Once Upon a Time in Uganda
Dir. Cathryne Czubek
Program: Nightvision (International Premiere)
Cathryne Czubek’s Once Upon a Time in Uganda is a tale of tenacity and a tumultuous friendship, showcasing years in the life of a unique group of filmmakers with a penchant for exploding heads. Set in Wakaliga, a dire looking yet close-knit impoverished area of Kampala, this so-called “Wakaliwood” became home to a ragtag group of directors, actors, and crew members intent on extolling their love of punches, kicks, quick one-liners and plenty of things that go boom.
Isaac Nabwana is the auteur at the heart of the Wakaliwood movement, and at various times he’s compared to Quentin Tarantino and George Lucas. Yet if anything he’s got much more in common with Roger Corman, the famed low-budget maven whose mentorship provides a richer legacy than his drive-in output, or even the likes of Deodato and the other Italian shock maestros, or Golan/Globus with their 1980s action excesses. Of course, Nabwana is his own man, and while his films may participate in the greater genre conversation, their mix of humour, janky effects, and the employment of a “VJ” that provides a chorus-like live commentary atop is a blissfully unique contribution to the cinematic arts.
It’s Alan Hofmanis, Nabwana’s key collaborator, who opens Czubek’s energetic doc. A long-haired and bearded white dude, Hofmanis is seen staring off into the Kazakhstan wilderness–with a hunting bird for good measure. It’s slightly off-putting, and easy to see why from the earliest frames we may be in for a kind of white saviour flick, marketing these “exotic” Ugandan film fanatics. Yet Czubek does well to constantly undercut the more obvious narrative choices, instead managing throughout all the highs and lows to craft a tale that’s moving, engaging and deeply charming.
Alan Hofmanis is a former film festival director and a bit of a broken character, but his enthusiasm and commitment as an outsider is intoxicating. After being jilted by his girlfriend and watching one of Nabwana’s trailers he haphazardly made his way to central Africa to see what it was all about. Through some heightened recreations Czubek gives a sense of the chase, trying to track down Ramon productions and the genius behind it all.
This point is key, of course, that Nabwana was doing it all long before Hofmanis ever stepped foot in Wakaliga, and while the messaging hadn’t got out in formal ways it was definitely the case of a white outsider coming in to evangelize an existing, functional concern. That’s not to say the Wakaliwood filmmakers were making any money, but they were finding an audience online, and driven to continue to hone their brand of mayhem.
As international attention floods in the powers-that-be in Uganda finally take notice. As is inevitable, certain successes result in tensions, and it’s clear that the dream partnership is tested by the strains. Yet throughout there remains the central drive to create, with Nabwana, his wife and his collaborators all shot-by-shot putting together wildly entertaining and unique DIY films.
As an introduction to this brand of film, Czubek does an admirable job, but it’s the human stories beyond the final output that are the most engaging. The props master is but one fantastic character, and we share in his giddiness as he shows off his array of gadgetry. If the apocalypse finally does come, and I need someone to craft my Mad Max-like armoury, I certainly know who I’d like to have in my corner.
Similarly, we witness how the hyper-specificity of this kinetic, somewhat lunatic action cinema builds into a global audience, relishing its palpably passionate ways of merging story, violence and comedy to make a very different kind of Indigenous African art. There are plenty of tales of poverty and pain, but here, in the most over-the-top ways of ultraviolence, we get a sense of the real tastes and compunctions of those both onscreen and off in this far away land.
The documentary culminates in a grand screening I had the pleasure of attending, and can attest to the real sense of warmth not only from the audience but also the sense of relief and wonder from the filmmakers. That day Hofmanis was off to the side and Nabwana was centre stage, one supporting the other, and fulfilling a wish to let the world embrace the cinema that drew him to spend years of his life spreading the word.
Films about filmmaking are often tedious or overly self-indulgent, yet with Once Upon a Time in Uganda there’s a real sense of accomplishment, both in terms of how the films broke through to the international conversation, but also how the relationship between these two, who call themselves brothers, shifted over time. This is a pure celebration, to be sure, but it’s not shy of the more complex issues that both tie and keep apart these characters, and it by no means glosses over the more challenging aspects at play.
Yet as the title implies there’s a kind of mythic story here of overcoming the odds, to take something where during a stunt you can fall into a pit of sewage (a literal baptism, as Hofmanis puts it) and somehow find import in a global context. There’s a purity and joy to the films of Nabwana, and as someone who was able to experience that warmth with a rapturous audience of 1200, I can attest that Czubek’s very fine film does justice to the experience.
Once Upon a Time in Uganda screened at Hot Docs 2022.