Tag Archives: Ugandan

CAPSULE: ONCE UPON A TIME IN UGANDA (2021)

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Once Upon a Time in Uganda can currently be rented on VOD.

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DIRECTED BY: Cathryne Czubek

FEATURING, Alan Hofmanis, Harriet Nabwana

PLOT: A disillusioned American film programmer travels to Uganda to find Nabwana I.G.G., the director whose trailers for homemade action movies like Who Killed Captain Alex? have recently gone viral.

Still from Once Upon a Time in Uganda (2021)

COMMENTS: Wakaliwood seeped into the West’s collective consciousness slowly. The earliest fans boarded the train after seeing the viral Who Killed Captain Alex? trailer on YouTube in 2010 (five years before the finished movie would see the light of day). The first time I can clearly remember hearing about Nabwana I.G.G. was reading the description of Bad Black in the Fantasia Festival’s 2017 program (a screening subsequently given a brief-but-enthusiastic writeup by Giles Edwards).

As it turns out, my interest was indirectly sparked by Alan Hofmanis, Once Upon a Time in Uganda‘s NYC film programmer who, reeling from a devastating breakup and fascinated by Who Killed Captain Alex?, spirited himself away to the slums of Kampala in search of Nabwana. Hofmanis devoted the next several years to helping Nabwana promote his Wakaliwood output to film festivals around the world, while occasionally appearing in front of the camera in the recurring role of the muzungu [white man] who gets beat up—or in the case of one cannibal movie, who gets feasted on.

Creating a story from this material, instead of a mere talking heads doc, requires devoting a good deal of time to Alan and his struggles. (The heroic opening shot of Alan standing on a mountaintop cost more by itself than three or four Nabwana feature films). The focus on Alan is a bit unfortunate, because honestly, although basically a good guy, he isn’t the most compelling character. That honor doesn’t even go to Nabwana, the ex-bricklayer who is much more grounded in reality than his crazy-ass filmic output would lead one to believe, or to his appealingly supportive wife and collaborator Harriet. No, the real stars here are the movies themselves, lightning-paced barrages of kung fu, over-the-top firefights, model helicopters wrecking CGI skyscrapers, and a narrator constantly screaming and pumping up the movie in the background. (In fact, the one crew member whom we should have seen much more of is VJ Emmie, who provides the most unique element of Wakaliwood films: the running narration. Emmie’s commentary is the film’s own pre-supplied MST3K track: during one desperate scene, he moans, “I just want some good news.” A character immediately enters the scene: “Sir, I have some bad news.” Emmie gets a short interview and does his spiel over the opening credits, but deserved more coverage).

Despite its best efforts, though, Uganda is a talking-heads/behind-the-scenes doc, with only a thin story arc (which you might have already guessed). There are a couple of humorously inventive moments early on: director Czubek recreates Alan’s first encounter with a Wakaliwood actor as chase scene, and a fight scene suddenly breaks out in the background of one interview. But most of the time, this professionally put-together doc approaches the material from a conventional angle—so that Wakaliwood’s more delirious approach to moviemaking stands out in relief. Uganda serves as a perfect appetizer for those considering pigging out on a Wakaliwood banquet, or as a treasure trove of context for those who already have a seat at the trough. Either way, you’ll come away believing that this unassuming Kampala ghetto does indeed produce da best of da best action movies!!!!

For low-budget filmmakers, Uganda is simultaneously inspiring, intimidating, and depressing. Inspiring for how easy Nabwana makes it look to create a movie from scratch; intimidating because of just how much better he is at it than you will ever be; and depressing because, despite making 20+ movies and racking up millions of YouTube views, he hasn’t made a dime (at least, not at the time this doc was released; I’d wager he’s turned a small profit since).

You can catch Nabwana’s most popular films (and other goodies) on YouTube via the official Wakaliwood channel.

Legendary producer Ben Barenholz had directed a short and currently unavailable Wakaliwood documentary profiling Nabwana, simply entitled Wakaliwood, in 2012 (before Captain Alex was even completed!) Hofmanis co-produced.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Cathryne Czubek and co-director Hugo Perez present this unlikely creative inspiration for Nabwana’s work with real depth, shedding more light on what some may dismiss as explosion-laden nonsense… Once Upon a Time In Uganda recognizes both the personal importance and creative passion that lie within even the most ridiculous art.”–Lisa Laman, The Spool (contemporaneous)