When Ugandan action filmmaker Isaac Nabwana lists off some of the great action stars that became a huge personal inspiration, he says names like Bud Spencer, Chuck Norris, and Bruce Lee, but then he says Rambo (as opposed to Sylvester Stallone). The iconography of American Hollywood action cinema is not only in the stars who act in them, but oftentimes the characters themselves and what they do. How they’re perceived by filmgoers as entertainers are not restrained through economic means. Cultural iconography is created, not born or ordained to the elite. That is the essential project behind Wakaliwood, a makeshift “film industry” in the Ugandan rural village of Wakaliga. 

Cathryne Czubek’s documentary Once Upon a Time in Uganda takes its audience behind the scenes of Nabwana’s production process, giving insight into the ways he thinks like an artist, a businessman, and a community leader. Czubek chooses to film certain scenes, especially the opening, like action films in themselves, parroting the style that Nabwana utilizes, which itself is drawing from the likes of First Blood and Hard Target. There are talking heads in this documentary, but they’re thankfully supplemented quite well with candid moments and rare looks into the ways that filmmaking in Wakaliwood is a communal process. 

In one of the best scenes, Nabwana shows two kids how to build a projector from sticking two D-batteries to a wire behind a cardboard box with electrical tape and using a scrap of aluminum foil as a reflector for the light. In essence, the bare essential elements of cinema can be found in the most meager of materials. Another sequence shows the ways greenscreen is used by hanging up a green tapestry on a huge rod and positioning actors in front of it, a staple of independent filmmaking once digital technology became more accessible. The ingenuity of these small pieces and tricks coming together in a place of scarce resources is what should really be considered the magic inherent in Nabwana’s films––but for some it may seem a fetishized business opportunity. 

Uganda‘s other main character is Alan Hofmanis, a New York-based filmmaker who became disillusioned with the industry and found Nabwana’s films and decided to meet the man. Nabwana initially refers to Isaac as “like a missionary,” his ultimate belief that Hofmanis could become a huge help in building Wakaliwood into a legitimate film industry for Uganda. Hofmanis’ fascination with Wakaliwood is well-intentioned, but it comes across quite early as a “discovery” by him. The rift begins to form when Hofmanis sees Nabwana’s films as more of an international business, and it’s essentially this difference in ideals that speaks to Once Upon a Time in Uganda’s larger point: the idea of creating an organic source of artistic and cultural expression in a developing nation vs. seeing poor people’s work as a business opportunity to sell. 

In Férid Boughedir’s documentary Camera d’Afrique, Nigerian filmmaker Moustapha Alassane says it clearly: “If our culture interests you, you should work with us… but you’re here for business and you don’t admit it.” It’s a class issue as well. Nabwana’s filmmaking is a rural grassroots communal movement by the poor, for the poor. But he says that the corporate elite in Uganda only consider legitimacy through the approval of muzungus (white visitors). It’s not that Wakaliwood isn’t or can’t be a business too. The movie business for Nabwana and his wife Harriet is a door-to-door enterprise; it’s not an industry but a community project that brings money for the people. People are tasked with selling the movies in their villages and they get a percentage of the profits of what they sell. 

As a bricklayer, Nabwana knows the difficulties and fruits of building something piece by piece. We get to see the difficult work of filmmaking––not just the scripting and shooting, but everything surrounding the actual creative process and building a dream for Nabwana that is bigger than himself. He envisions something that helps not only his village, but Uganda culturally. It’s a country that has had a long history of political violence and a high poverty rate. When asked what the audience for his films is, he says “The poor, because that is most of us here.” At the turn of the century, in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s brilliant documentary Bye, Bye, Africa, the camera pans around a destitute theater, the chairs thrown around, the walls rotting, the dust caking everywhere. A man asks the filmmaker, “Do you think cinema has a future here?” and he responds, “I do. That’s why I make films.” 24 years later we see the same dreams living on in Wakaliwood. 

Once Upon a Time in Uganda is now playing in theaters nationwide.

Grade: B+

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