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Danny Trejo, Ugandan Psychedelia, And Flint, Michigan: Week One At Raindance Film Festival

Updated: Mar 3, 2022

by Ge Allan


Raindance Film Festival has returned to London for its 27th year for another round of indie features and shorts showcasing new and emerging cinematic talent.

A still from the film 'Imperial Blue' (2019) - a white man has his eyes covered by a Ugandan from behind.
Still: 'Imperial Blue' (2019)

This year, the festival not so subtly declares its aim to bring people together during uncertain times, championing ‘the underdog, the marginalised, and the independently minded’. While Brexit brews and Boris breaks, Raindance reigns as founder Elliot Grove proclaims ‘Raindance means Raindance’.

An array of strands this year include ‘Absurdities’, ‘EU female gaze’ and ‘Queer’ but we decided to hit up films from ‘A Dirty World’, documentary features highlighting current global issues; ‘Homegrown’, features from UK talent; as well as ‘Men in Crisis’, tales of struggles with masculinity.

‘Imperial Blue’ (2019) - Ugandan psychedelia in Philip K. Dick-inspired sci fi

From a Piccadilly screening theatre, first up is Imperial Blue, Dan Moss’ debut feature. Based and shot almost solely in Uganda, we follow drug smuggler Hugo as he tries to get his hands on Bulu, a new Ugandan drug from blue flowers that induce prophetic visions. It is the daughter of a local grower that died from an overdose of ‘the blue’, Kisakye (wonderfully portrayed by Esteri Tebandeke) who now owns the plant. However, her scheming sister and the local evangelical priest intervene to derail any smooth deal. Moss stated the idea for the film came from a fusion between wanting to examine neo-colonialism as well as the serious side effects of psychedelic drugs through the lens of Philip K. Dick-inspired sci-fi.

The film is immaculately shot. The wilderness of the Ugandan countryside is present through a warm and hazy cinematography, while the use of darkness is effortless in the smoky, dreamlike scenes of drug-induced visions of the future. However, the story is disjointed and much of it could be condensed. Promising tangents that focus upon colonialism, the effects of drug culture, or local tribal religion are glanced over with more time given to the unlikable Hugo.

As the title states, we expect the film to put its focus on the Western attitude of taking what is not ours - or even our troublesome ignorance of the origin of recreational drugs - but these themes are glossed over. It is really Esteri who holds the film together - she is an incredibly affecting screen presence, and not merely a naive side-line woman, which her character so easily could be.

‘Thirst for Justice’ (2019) - Water inequality in Flint, and Arizona.

Moving onto documentary, Leana Hosea’s Thirst for Justice is a thoroughly researched film that highlights the privilege of water access through the ongoing struggle of people versus the profit. Intersecting three stories of horrifying injustice, the film shows just how lacking our media coverage of water inequality is and how capital reigns while people are poisoned.

We meet Janene from Arizona whose surrounding area has been covered in uranium for decades coming from abandoned mines, polluting water, food and air. Cancer rates are sky-high, while the authorities’ denial and the area’s placement within a Native reservation seems pertinent to the lack of action and safety measures.

Leana herself goes to a nearby defunct site and an expert warns that she has been exposed to the same amount of radiation that a nuclear power plant worker would be exposed to in a year. Janene also measures the area where she played as a child and we see the Geiger counter skyrocket, higher than the surrounding area of Chernobyl.


Hosea links this effectively to the plight of Flint, Michigan, whose water was contaminated with lead directly leading to deaths and leaving blood lead levels shockingly high. The people of Flint have been fighting for justice for years, ever since Governor Synder’s cost-cutting methods were implemented to protect industry rather than people. Many still have to pay extortionate water bills for using bottled water while the pipes are yet to be replaced.

The tireless campaigners in Flint and Janene are brought together and see the injustice is shared beyond race and circumstance. Together they march in solidarity with the protesters at Standing Rock, the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Here non-violent - and mostly Native - protesters are shot with rubber bullets, showered in freezing water, and arrested.

This is a hugely affecting piece, and backed by experts, it seems ethically and insightfully produced. Although the shaky standard of production does not make it a cinema-worthy piece, it is very deserving of getting picked up by TV and finds its footing here because of its relevance and importance.

‘Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo’ - Danny Trejo’s reincarnation from San Quentin to Hollywood

A very different documentary is Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo, a rather rambling tale of the cult action hero whose dark past informs his redemptive story. The overly long and expositional first half runs through Trejo’s early life as a 12 year old heroin addict turned criminal to his release from prison and rehabilitation. While the many talking heads try hard to assert the scariness of Trejo previous to his reincarnation, his dark deeds in prison are barely exposed, leaving the feeling that perhaps there are irredeemable crimes the film does not want to include.

He is released in 1969 and finds sobriety through AA and CA, but this transition from San Quentin bare knuckle boxer to the warm 70-year-old celebrity counsellor is not given much room. Despite this, it is the second half showing his move to the screen which provides the most entertainment. Having been a tough, Mexican prison gang leader, Danny lands roles as an extra and stunt actor, often cast as ‘Inmate #1’ from the films title. The triumph of Trejo is his turn as a leading man, starring in the Mex-ploitation Machete while also counselling addicts and inmates. The film is at its best when we hear Hollywood tales of Danny begging Robert Rodriguez for speaking parts, declaring his love for Selma Hayek or seeing his many overblown screen deaths.

Trejo’s counselling work and love for his old neighbourhood is wonderful to watch, and he is undoubtedly a perfect character to have at the centre of such a film. However the film wants us to focus on the worthiness of Trejo rather than his many facets. Plus its self-indulgent meandering even results in a double ending scene, yes, two credit sequences. I would have much preferred to have reheard how he was convinced to have a replica of his head strapped to a tortoise and carried through the desert.

Next week, we’ll catch some features from more strands and see what winners come out of the festival. Find out more about Raindance here


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