Uganda Vigilante Female Slum Boxers: Interview with Director Robert Mentov

10th April 2019

Katanga is photo series and docu-fiction featuring the female boxers of Katanga, one of the largest slums in Kampala. It is based on the true story of Hellen Baleke, a young woman living in Katanga who turned to her local boxing gym after being assaulted and nearly raped in her own neighbourhood. She went on to become the first female boxer in all of Uganda to compete professionally on an international level. Now Hellen and her group of female boxers act as protectors in Katanga, taking revenge on assaults in the slum when the police are too afraid to intervene.

Director Robert Mentov sent us his film, and was kind enough to answer some of our questions. If you’d like to see your film on, then please feel free to make a submission. Rob has an amazing photo essay to accompany this film, which you can see here.

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MadeGood – Please tell me a bit about yourself as a film maker. Is Katanga a typical example of your work.

Rob – I’m a filmmaker based out of Toronto, and I focus mainly on documentary and narrative work. Although aesthetics shift and evolve, Katanga is an example of the type of subject matter I’m pursuing within my work.

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MadeGood – The story of your film is really incredible. How did you come to hear about it, and what compelled you to make a film about it?

Rob – I came across a news article about Hellen’s story a few years back. I thought it was incredible what she had gone through and overcome. In places where male dominance is prevalent, it’s inspiring to hear about women who rise up and escape the cycle. I always wanted to make a film about Hellen and when the opportunity to go to Uganda came about, I began looking into how this could fit into a short film. I feel that filmmaking is the most evocative way to tell a story, and so I use it as a vehicle to tell meaningful stories of people who may not necessarily have a voice to reach a broader audience.

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MadeGood – Katanga sort of crosses a boundary between documentary and reconstruction. Please tell me a bit more about that. Was the woman who the story is about, Hellen Baleke involved in the production at all?

Rob – I often think about different ways to use the filmmaking medium to craft a story. I wanted to explore a hybrid approach of blending the documentary and narrative, and not feel limited by genre. I tried to make something authentic to the Boxers story, but also without the constraints of traditional documentary. Blending the two forms provide an immersive experience without compromising the integrity of the story.

Hellen was heavily involved in the making of the film. She housed and fed us, made sure we were safe, and that the film we were creating was true to her experiences. Because I come from the west, there’s many cultural barriers and sensibilities that I don’t always understand, and so in these sorts of projects I heavily rely on the locals as co-creaters and collaborators. If they can’t accept the film, then it’s not something that I should create.

MadeGood – You shot your film on a mixture of digital, 16mm and hi8, and the results are really beautiful and unique. To me, that environment looks challenging enough to film in in the first place, without using antiquated equipment- I might have been a bit scared to shoot on film! What inspired you to make these choices? Was it as terrifying a process as I imagine!?

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Rob – I chose to shoot this on 16mm because I felt that the medium would most reflect the world of the Katanga slum. It’s a raw and gritty place. And I wanted that grittiness to be established in the image. There were a lot of challenges. Our camera’s jammed, the magazine got light leaks, and the film emulsion had dust scratches. Something as simple as reloading a mag required a lot more attention than it would in a controlled space. It was really our first time working with the medium in this sort of space.

The odd thing is that focusing on the camera and the story often puts your mind at ease when it comes to dangers or external factors. I try to rely on our translators or fixers (in this case Hellen and her crew), and read their cues for when it starts to become unsafe. There were several times where it felt that we should get out of our situation quickly but you’re never really aware of the dangers until they happen, and by then it’s too late.

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MadeGood – You mentioned in your email to me that a small group of you worked to together to make the film (and of course the also appear in the credits). Please tell me a little bit about your crew, and your working relationship on this project.

Rob – There were three of us out there working on this film. Myself and Dwight who helped co-direct while I shot. And S.J Finley, a BC based filmmaker who focused on the digital, more documentary style coverage. Our working relationship is based around all of us doing several creative tasks at once. We aren’t able to have a large crew because of financial constraints as well as to keep the process intimate, and so we take on whatever roles we need to fill in order to make the best film possible within our constraints.

MadeGood – What are you working on next.

Rob – I’m currently in the editing stages on several projects with similar themes. Researching regularly for the next film to make.

MadeGood – Thanks a million Rob, can’t wait to see the next ones! Such a worthwhile topic, glad there is more to come.

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