talking heads on the screen. I soon realised that the interesting stories are about the characters. I’m surprised how much of the work is related to understanding the people you are focusing on. But that makes it even more interesting, specially if you can capture the essence of a character in a particular situation.”

It also came as a surprise for Madie to realise how difficult it is for documentary film-makers to raise money for their films. “We are definitely running on a low-budget, and we have to put in hours ourselves where we don’t get paid. This only means that those who really make the film are those who really want to make it. You can say it’s those documentary film-makers who really fight for their beliefs (that get through). Maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated by James; because we have some of the same blood in one sense,” he adds.

Madie has been tracking James Wire for nearly a couple of years, on and off. “I’ve been filming on three occasions so far, we expect another three. We’ll have 60 hours of footage, when we’re done here. We’re going to end up with around a hundred hours, and will reduce it to 52 minutes. Only one percent of everything we do is going to be in the film. That’s the only way (to get an interesting story).”

Two major other films on Free/Libre and Open Source Software have been made in the past: ‘Revolution OS’ and ‘The Code’.

“This is a very different film,” says Madie. “First of all, because it’s filmed out of Africa, with Africans. I frankly think this is one of the places where FOSS is most relevant. But it’s also different because it shows Africa (and its capabilities) in a different light.”

“In the film we point the camera to the modern side of Africa. We want to challenge people’s prejudice about sub-Saharan Africa. Many people will see the film and won’t believe this is modern Uganda, because they haven’t seen those images,” says Madie.

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