Once Upon A Time In Uganda

Once Upon A Time In Uganda is a documentary about Wakaliwood, where Isaac Nabwana makes low-budget, high-octane action flicks. Isaac is based in Wakaliga, a ghetto in the capital city of Uganda, Kampala. There he makes movies for as little as £200, and puts them out to his neighbours. When Alan, a superfan from America shows up, determined to make sure Isaac gets the recognition he deserves, will it translate into material benefit for Isaac and his crew?

Isaac is so impressive. Like, seriously. He’s put together a whole team of people, each as passionate and resourceful as each other. They need a lighting rig, they weld it; they need a camera jib, they weld it; they need a helicopter, THEY FUCKING WELD IT! It is unreal how they can build all their equipment, all their scenery, all their props from scrap metal, and whatever else is to hand.

I really wanna show this film to my stepdad. He has a deeply instilled drive to make-do wherever possible, and appreciates nothing more than someone who can make stuff out of anything.

Isaac’s films are inspired by the action movies of the 80s, Chuck Norris and Rambo. But he does them in a distinctly Ugandan way, with his own particular style. And they’re funny, and don’t take themselves seriously, and have a VJ – a video joker who narrates over the film with quips and exclamations.

However, money and recognition don’t come easily. There are big establishments in Uganda, tv and media outlets, but they have no interest in action movies, especially those made in the ghetto. As Isaac explains, nobody rates anything in Uganda unless it makes it big overseas. The racism pervasive in society says, for something to be good, white people have to want to buy it. And I’m sorry to say, the film doesn’t really dig into that any, just accepts it as a fact of life.

The film begins with Alan Hofmanis flying out to Uganda to be part of Isaac’s film crew, which to be honest I didn’t like. I don’t think the story should start with when the first white guy got involved. And I don’t need him taking me to Uganda like a tourist visiting and having the place explained to me. And I don’t need to see a white face endorsing the subject to think it’s worthwhile.

At the Q&A, this choice is kinda explained, as the director got involved in Isaac’s story through Alan, so that was their beginning to the story. But that just shows all the more why it’s problematic telling these stories going from the outside in. Fundamentally you’re telling a white America’s experience of this African story.

It actually does get better as the film goes on, as the documentary makers go to Uganda and continue filming even though Alan goes elsewhere. So at that point Isaac gets to take more centre stage without Alan.

Although, starting with Alan’s arrival does underscore the central relationship as their friendship. It’s their highs and lows which punctuate the film’s acts. You do root for this unlikely pair.

So Alan’s story pretty much starts with him having a mid-life crisis. He’s worked all his life in films, but has kinda lost the passion he started out with. He buys a ring to propose to his girlfriend and she dumps him. Then he sees Isaac’s films. And his mind is just blown, it’s like all the passion he once had, all the love for films, it’s right there on the screen. He pretty much sells everything, buys a plane ticket, and moves to Uganda. Which is a bold move.

He turns up on Isaac’s door and asks to be part of his film crew. They actually were looking for a white man to play the baddie in an upcoming film, so Alan was a wish granted. And because he was a white Westerner, he could be an advocate for Wakaliwood overseas.

And he was quite successful in this. Wakaliwood’s story went viral, appearing on the BBC, Al Jazeera and the Wall Street Journal among many, many others. But making that visibility turn into dollars proves more difficult than you’d think.

Once Upon A Time In Uganda is a movie which will remind you of why you love film. It’s about how people come together to make, to watch, to share films. Film is a global uniter.

Also loved the exploding heads.