‘Once Upon A Time In Uganda’, flaws aside, is an essential documentary about Wakaliwood, the world’s most unlikely film studio
If you casually read news features about the international film industry, chances are good that you’ve at least heard of Wakaliwood, an ultra low budget film studio located in the Wakali district of Kampala in Uganda. Wakaliwood became a viral sensation thanks to the YouTube release of the trailer of Who Killed Captain Alex? Back in 2012. Ever since then, every so often, a white person ventures out to Wakaliwood to see who would make cheesy 80s-style action films with even cheesier 90s-era special effects. Alan Hofmanis is one such white person who stayed longer than most, even appearing in a large number of Wakaliwood’s films. Once Upon A Time In Uganda is his story.
You might be thinking, why should I care about Alan Hofmanis? Isaac Nabwana, the director who actually makes these movies, sounds way more interesting. And he does, and is, which makes the frame around Alan Hofmanis that much more awkward. Once Upon A Time In Uganda opens up with a shot of Hofmanis in Kazakhstan, although it’s not until later in the movie that we find out where he is and what he’s doing there. Much of the second half of Once Upon A Time In Uganda deals with how Hofmanis tries to promote Wakaliwood worldwide on the strength of its memetic reputation, while seeming surprisingly naive about just how difficult it is to get film funding no matter how talented the filmmaker.
And to be clear, Isaac Nabwana is exceptionally talented. Don’t let the sheer goofiness of his movies fool you. As Once Upon A Time In Uganda demonstrates, Nabwana struggles to create film with almost no resources. He can’t afford to pay his actors. They basically make everything at cost. Nabwana has to build and maintain his own hard drives out of scrap. Nabwana’s prop guy makes surprisingly plausible looking replica guns out of similar junk. As the movie reminds us every so often, Nabwana is a bricklayer. The sheer breadth of his technical knowledge despite this limited background is genuinely incredible.
Some of this rubs off on Hofmanis too, whose most compelling scene isn’t what he’s talking about but what he’s doing. We can see Hofmanis making Wakwaliwood t-shirts. The process is actually quite simple. Hofmanis has a bunch of black t-shirts, and then he applies a print to stamp the logo on them one by one, presumably to sell on the street. Hofmanis almost certainly learned how to do this from Nabwana, whose staff in the earliest scenes wears those very same t-shirts, an oddly fitting professional demeanor in the rustic Kampala markets.
Nabwana is also perceptive enough to realize why this image matters. As he lays out, the whole reason behind promoting Wakaliwood on YouTube was in the hopes of luring white people, or Mzungu, out to Wakaliwood to impress the more moneyed interests in Uganda. Without actually using the phrase white privilege, Nabwana clearly understands that to the upper classes of Ugandan culture, it means nothing that Nabwana’s work is popular with the peasants to whom he and his staff have to sell DVDs directly. Getting white people involved, though, will impress them.
The major disconnect of the conflict between Hofmanis and Nabwana is that they seemed to have very different ideas how this all would play out. Hofmanis appears to believe, naively, that Western distributors will take interest in Nabwana’s work if they can see how talented and popular his movies are. Nabwana, however, sees the various news reports in the BBC or The Economist or Vice or wherever else as just being a tool by which he can entice local investors. Nabwana’s plan is the one that actually succeeds, as he’s eventually able to produce a Who Killed Captain Alex? series for local television.
The success is bittersweet, though, as Nabwana doesn’t get a lot of money for this. His noticeably younger wife eventually moves away from the filmmaking business to sell Western-style cakes that she’s learned to make via YouTube tutorials. These are great-looking cakes, and it’s hard not to be impressed by Wakaliwood’s entire work ethic of figuring out how to do things by just doing them. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine any major Hollywood director being able to produce films under the conditions which Nabwana labors, simply because he has to know so much low-level technical stuff and can’t really delegate too much of the work to other people.
But this is all just novelty value compared to the alleged polish of Hollywood, where a shamanistic belief in the power of the Indiana Jones brand name appears to trump any genuine curiosity about how or why the original Indiana Jones movies were popular. Nabwana, by contrast, clearly understands that Chuck Norris style action films are popular because it’s fun to watch people in a movie getting into overly elaborate fights with each other. Why Hollywood stopped producing movies like that is a complex question beyond Nabwana’s immediate goals, so I’m not surprised he doesn’t get into film history beyond admiring some Spider-Man films reels. I’m a bit more annoyed at Hofmanis and especially director Catherine Czubek for not trying to dig into that question, most likely because it kills a lot of the magic in Once Upon A Time In Uganda to acknowledge that, for all our pretenses of valuing creativity and meritocracy in film production, the international film market is rigged against Wakwaliwood.
Nevertheless, it’s compelling magic, paradoxically looking at film production as a practical matter rather than a creative one. For the upcoming Eaten Alive in Uganda, they make about how certain special effects will require the use of goat entrails. The cast and crew are keen to pull this off as quickly as possible, because they’re not killing the goat just for fun. They also plan to eat the goat, because it’s a waste of a perfectly good goat not to eat it after killing it. The whole premise of the situation is as fascinating and logical as it is alien to film as we in the English-speaking world generally understand it.
But on the flip side, the entire premise of African cannibals hunting down and eating a white guy is so outrageously politically incorrect to our sensibilities it’s a bit remarkable that Nabwana is making a movie on the subject at all. In a way that’s part of the point- Nabwana is oblivious to the increasing farce of our discourse, bless his soul. He’s got movies to make. And for all its flaws, Once Upon A Time In Uganda is the only game in town right now that gives a good closeup look of just what it is that he’s doing.