Monday, February 26, 2024

Movie Review (Glasgow Film Festival): ‘Once Upon a Time in Uganda’: Welcome To Wakaliwood

Directors:  Cathryne Czubek, Hugo Perez

Writers: Cathryne Czubek, Amanda Hughes

Stars: Asiimwe Apollo, Bukenya Charles, Bisaso Dauda

Synopsis: A brick maker in Uganda becomes an Internet sensation when he tries his hand at making action movies


If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re a movie buff. Maybe your tastes are quite varied – low budget indies, high concept thrillers, romance, drama, classics, anything – or maybe you have very specific tastes – 90s rom-coms, detective noirs, gangster movies -, the one thing you will all have in common is that you enjoy movies to the extent you’re willing to search out reviews like this one online. No matter which camp you fall in, any movie lover will likely find some joy in Cathryne Czubek and Hugo Perez’s Once Upon a Time in Uganda: a lively, infectious documentary about two men, their passion for movies, and the lengths they were willing to go to make their dreams a reality. 

The first of these two men we meet on a mountain in Kazakhstan. A majestic swooping camera centers around this mysterious robed figure as a voice-over tells us that he never expected to be here. But how did he get here? His name is Alan Hofmanis, an American actor and filmmaker from New York who, out of work and recovering from a breakup with a long-term girlfriend, finds himself scouring YouTube videos to pass the time…until he discovers the movies of Wakaliwood.

Wakaliwood. The name brings to mind various portmanteaus designed to establish a cinematic industry in different cultures: think Bollywood, or its Bengali counterpart Tollywood; think the Nigerian equivalent Nollywood. In this case, Wakaliwood is the moniker for a small slum in Uganda called Wakaliga. It is the home of Ramon Productions, a film company run entirely by Isaac Nabwana, a Wakaliga native who grew up on 80s actioners such as Rambo, Robocop, and Commando. Determined to emulate his big screen heroes, and partly fueled by the fact that movies in Uganda are sparse because electricity is not a given, meaning any screening of any movie past or present is considered a big event, Nabwana used the money he earned from brickmaking to buy bargain basement camera and sound equipment and set to work.

Type in Nabwana IGG on YouTube and you’ll find a whole host of Wakaliwood movies (“Home of Da Best of Da Best Movies”) available to watch, including the popular hits Bad Black (featuring Swaaz, the Ugandan Schwarzenegger), Who Killed Captain Alex, Operation Kakongoliro: The Ugandan Expendables, and Busta Keaton’s Da General. All of these movies are shot almost entirely in the slums of Wakaliga – with a few scenes filmed on location to cities such as Kampala – and feature hilariously bad CGI, acting, and martial arts. They also feature something completely unique to Wakaliwood: a VJ.

At the beginning of Once Upon a Time in Uganda, after we leave the mountains of Kazakhstan, there is another voice over introducing Uganda in all its glory. This is VJ Emmie and he is as much a part of Wakaliwood as Isaac Nabwana himself. A VJ is a Video Joker, whose job is to provide a constant stream-of-consciousness commentary throughout the movie: ranging between jokes, narration, exposition, and cheerleading; the VJ is an immediately jarring presence for the uninitiated, and it takes a moment to get used to as the opening titles for Once Upon a Time in Uganda commence. 

Back in New York, Hofmanis is immediately struck by the works of Nabwana – he’ll later earnestly propose the idea that Nabwana is a master storyteller and genius, somehow keeping a straight face the entire time – and decides to pack up his life and move to Uganda to work for Nabwana’s company. Together, Hofmanis, a former film festival booker with some small connections in the movie world, and Nabwana make a formidable team which begins to raise the awareness of Wakaliwood to the extent of a screening of Bad Black at the Toronto International Film Festival and even a TV deal with the biggest media conglomerate in Uganda. 

Czubek, alongside co-director Hugo Perez, presents Once Upon a Time in Uganda as a completely impartial inside look into the world of Wakaliwood. Never once casting judgement on the quality of works or, perhaps frustratingly, challenging Hofmanis on the decisions he has made in his life which brought him from semi-affluence in New York to living in a Ugandan slum without any form of indoor plumbing. During his stay it’s clear that Hofmanis struggles with the day to day vagaries of life in Uganda and although this is touched upon from time to time, you might find yourself wishing the directors had taken a little less of a fly-on-the-wall approach and perhaps delved a little deeper. 

Outside of Hofmanis’ dedication is the life of Nabwana – a man described in various different publications as the Ugandan Spielberg, the Ugandan Tarantino, and the Ugandan Michael Bay -, who is entirely self-taught as a filmmaker but finds ingenious ways to deliver his action set pieces on less budget than Roland Emmerich would spend on a background extra. Practically everything you see in his movies is either self-made or made with the help of locals: guns, vehicles, an actual helicopter; everything is DIY, hardscrabble filmmaking. He enlists the help of Dauda, one of the most eccentric characters in the movie, whose sheer joy at being propmaster for Ramon Productions is completely infectious, alongside various villagers as volunteers. Even his wife becomes involved, contributing to marketing and fundraising.

What makes the movies of Wakaliwood so unique – apart from that VJ – is the sheer love that pours out from every scene. These are people living in poverty in a war torn part of the world, making silly movies where they run around shooting guns and attempting spin-kicks. They are unapologetically bad in an objective sense, but it is deliriously fun to simply watch people living out their dreams, free from the horrors of everyday life. Hofmanis points out that the average life expectancy in Uganda is somewhere around the mid 50s, an age which Nabwana himself is fast approaching, so there is an underlying sense throughout the whole movie of time being too precious to waste on things that don’t bring joy. For that reason, Once Upon a Time in Uganda manages to become one of the best feel good documentaries you’re likely to see this year.

There are moments, particularly a falling out between Hofmanis and Nabwana which leads the former to return home to New York for a time, that are not satisfactorily explored. There is also the fact the directors show only small clips of Nabwana’s movies, depriving the audience of a proper context for the popularity of these movies, and there is much more about Nabwana himself you wish had been explored. 

Finally, the issue of these movies being objectively bad filmmaking in and of themselves is unaddressed, which may or may not be a bad thing in your book. Perhaps all of that is a different movie though: what Czubek and Perez seem to have been aiming for, and what they largely achieved, is to showcase how the sheer passion for movies can unite an entire community and light up everyone’s life, even in the harsh circumstances of a Ugandan slum, and that is a message worth listening to.


Grade – B+


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