Welcome to Wakaliwood
They’re unlikely to snag him an Oscar, but Isaac Nabwana’s films are five-star masterpieces in their own way.
WITH PROPS MADE FROM SCRAP AND SCRIPTS THAT WOULD MAKE STEVEN SEAGAL BLUSH, ISAAC NABWANA IS BRINGING A TOUCH OF HOLLYWOOD TO UGANDA.
ISAAC NABWANA HAS DIRECTED MORE THAN 50 FILMS, BUT HE’S NEVER SEEN ANY OF THEM ON THE BIG SCREEN. IN FACT, HE’S NEVER SEEN ANYTHING ON THE BIG SCREEN.
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.
“WE USED TO USE COW’S BLOOD, BUT ONE OF OUR COMRADES G OT SICK AFTER THE CONDOM EXPLODED.”
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.
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.”