Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Getting the movies over the years, bootlegs and all

I recently visited my friendly neighbourhood DVD bootlegger to see if I could get a copy of Luther and because he didn't have it (or any other British series I suggested) we got into a discussion on the dynamics of access, wholesale, retail and distribution in his line of work. Our discussion got me thinking about how the story of how we have been quenching our thirst for foreign movies and TV series over the years is pretty much a story of bootlegging entertainment. This is especially true in my case.

I can’t say I remember when I watched my first movie, although the earliest clear memory I have is of a Clint Eastwood movie (most likely A Fist Full of Dollars) which I must have watched around 1984 at a relative's place. Back then I wasn’t sure whether it was on TV or not. But I have liked movies for as long as I can remember although getting the good ones hasn't always been easy.

We got our first VCR (along with the first colour TV) in 1985 and with it came 3 movies Live and Let DieAssault on Precinct 13 (not the one with Lawrence Fishburne) and All Quiet on the Western Front (I have always suspected that they were just tossed in as freebies). However, owning a VCR meant having a constant supply of VHS tapes to feed it. This is where the problems begun. Many of the Museveni-generation might not believe that there was a time when there was no proper movie library in Kampala (and Uganda for that matter). 

In those days I remember my father used to bring home tapes with the words Whittaker’s (or some such name) video library written on them. Mr. Whittaker (if there was ever any such person) had come up with the ingenious idea of having his friends in the UK record stuff for him off the telly, which they could send over to be lent out to us Kampalans. But because the recording was off TV and the people doing the recording probably just set the timer and headed on down to the pub, the tapes would come with commercial breaks, public service announcements, breaking news etc. We would go some minutes into a movie or TV series like the Far Pavilions or A Town Like Alice and then have a ketchup ad thrown in before we reverted to the “regularly scheduled programming”. Something like that would probably piss me off now but I was six at the time and even the ads were fun.

The other thing about those tapes was that Mr. Whittaker felt that the entire 180 minutes of the tape had to be filled. Along with every movie came a few episodes of some sitcom or series. These were mostly british programmes like Fawlty TowersNot the 9:00 o’clock newsTop of the Pops etc and sometimes an American series like Miami Vice or Kojak. I think its thanks to Mr. Whittaker I developed a love for British TV.

We moved to Jinja in1987 by which time VCRs were spreading all over the land and the movie rental business had started developing. We soon became members of Bashir's Video Library, which was next to a video hall called Town Talkies. Bashir had the movies, the properly edited ones without commercials, however the bootleg quality was not that great and neither was the variety. The movies were generally categorised thus;

-“You kill my father now I kill you too” old style Kung Fu flicks with titles like Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. Closely related were the latter day versions of previously mentioned movies. High-octane Hong Kong martial arts kickfests all based on the same cop drama/revenge script like Police Story.

-Vietnam flicks. You remember the type where some badass GI would mow down a whole battalion of "gooks" (their words) shooting straight at him and somehow not get hit even once. 

-Those good old shoot ‘em up plotless B-Movies with titles like Exterminator 2000.

Besides the "latest" movie was two years old.

Did we mind? Heck no. That is until we were watching the movies faster than Bashir could stock them up. One thing I remember that stood out of place at Bashir’s was 40 something tapes of Dallas (they just didn’t fit in with the rest). We watched them all and this was the interesting Dallas (up to the point Jr Ewing dies). It’s funny when you consider that all that can now fit on one DVD.

By now the eighties were ending and we were back in Kampala. The good news was that real video libraries were opening up like Bimbo and Ripples (which was the video library to be a member of if you were somebody), but the bad news was that the membership and movie rental fees were way too high. Necessity, therefore, led to the emergence of a coordinated network of lending and borrowing movies among friends.

Will trade this for Kindergarten Cop
If person x had that movie you had to watch like Batman, Rambo 3 or Die Hard you had to find him an equally interesting movie or trade him something just as cool (like an Asterix/Tintin comic book, or a Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew/Famous Five novel). Lunchtime at "The Rocks" in Kitante was the time most of these exchanges could go down. It had the feel of some kind of stock exchange with young boys haggling over what movie was worthy to be exchanged for another or one guy promising to lend movie to another for an extra day on condition that a certain comic book was thrown into the bargain.

It wasn’t long before the Ugandans hooked up with bootleggers from around the world and swamped the market with the latest VHS movies that were on offer. Soon the bootlegged copies started getting bootlegged and every other neighbourhood had a video library stacked with 5th and 6th generation bootlegged VHS tapes. 

Then there came the shortlived VCDs followed by the DVDs. Since these days everybody and their uncle has a DVD player, or computer, VHS has disappeared. The DVDs are ubiquitous on the streets of Kampala and they are cheap. For the price of an “original” VHS tape of back in the day you can have yourself 5 DVD movies.

Many people don't even bother with DVDs any more. They would much rather watch their movies as digital files that they can transfer to the portable gadget of their choice. Over the last 5 years internet access has greatly improved and the costs of accessing the internet have gone down, which has greatly improved access to movie downloads for those with the right bandwidth. Actually one doesn't have to download the movie if they don't want to. There are many sites that offer movies for streaming. Obviously the free ones also happen to be "not very legal" but I don't see anybody bothered by that. Torrent sites have given the world access to virtually any movie for the cost of some patience and bandwidth.

The SOPA people obviously do not like this and it riles them to think that they are not getting a cut off all the movies you and I are watching. However, its unlikely that countries like Uganda are about to get into the cross-hairs of anti-piracy campaigners any time soon simply because we are not considered a worthwhile market. The big movie companies are more interested in the Indians and Chinese because they would love to have a cut of what each one of those 2.6 billion people are paying for their bootlegs.


Back at the DVD place I had to settle for an incomplete season 6 of Dexter after getting assurances from my DVD guy that he will hook me up with more British series than I know what to do with as long as I swore allegiance to him and only him. I could see why he needed all the support he could get. There are no less than 15 similar business within a 100 meter radius of his small shop all with the exact same bootlegged merchandise.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating post. Am I the only person who still uses and loves VHS tapes? :)

    ReplyDelete