Who needs millions, Ugandans are making action movies for $200
eep in a Kampala slum, young men kick each other while a stout man with a salt-and-pepper beard watches them, sometimes nodding in approval. With luck, a stylish blow could become a stunt in the latest action movie to emerge from this tin-roofed collection of houses known as Wakaliwood, named after this Wakaliga neighbourhood.
Here is the engine of Uganda’s tiny film industry, the source of $200-budget movies and a glimmer of fame. Later this month, the Wakaliwood film Bad Black premieres at Fantastic Fest, which calls itself the largest genre film festival in the United States.
Its organisers call the film an “exuberant DIY extravaganza” from an industry whose “reckless abandon manages to inspire more heart, grit and soul than a thousand Hollywood blockbusters”.
A former bricklayer who taught himself to direct, Isaac Nabwana is responsible for Bad Black and scores of the action movies that he sees as uniquely Ugandan.
Young people and even some foreigners have found their way to his studios in search of roles. Dozens have signed a Wakaliwood Wall of Fame, often because their characters died in a film, staggering dramatically as condoms filled with fake blood spattered in a hail of mock bullets.
“They have watched so many action movies from all over the world. When they come here, they know that appearing in a Wakaliwood movie will make you a star,” the 44-year-old Nabwana said.
He has been making films spanning various genres since 2005, but it is the action flicks that have captured the people’s imagination. “I like Chuck Norris,” Nabwana said. “I think the other guy was Clint... Clint Eastwood?”
With the help of an improvised green screen and digital editing tools, Wakaliwood actors can take aim at the Eiffel Tower or drop from the sky into the middle of New York’s
Nabwana said he spent less than $200 to produce Who Killed Captain Alex, a 2010 film that follows a loose plot as the military battles a violent gang.
Nabwana called the movie the “first action movie made in Africa, by Africans, on a low budget” – an extraordinary claim considering the presence of Nigeria’s long-established and equally raucous film industry, Nollywood.
Still, Moses Serugo, a long-time film critic in Uganda, said he gives Nabwana high marks for innovation and for making movies about the East African country and starring Ugandans. Now he hopes the films can break away from Hollywood-style plots.
“It has got to come down to us telling our own stories,” Serugo said.
Although Ugandans have been making more films, and more serious ones, since a local film festival launched in 2013, Wakaliwood’s action films remain popular because they are “crazy, fascinating”, said Dominic Dipio, a professor of literature and film studies at Makerere University.
“You can see imagination, fantasy going on rampage without any clear direction,” she said, smiling. “There is no evidence for me that this is scripted.”