New doc tells the behind-the-scenes story of the studio behind “da best of da best action movies”
The Ugandan film production house known as Ramon Film Productions, based in Wakaliga, Uganda (“Wakaliwood”) hit our radar in 2015 with the release of Who Killed Captain Alex, a deliriously bonkers, extremely low budget action movie that blew off the roof at Fantastia International Film Festival.
Featuring a gutsy attitude, hilariously cheap effects, and jokey meta narration by a “video joker” (a practice commonplace in the Ugandan film industry), and most importantly a sense of joyful entertainment, the film was a genre breakout hit. Suddenly brickmaker-turned-director Isaac Nabwana (alias “Nabwana IGG”), Wakaliwood, VJ Emmie, and a number of zippy catch phrases like ‘best of da best” and “supa commando!” were part of our film lexicon.
Bad Black followed in 2017, a more accomplished film which kept the hilarity and insanity but showed a more deft hand behind the camera and storytelling.
Once Upon a Time in Uganda (tragically not titled Once Upon a Time in Wakaliwood), is a new documentary telling the Wakaliwood story, directed by Cathryne Czubek, co-directed by Hugo Perez, and co-written by Czubeck and Amanda Hughes.
The film follows a narrative choice usually reserved for fiction, by introducing an outside “character” who gets woven into the fabric of the story. American filmmaker Alan Hofmanis trekked to Uganda to see Wakaliwood firsthand, and ended up befriending Isaac Nabwana and getting absorbed into Ramon Films’ exploits, not only as an actor (a muzungu, or white person, is a rare commodity in Wakaliga) but as a business partner helping Nabwana realize his visions, and pushing his films to receive international press and notoriety.
There’s a risk with this kind of approach to make the American the main narrative, but the film makes an effort to keep things focused on Wakaliwood, with footage and interviews of not only Nabwana, but his wife and other cast and crew as well.
One point that’s certainly driven home is that despite the filmmakers’ success in reaching an international audience, it hasn’t made them rich. Far from it; Wakaliga is a shantytown community, and Nabwana and his collaborators live in simple shacks with no running water.
The lack of material wealth and resources is a source of ingenuity, as Ramon Film’s propmakers piece together scraps and junk to make anything from guns to helicopters. Toy cars feature as crashable models. A bedsheet serves as a greenscreen.
For fans of Wakaliwood’s output, the documentary offers a new perspective of Wakaliwood: financial struggles, creative clashes and communication breakdowns, and a desire to be accepted by audiences, especially at home in Uganda.
Once Upon A Time in Uganda is currently featured at DOC NYC on November 12 and 17