Once Upon a Time in Uganda

As we watch a drone shot of Kampala, an accented narrator tells us that Uganda is famous for gorillas and Victoria Lake, that its capital city is Kampala and the famous Cathedral in our view was ‘blown up for our movie!’  We are listening to Isaac Nabwana, whose Ramon Film Productions was founded in Wakaliga, the Kampala slum now known as Wakaliwood because of Nabwana’s single minded effort to put his country on the film-making map.  His story is told in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda.”

Laura's Review: B

A few years ago, The American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) released two of Nabwana’s films, “Who Killed Captain Alex?” and “Bad Black” in the United States, but while Nabwana’s movies have garnered a cult audience, financial success continues to elude him.  This is one of the things we learn in cowriter (with her “A Girl and a Gun” collaborator Amanda Huges)/director Cathryn Czubek’s documentary, which could be seen as an effort to bump Nabwana back into the cinematic conversation.

After learning that Ugandan audiences like their movies accompanied by VJs who comment along with the action and make jokes as we watch clips from Nabwana’s comic action movies, Czubek introduces Alan Hofmanis, a fan of Nabwana’s work and former film festival program director, who, after proposing and getting dumped in NY, flies to Uganda to see if he can get involved.  Alan ends up moving next door to Isaac and Harriet Nabwana, where electricity is iffy and interior plumbing does not exist, and steps in to fill the white man role in “Bad Black.”  He ends up ridding himself of his material possessions, takes on international promotions for Ramon Film and jokes that he helped create the ‘beating up the white man’ genre.

It is both entertaining and amazing to witness this DIY band of movie makers who rely on an all volunteer cast and whose prop master makes ‘guns’ from scrap metal and bullets from wood.  He also makes cranes and other equipment as needed.  Young kids are trained in martial arts to star in action scenes.  Isaac himself is a self-taught engineer who concocts a flashlight from a wire, bulb and battery, then converts than into a projector.  Computer generated effects, like those presumably used to ‘blow up’ that cathedral, are crude but get the job done and are part of the fun.  Wakaliwood actors go door to door selling DVDs, their sales commission their only film-related income.  Isaac tells us he gets by by also shooting music videos, weddings and commercial ads.

Isaac notes that Ugandans don’t pay attention to things done in Uganda unless they receive attention from outside the country and soon Alan has the likes of PBS News Hour, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal shining a light on this home ground industry.  But conflict and drama enter the picture when a wealthy local television station owner offers to turn “Captain Alex” into a TV series and Nabwana goes all in without involving Alan while Harriet, who’d worried about the complicating effects of money, appears to breath easier now that she can afford to feed her cast.  Alan goes home, but he’ll return a year later and the gang will pick up where they left off, working on a film about flesh eating zombies.

“Once Upon a Time in Uganda” works best illustrating the workings of this madcap bunch of filmmakers and their resulting work, clips of which are shown masked with a matte of a 70’s era tube TV, but when, once again, we hear that Ramon is not profitable despite the television series, we’re given no real explanation.  If the documentary has an agenda, and there is a manufactured quality about it, it is, at least, rooting for the underdogs.

Robin's Review: B

The name Isaac Geoffrey Geoffrey Nabwanna is not a moniker anyone ever heard of in the movie world. Documentary filmmaker Cathryne Czubek changes all that with her introduction to Isaac and his unique way of making action movies for next to nothing in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda.”

Isaac’s story begins, for us, with the arrival of New York film festival director Alan Hofmanis making the long journey to the slum neighborhood of Wakaliga in Kampala, Uganda. He is there to find Ramon Studios and its boss, Isaac. Once there, he immerses himself in the fledgling Ugandan film industry, dubbed Wakaliwood.

So, we have an intro to Isaac’s unique, ultra-low budget filmmaking style with ample footage of his movies – 47 in 11 years with a $300 budget for each. As such, we get Isaac's, a brickmaker who one day decides he wants to be a filmmaker.

We get Isaac’s story and it is one of inventive creativity as he must invent, from scratch, all of the props and special effects he needs. This is guerrilla filmmaking at its best with Isaac creating, from scratch, visions of exploding heads, mayhem and martial arts action. Western audiences will snicker at the cheapness of his production, from chintzy F/X to mediocre acting and amateur behind the camera skills.

I, for one, can appreciate what Isaac has accomplished over the years. New York-based film festival director Alan Hofmanis’s arrival gives the Ugandan Steven Spielberg a platform to bring his movies form just local faves to international acclaim. Isaac gets the fame, but no fortune, for his work but that may change with “Once Upon a Time in Uganda.”

Drafthouse has released "Once Upon a Time in Uganda" exclusively in Drafthouse theaters beginning on 7/4/23 before becoming available on VOD on 7/25/23.