Wel­come to Wakali­wood

Smith Journal - - Contents - Writer Ro­han Wil­liams Pho­tog­ra­pher Frédéric Noy

They’re un­likely to snag him an Os­car, but Isaac Nab­wana’s films are five-star mas­ter­pieces in their own way.




Nab­wana grew up poor in Wakaliga, a slum vil­lage on the out­skirts of Uganda’s cap­i­tal, Kam­pala, and the city’s few com­mer­cial cin­e­mas were al­ways tan­ta­lis­ingly out of reach. Which only made him all the more ob­sessed with them. “My brother was lucky enough to have a friend who took him to the cin­ema hall,” the 45-year-old di­rec­tor re­calls. “And he used to come home and nar­rate all of these films to me.”

The young Nab­wana would sit, en­chanted by the dar­ing ad­ven­tures of Bruce Lee, Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger and Chuck Nor­ris. He longed for his brother’s dis­patches, though they were con­ducted in se­cret: Nab­wana’s par­ents shel­tered him from vi­o­lence, both on-screen and off. Raised un­der the bru­tal regimes of

Idi Amin and Mil­ton Obote in the ’70s and ’80s, he was for­bid­den from go­ing out­side where the blood­shed was. “I never saw any­one get shot,” he says, “but I heard the gun­fire. The bul­lets were all over.” His imag­i­na­tion fu­elled by that tu­mul­tuous sound­track, and by his brother’s sto­ries of ac­tion he­roes, Nab­wana has spent a life­time dream­ing of com­man­dos, heli­copters and ex­plo­sions.

To­day, those dreams come to life at ‘Wakali­wood’, a makeshift film stu­dio Nab­wana built him­self, us­ing bricks he baked by hand, in one of the most flood-prone ar­eas of Wakaliga. Start­ing out with a bor­rowed cam­era in 2005, Uganda’s an­swer to Quentin Tarantino (or, depend­ing on how you view his works, Ed Wood) has built an un­likely em­pire out of scraps and spare parts.

Ev­ery day, dozens of vol­un­teer ac­tors and crew mem­bers (in­clud­ing his brother) come and go from the stu­dio, which dou­bles as Nab­wana’s home. To­day, a self-taught kung fu mas­ter with a glued-on mous­tache leads a troupe of child ac­tors through their daily train­ing ses­sions. In a shed out the back, a props mas­ter works away, turn­ing sticks, PVC pipes and me­tal sal­vaged from land­fill into fake guns and bombs. Next to him, con­doms are filled with a dark red liq­uid to sim­u­late gun­shot wounds. “We used to use cow’s blood,” Nab­wana says, “but one of our com­rades got sick af­ter they ex­ploded, so now we use food colour­ing.” Why con­doms? “Be­cause the NGOs give them out for free! We are al­ways im­pro­vis­ing.”

A green screen is draped over a wall out­side Nab­wana’s home. “We use the sun as the light source,” Nab­wana ex­plains, “so we don’t need to pay for light­ing.” And then there’s the crown jewel of Wakali­wood, cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion – a full-size replica HU-1 ‘Huey’ he­li­copter with a diesel engine and work­ing pro­pel­lers. The chop­per sits in the dirt in Nab­wana’s back­yard.

It’s co­or­di­nated chaos, as Nab­wana jug­gles five films at once, all in var­i­ous stages of de­vel­op­ment. When power out­ages – which oc­cur fre­quently – pre­vent him from shooting one film, he turns his hand to writ­ing or re­hears­ing an­other. And when the power is on, there’s no time to waste. “On set,

I’m a tough di­rec­tor,” he ad­mits. “When I say ‘Ac­tion’, it means ‘Ac­tion’. I take charge, be­cause I need things to be done the way I want them to be done. But as soon as I say ‘Cut’, we’re al­ways laugh­ing.” Nab­wana’s in­spi­ra­tion is al­ways the same. “When I do an ac­tion scene, I want it to be as good as the sto­ries my brother used to tell me. This is art that has been in my head since child­hood.”

This is art, yes, but it is out­sider art. Nab­wana’s films, which are made for less than $ 300 and can take any­where from two weeks to a year to shoot, feel like in­cred­i­bly elab­o­rate home movies. His style is marked by prim­i­tive CGI that would have looked out­dated on a PlaySta­tion 1, an ob­ses­sion with vi­o­lence and kung fu that would make even Tarantino blush, and sur­real plots that rou­tinely go off the rails.

Who Killed Cap­tain Alex? – his best-known film out­side Uganda, thanks to a trailer that went vi­ral in 2010 – tells the story of a Ugan­dan Shaolin monk aveng­ing the death of his su­per-sol­dier brother. Os­ten­si­bly a mur­der mys­tery, the film ends with an ac­tion se­quence that leaves us ab­so­lutely no closer to learn­ing who killed Cap­tain Alex.

Nab­wana’s films are un­hinged, but also glee­fully self-aware. In keeping with the lo­cal tra­di­tion of the ‘Video Joker’ – trans­la­tors who add their own jokes to Amer­i­can films when they’re shown on DVD in Ugan­dan video halls – his movies es­sen­tially come with their own Mys­tery Science The­atre 3000- style com­men­tary tracks. Nar­ra­tor VJ Em­mie never misses an op­por­tu­nity to send up the char­ac­ters, sets and ef­fects as the ac­tion un­folds.


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Nab­wana and his stunt ac­tors f ilm an ac­tion scene in Wakaliga. Nab­wana’s film ed­u­ca­tion con­sists of a c om­puter re­pair course. Those skills come in handy when his edit­ing equip­ment breaks down.

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A vol­un­teer ac­tor ap­plies his own makeup back­stag e, sur­rounded by old Wakali­wood posters (and the Back­street Boys).

Con­doms filled with fake blood make ex­cel­lent squibs on a budg et.

While other film­mak­ers aim to reach as wide an au­di­ence as pos­si­ble, the Ugan­dan au­teur never in­tended for any­one out­side his vil­lage to see his movies. “Ugan­dans were amazed to see that I could do some­thing which had not been done in Uganda be­fore,” he beams. But word of mouth has now spread much fur­ther; pi­rates are spread­ing copies of his DVDs to “all cor­ners of Africa”. Mean­while, the trail­ers Nab­wana up­loads to YouTube have helped build a large in­ter­na­tional fol­low­ing. He knows that some of his for­eign fans are laugh­ing at him, not with him, but he doesn’t mind. “Peo­ple have the right to in­ter­pret art any way they want,” he says. “But they are meant to be funny movies. Peo­ple go to the movies for en­ter­tain­ment, and I fo­cus on giv­ing them that.”

At least one Amer­i­can took Nab­wana’s work se­ri­ously straight away. A for­mer film fes­ti­val cu­ra­tor from New York, Alan Hof­ma­nis dis­cov­ered Who Killed Cap­tain Alex? at a low point in his life. “My girl dumped me the day I bought the wed­ding ring,” he re­mem­bers. Days later, Hof­ma­nis met up with a friend at a bar. He was mis­er­able – and his friend had just the thing to cheer him up. “He took out his iPhone and he showed me the trailer for Who Killed Cap­tain Alex? He’s crack­ing up, and

I’m not laugh­ing. All my in­stincts as a cu­ra­tor were on fire. Typ­i­cally, if you have no money, you shoot some­thing small that takes place in one lo­ca­tion. You don’t make a war film! You don’t do that, un­less you’re Isaac Nab­wana.”

Even though the trailer was a vi­ral sen­sa­tion, there was very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about Nab­wana avail­able on­line, and no way to watch the com­plete film. So Hof­ma­nis did what any rea­son­able per­son in his sit­u­a­tion would do. “That night, I bought a plane ticket to Uganda. And then the next day I re­turned it, be­cause that was a stupid thing to do. And then the next day I bought it again. I had to.”

On his first day in Uganda, Hof­ma­nis found one of Nab­wana’s ac­tors sell­ing his DVDs in a mar­ket­place and fol­lowed him to Wakali­wood, where he talked to Nab­wana for six hours. Nab­wana shakes his head when he re­mem­bers that first meet­ing. “Alan didn’t call, he didn’t write, he just came. I re­mem­ber see­ing his mo­tor­cy­cle taxi ar­rive. We started talk­ing, and I re­alised we had a lot in com­mon. He’s like me – a crazy guy.”

Bond­ing with Nab­wana over a mu­tual love of ’80s ac­tion movies, Hof­ma­nis left his old life be­hind and moved in with the Wakali­wood crew. He went on to play the lead role in Bad Black, Nab­wana’s mas­ter­piece about a mild­man­nered white doc­tor who be­comes a com­mando un­der the tute­lage of a pre-pubescent Ugan­dan kung fu mas­ter named Wes­ley Snipes.

Hof­ma­nis has been in­stru­men­tal in pro­mot­ing Wakali­wood in­ter­na­tion­ally, us­ing his con­nec­tions to se­cure screen­ings at Amer­i­can film fes­ti­vals. “The first in­stinct is that if you find some­thing pre­cious and spe­cial, you want to keep it that way,” he ac­knowl­edges. “But very quickly I thought, ‘No, that’s mo­ronic.’ If Steven Spiel­berg makes a home movie when he’s 12 and it’s great, you don’t say, ‘Now, for the rest of your life, you should keep mak­ing Su­per 8 movies.’ You help him make it big­ger and bet­ter.” Hof­ma­nis dreams of what his friend could do with a big­ger bud­get. “What hap­pens if you give a third-world slum $ 50,000 to make an ac­tion film? I have no idea.

But I want to see that movie.”

For his part, Nab­wana can’t con­ceive of spend­ing $ 50,000 on a sin­gle movie. “In­stead of mak­ing one big-bud­get movie, I’d build a real film stu­dio. There are so many chil­dren here who need em­ploy­ment, and I want to make jobs for them.

Movies can em­ploy so many peo­ple.”

One day soon, he might even get to see one of his films in a movie the­atre. In the mean­time, he’s catch­ing up on all those ’80s ac­tion movies his brother told him about. “I’ll tell you, when I watch the movies now, they are not as good as my brother’s sto­ries,” he laughs. “I think my brother is a bet­ter sto­ry­teller.”

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