‘Once Upon a Time in Uganda’: Welcome to Wakaliwood, Home of Africa’s Indie Quentin Tarantino [SXSW]
25 March 2020
In Hollywood, independent cinema is mostly made up of auteur filmmakers, producers, financiers, and up-and-coming talent who want to take a chance on a movie becoming a surprise hit or sparking a career that will bring them into the big leagues of Tinseltown. But in Wakaliwood, a makeshift production studio in Uganda, independent cinema is purely a passion driven by determined filmmaker Isaac Nabwana (or Nabwana I.G.G.), who continually rounds up volunteer actors, homemade props, crudely constructed camera equipment, and self-made computers, all so he can make blockbuster action movies.
Once Upon a Time in Uganda (formerly known as Lights, Camera, Uganda) is a new documentary that follows American actor and festival programmer Alan Hofmanis as he abandons his life in New York City to help the man known as “Africa’s Tarantino” get on Hollywood’s radar with his unique, bombastic brand of action comedy movies made possible by a passionate community in the slums of Uganda.
Director Cathryne Czubek (A Girl and a Gun) and co-director Hugo Perez (Neither Memory Nor Magic) take us on a journey into Wakaliwood through the eyes of Alan Hofmanis after discovering Isaac Nabwana’s bonkers action movies by way of a viral movie trailer on YouTube in December of 2012. Hofmanis was compelled to find Isaac, if only to meet him, but their meeting turned into a partnership that lasts to this very day and has turned Isaac’s films into midnight movie sensations around the world.
Initially, some of the story is told with dramatic but stylish reenactments that shift seamlessly from the more natural documentary-style filmmaking into action-inspired, saturated color palettes and shots. But this is only to set the stage early on. Once Hofmanis is firmly in Uganda and working with Isaac, we get a stream of footage from their early meetings when Hofmanis had some extra pounds and a trim haircut and beard to the more recent years where he’s lost a significant amount of weight and let his hair grow out into thick, salt-and-pepper locks. That’s just what happens when you give up everything you have in New York and move to an impoverished African nation to make movies for zero profit.
The bulk of Once Upon a Time in Uganda focuses on the makeshift production process that Isaac has created. You’ll see how a chain gun was created with a small engine and spare metal parts. You’ll marvel at the homemade jib arms made to create sweeping action shots. You’ll laugh heartily when you see a squib is just a magnum condom filled with fake blood that explodes in spectacular fashion. And you’ll be surprised by just how impressive the martial arts moves appear to be in endless fight scenes. Isaac has even built his own computers from spare parts so he can edit what he shoots. And there’s an entire community who work behind the scenes and in front of the camera in support of Isaac’s movies, including his charming, incredibly loyal wife Harriet. It’s a remarkable indie studio made possible by the passion and hearts of the people of Uganda. Everyone is so proud of the part they play, and their energy is infectious as the cameras capture everyone having a blast while making these movies.
Watching these productions unfold brings the same kind of laughs and amusement that movies like Bowfinger or the more recent Dolemite Is My Name have before. We get to see how the crew pulls off practical special effects and camera tricks. One movie (that is apparently still in production to this day) is called Eaten Alive in Uganda. As Isaac describes it, “It’s a story about cannibals. And Chuck Norris.” In the movie, Alan Hofmanis plays the “muzungu,” a white man whose flesh entices the African cannibals. Hofmanis even has a stunt double for fight scenes, an extremely dark-skinned African man in hilariously heavy white make-up and a wig, making him look more like a woman than Alan. But who cares? They’ll make it work.
Watching the various clips from Wakaliwood movies throughout the doc will make you immediately want to seek out Isaac’s movies, some of which are available through their official website. They have laughable visual effects, over-the-top action, and absolutely insane storylines. But that’s part of the charm. The silliness of it all acts as a buffer for the blood-splattered violence of exploding heads and bullet-riddled bodies, which Isaac intentionally wanted to feel exaggerated so as not to create a traumatic link to the real violence they frequently experience in Africa.
These are the kind of movies you’d love to watch through the lens of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But the movies of Wakaliwood already have their own MST3K built in to their movies by way of VJ Emmie. In this case, VJ stands for Video Joker, and their purpose is to provide colorful, wild commentary and additional jokes that are weaved throughout the footage. It adds a whole new dimension to the action seen on screen, lending even more farce than comes from the low budget production.
But the documentary takes a little more serious turn as Wakaliwood is faced with the prospect of getting a higher profile, both from a growing interest from around the world and an opportunity to be seen on television in Uganda. There’s drama that unfolds, though not in a melodramatic reality show fashion, and it all comes from the passion that both Hofmanis and Isaac have to have these films recognized and enjoyed by a larger audience. As for how that plays out, you’ll have to watch the movie and see for yourself.
At one point in Once Upon a Time in Uganda, it’s briefly mentioned that there’s initial disinterest in Isaac’s work from outside Africa because he’s not focusing on the poverty of the area, located right next to a river of sewage. But these people see poverty everyday, and making a sad, hearfelt documentary about that isn’t going to change that. Instead, Isaac wanted to bring the spirit of Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee and Sylvester Stallone to his home and his people, giving them something they can be proud of and something that will distract them from the harsh reality they face everyday. Once Upon a Time in Uganda is the perfect representation of the enduring spirit of independent cinema, our love for movies, and how they bring the world together. As VJ Emmie says early on, “It’s our Hollywood, but better.”