Nighttime in the village of Kaliti, Uganda.
It’s disarmingly dark, because there is no electricity here. A man with a movie camera shouts, “Action!” Two hand-built light grids pull power from a faltering generator, shining their beams on a bearded, wild-eyed, undernourished mzungu11 A Central/East African term for white person. in tattered clothes. He’s being chased through the jungle by over a dozen screaming, chanting Ugandans, children included, in full cannibal regalia—banana leaf skirts, necklaces of bones, remnants of goat’s blood.
They corral, form a circle as the terrified intruder is forced to go one-on-one with a new arrival—a robed cannibal priest who adopts a kung fu battle stance. After a limber punch-up and some supernatural combat involving an amputated hand, the mzungu breaks free and the pursuit continues. This time the cannibals are on motorcycle, racing downhill through a forest. They spread out, trapping their unlucky catch in a huge hunting net.
Later, the Ugandans sip hot water with lemongrass while we mzungus drink Nescafé. On the shooting break, a group of “cannibals” huddle around a laptop I’d brought with me, watching John Wayne in Rio Bravo, their first exposure to the Duke. Nearby, children are keeping themselves entertained with a bloody decapitated prop head.
It’s just another night for the most unlikely of all cinema success stories: Wakaliwood, the DIY action film studio from the slums of Uganda that took over the Internet and made it plausible for anyone in the world to become an East African kung fu movie commando. Under the leadership of self-taught writer/director/editor/producer/SFX guru Nabwana Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey (known as Nabwana IGG) and his company Ramon Film Productions—named after his grandmothers Rachel and Monica, who raised and protected him through Uganda’s civil war—Wakaliwood makes movies for less than $200 US apiece. Their breakout hit—Who Killed Captain Alex? Uganda’s First Action Movie—is one of 40-plus feature films Nabwana has made so far, without access to running water, refrigeration, reliable electricity or dependable computers, way off the grid in the bustling dirt mazes of Wakaliga, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Uganda’s equatorial capital city of Kampala.
It seems like something conjured up in a film curator’s dream. A neglected corner of Africa, a filmmaker who has crammed a career’s worth of output into 10 years, yet has never set foot inside a movie theatre in his life: in stratified Uganda, cinemas are reserved for the upper classes. Nabwana, who never imagined an audience bigger than his neighbourhood, undermines and upheaves classist Ugandan logic by making rebellious, commercially popular movies on his own terms and drawing attention to Uganda for something beyond gorillas and tragedy.
During the 1970s, Uganda was under the rule of Idi Amin, one of the 20th century’s most notorious military dictators. Alongside his policy of expelling citizens of European and Asian descent and expropriating their property, Amin blocked foreign media, television, and movies. His oust in 1979 paved the way for a cultural reset and opening of borders, yet the country was plunged into another six years of brutal civil war. When the mayhem subsided, Reagan-era action hits like Schwarzenegger’s Commando and Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II were among the first Hollywood films to make it into the country, and the impact was enormous. Beefed up macho men like Chuck Norris became the first heroes of the collective Ugandan cinema experience, the Buster Keatons, if you will (“Busta Keaton, World’s 1st Supa Commando” has recently been popularized in Uganda thanks to Wakaliwood efforts).
Young Nabwana was in love with the escapist lure of cinema, a medium he experienced second hand via his older brother, who would attend movies, come home and recite complete plots from memory (a stand-out was the 1978 British mercenaries-in-Africa adventure flick The Wild Geese). Nabwana’s memories of war, of being chased by real soldiers in real helicopters, only fed his interest in conflict-centric stories. His ambition was to milk his memory for populist fun and comedy instead of wallowing in its ravages. Once he had the means, Nabwana was hungry to break the Ugandan cultural hegemony of TV melodramas and “Embassy Films”, the government-approved “poor Africa” film festival submission pieces.
It sounds crazy, but just wait, man.
Nabwana started from zero. To house his family—his wife and co-editor Harriet (AKA Mama Rachel) and kids/actors Rachel, Gitti, and Isaac Newton—he made bricks from the clay-rich dirt in the ground and built a home on a chunk of inherited land. He went to school and learned how to build a computer from scrap parts (but dropped out from lack of money). Acquiring Adobe Premiere and After Effects, he taught himself the basics. He sold everything he had to buy a Sony PD 170 camera. You need to be maniacally determined and exceptionally clever to make films in Uganda, and Nabwana is both.
Nabwana’s brother Robert (aka Kizito, meaning “small but supa tough”—a nickname he shares with their grandmother) is the notoriously limelight shy co-star of Wakaliwood kung fu film Rescue Team. While Nabwana was becoming a self-taught movie mogul, Kizito, along with noted Wakaliwood actors Wamala Peter and Bukenya Charles (aka Bruce U, the Ugandan Bruce Lee, star of The Return of Uncle Benon) bought magazines on Chinese kung fu and taught themselves martial arts, eventually founding Uganda’s first kung fu school. Nabwana convinced his brother and friends to act in his movies by splicing their fight footage with sound clips from classic Asian martial arts flicks. This mesh of American, Chinese and Ugandan influences blurred into the idiosyncratic Wakaliwood style of action, action, ACTION!
New Yorker Alan “Ssali” Hofmanis is the lone mzungu in the Wakaliwood fold—the outsider who came on a quest for the makers of “da best of da best movies” and never went home. Hofmanis had been a film festival programmer in a past life and knows the world outside the insular Ugandan market. He oversees Wakaliwood’s Internet presence, campaigns, social media, website, and the heavy load of subtitles and localization. As he sees it, the plausible fantasy future for Wakaliwood is to have Nabwana IGG’s first time in a movie theatre take place at the Cannes Film Festival, as a director attending his own film premiere. It sounds crazy, but just wait, man.
Bad Black a.k.a. Black: The Most C.I.D. Wanted (“Criminal Investigation Department” is the Ugandan F.B.I.) features Hofmanis in a starring role. It’s based on the true story of a female Ugandan Robin Hood (“Black”) who swindled a fortune from a British businessman. In the Wakaliwood version, Hofmanis plays an American philanthropist doctor from a family line of commandos. And Black doesn’t steal his money, she steals his dog tags. Hofmanis takes a crash course in commando training from a local kid (The Karate Kid in reverse), then basically blows up the slums. The camera was already rolling on this film within hours of Nabwana and Hofmanis’s first meeting. Nabwana was pumped to have a mzungu actor at his disposal, and Hofmanis won him over when he took a plunge (three times!) into the slum’s open sewer but kept on acting.
This irrepressible enthusiasm that permeates the group is what talked me into visiting Wakaliwood in person in late May 2015, with the financial aid of friends and family. I brought a suitcase full of electronic gear (laptop, hard drives, video cards), items that are typically overpriced or tough to find in Uganda, paid for by Wakaliwood’s crowdfunding campaign (to which I contributed $20) or donated by fans who’d heard about my trip. Digital storage is a premium issue; Nabwana’s home editing station is littered with fried hard drives, victims of power surges and constant dust exposure from the hot, humid environment. Some contain the only existing copies of Wakaliwood films now otherwise lost, such as Tebaatusasula, a completed feature film.
I was lucky enough to accompany Nabwana and his crew on a location shoot outside of Wakaliga. Most filming takes place in the immediate vicinity of Nabwana IGG’s property. But on this weekend, myself and the crew—including martial artist Kizza Manisuru Ssejjemba, energetic stuntman Asiimwe Apollo aka Apollo Creed, all-hands-on-deck assistant and co-star of Bad Black “Search” aka Gen. Placdo, and prop builder/technical wizard Bisaso Dauda—traveled to Kaliti, an Eden of lush green growth that has never had electricity. (Also the epicentre of a recent outbreak of Marburg, a deadlier cousin of Ebola.) Eaten Alive in Uganda was the film in production, a cannibal story.22There are three types of cannibals in Uganda. The first are an offshoot of wartime terror tactics—during Idi Amin’s reign in the 1970s and into the civil war, eating your enemies (or at least, claiming that you did) was a gruesome method for instilling fear and dominance. Idi Amin was believed to have indulged in cannibalism and famously did not deny it when accused. The second are the “accepted” cannibals of Uganda, who are not killers, but perform cannibalism of the recently dead as a religious, ritual act. They are regarded like monks—outside the social norm but harmless. The Wakaliwood filmmakers were in contact with one such cannibal named Ludo as an advisor. The third type of cannibals are the Night Dancers. Recent years have seen intensive police investigations, increased stigmas (and jokes) against people from regions believed to be cannibal country, and also serious cases of witch hunts and retaliatory mob violence.
The source material is folkloric—the Abasezi or Night Dancers, the bogeymen of Ugandan mythology. By day they look just like you and me. By night they are possessed by spirits, make intoxicating music, dance in the nude, and lure people to their homes to trap and eat them. The Night Dancers are rooted in the earliest African zombie folklore, predating the voodoo of Haiti, and are taken very seriously in Uganda, where witch doctors are still in business.
The film taps the Night Dancer bogeyman folklore but also looks to front page news: a “cannibal” attack in Kangombe village, Rakai District, where a mother and 9-month-old baby were macheted to death, the father escaping with serious injuries. A raid found clumps of hair and torn clothes, but no bodies. The village chairman (community elder) and twelve others were arrested, and “confessed” in custody to murder, cannibalism and a secret network for human meat trafficking. Mob justice burnt their homes to the ground. Many people suspect the father murdered his family, blamed his rivals, took their money and split. In any case, Rakai District is now synonymous with cannibalism, and the planned title for the film’s Ugandan release is Eaten Alive in Rakai. A previous Wakaliwood film, Bukunja Tekunja Mitti: The Cannibals, marked the first time Uganda’s resident evils were put on screen—just one of dozens of Wakaliwood firsts.
2015 was a big year for Wakaliwood exposure, with coverage in major publications in every corner of the globe, from the BBC, to CNN, to Al Jazeera, to Vice, Fangoria, the Russian GQ, and Beat Takeshi’s Japanese TV show, Takeshi’s News 6. More recently, Wakaliwood was featured prominently in the Jan/Feb 2016 final nudie issue of Playboy magazine and a March edition of the Wall Street Journal. As of this writing, the Who Killed Captain Alex? trailer has been viewed over 2.5 million times on YouTube. The re-mastered film has played all over the world: Shanghai, Barcelona, Edmonton, Philadelphia, Amsterdam, London, Riga, Berlin, Nashville, Madrid, and at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival where Captain Alex had its festival premiere. Screenings regularly conclude with a live Skype Q&A with Nabwana, his family and Wakaliwood actors (in costume), answering questions before lining up with prop guns and “killing” the audience.
Wakaliwood films may appear to be low rent knock-offs of American cinema (take, for example, The Ugandan Expendables), but like popular Italian cinema of the 1970s, the cash-in is just the marketing hook. Dig in, and you’ll experience something uniquely unpredictable and proudly local in context, geography, humour and presentation. Nabwana is a dreamer but also a populist—his determination is to make movies by Ugandans, for Ugandans, movies that Ugandans will actually pay to see. Not all of which is readily translatable to an international audience. In Revenge! Ugandan Ghost Story, a rock turns into a chicken. The upcoming film Demon Village features a killer gourd with a human arm and a gun named General Segwanye. And don’t forget the gas mask-wearing mascot “Ebola Hunter,” who has become something of a cherished hero to Wakaliwood’s online supa fans.
They are making absurdly entertaining action movies, training young children in mental discipline through kung fu, giving them jobs, pride, purpose and responsibility.
The obvious starting place for new fans—since it’s currently the only Wakaliwood feature film available outside of Uganda—is Who Killed Captain Alex? Uganda’s First Action Movie, which you can download right now, legally, for free with a plethora of extras at Wakaliwood’s official website. Funny, taut and frenetic, the film lives up to its subtitle with a slew of gunfights, kung fu, and deliriously satisfying over-the-top destruction. Made using a modified car jack for a tripod, this Commando vs. Mafia epic features hyperkinetic martial arts and some outrageous helicopter CGI. Technically a “lost” film (like Tebaatusasula, the original footage was destroyed), the film was restored from the best available source.
There is one Ugandan tradition that separates the Ugandan film viewing experience from Hollywood, Nollywood or even neighbour nations like Kenya or Tanzania: the VJ (Video Joker). Like in Mystery Science Theatre 3000, the VJ is a comedy man with a mic, hurling jokes and a constant commentary in Luganda, the local language, right over the movie’s audio track. This phenomenon stems from watching films without dubbing or subtitles. The commentary is a shouted, joke-packed ride, punctuating emotional beats with a little trivia about the actors and filmmakers, lots of hype, and plot clarifications (usually made up). Typically, screenings featuring a VJ take place inside a video hall—a room (of any size) with two televisions, one for the night’s movie (Wakaliwood, Nollywood, Hollywood, Bollywood, could be anything) and the other playing the soccer game with the volume off.
So pervasive is the VJ tradition in Uganda that a full half of the bootleg DVDs for sale in the country (and all DVDs are bootlegs) have VJ dub tracks. Untampered films with original audio are marked with a sticker: “clean copy.” VJs are big time rock stars in Uganda, and Wakaliwood’s resident voice is VJ Emmie (“Expect the Unexpectable!”). A recent interview with BBC radio upped his profile considerably—these days he guest VJs in upper class video halls, and rolls with a coterie of women. Nabwana IGG is adamant about exporting Wakaliwood films internationally Ugandan-style. Who Killed Captain Alex? contains the world’s first English language VJ track. And watching the movies with a crowd, it’s hard to deny that a crazed voice yelling things like “Yes, yes, okay! In Uganda, we love action!” over a fight scene doesn’t exponentially compound the wonderful lunacy of it all.
Honestly, someone needs to give Nabwana IGG’s cell phone number—posted at the opening of every Wakaliwood trailer, in fact, here it is: (+256) 712921775—to RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan. Because what’s going on in Wakaliga is indeed, to paraphrase Ol’ Dirty Bastard, “for the children, to teach the children.” They are making absurdly entertaining action movies, training young children in mental discipline through kung fu, giving them jobs, pride, purpose and responsibility.
An ultimate aim of Wakaliwood is to provide a brighter, active, participatory and financially sustainable future for these kids—Nabwana and Ramon Film Productions are only about making money insofar as money helps build community. The Waka Starz are the next generation kung fu masters in training under the tutelage of sifu Bukenya Charles. Alongside leading man Bisaso Dauda, they are the stars of their own movie, The Crazy World aka Ani Mulalu. During my trip to Uganda, this film was the biggest local hit.
Ugandan kung fu master Wamala Peter was invited by the Chinese government to visit the Shaolin Monastery in Henan Province, China and train with the fabled monks (Bruce U was also invited, but could not attend). If RZA makes a sequel to The Man With the Iron Fists, he can hire the best African kung fu artists in the world for cheap, cheap, cheap.
Wakaliwood budgets are notorious tiny—Nabwana told me his very first feature cost the price of a bag of blood from the butcher and one bottle of beer (to replace one they broke). But for the most recent slate of films: Tebaatusasula: EBOLA, Eaten Alive in Uganda, and Operation Kakongoliro! The Ugandan Expendables, the budgets have gone up considerably. An end of 2015 message at the Wakaliwood & Ramon Film Productions Action-Packed Fanpage read: “Because of the support of our Supa Fans, Wakaliwood’s been able to raise the budget of the films 10x, from $200 to over $2000. PLUS we’ll be producing THREE Supa Movies in 2016, not just the one planned in our Kickstarter.”
Film exhibition and distribution are subject to the local street level economy and piracy is an enormous problem.
The original goal of the Wakaliwood Kickstarter campaign, launched in March, 2015—Hofmanis’s ambitious and successful initiative to bring cash flow to the beleaguered studio—was to fund a sequel/remake to the film they’d just lost, Tebaatusasula: EBOLA. The revenue they received changed the game completely ($13,181 USD, though minus fees and funders who flaked out, closer to $10,000). They were able to pay for some much-needed medical and dental care for actors, and cover school fees for Nabwana’s children.
This is cushioned by the Wakaliwood account with Patreon, an online patron donation site. Estimating that it costs $450 USD a month to run a Ugandan movie studio, as of March, 2016, they have 58 patrons donating a total of $287.51 a month. These additional funds have already sponsored the infamous full-scale scrap metal Huey HU-1 helicopter, and the ability to rent a drone for the overhead shots seen in the new trailer for Operation Kakongoliro! The Ugandan Expendables, offering Wakaliga residents their first ever glimpse of their world from a bird’s eye view.
On set for Eaten Alive in Uganda, those extra dollars meant crew transportation was covered and we were fed rice instead of posho, a tasteless cornmeal. Bisaso Dauda rented a generator so filming could take place at night on his mother’s property in Kaliti. The day prior, Dauda spent more than fourteen hours welding together professional-grade Kino-style light grids out of scrap metal—the only day that week the government didn’t shut off the power.
The Kickstarter campaign also allowed the filmmakers to buy a goat. Pale-skinned to match Alan Hofmanis’s mzungu complexion, the goat was brought on a leash by an errand boy on a motorcycle. Says Alan, “There’s your Kickstarter dollars at work.” The goat’s fate: to be butchered, its skin and innards used as props as Alan’s character is torn apart and “eaten alive” in the climactic scene. The oldest actor on set, playing the part of the cannibal butcher, is actually a butcher by trade. As I watched, crew-members held the animal down while the actor/butcher unsheathed two huge, sharp knives and sliced its throat.
There are no special effects studios in Uganda, no rubber latex. Real butcher’s blood was used in Who Killed Captain Alex?, resulting in actors contracting brucellosis (at the time, they didn’t realize Hollywood blood was fake!). For Eaten Alive in Uganda’s complex gore scenes, meat was the only option. And no one is complaining—when the shot is completed, the goat pieces are collected, cooked and eaten (I declined). Meat is a luxury for the average Ugandan, and certainly no one on the set owns a fridge.
On the technical side, new Wakaliwood films are in 1080p HD and look much sharper. The absurd CG explosions—a bit of a Wakaliwood trademark—are still there, but improved. According to Hofmanis, “That truck explosion in the Expendables trailer cost more than three of their older films. Like $300 for HD explosions, $120 for new sound FX, the prop toys were $80.”
There is no film distribution system in Uganda and there are barely any movie theatres. The ones that do exist are in shopping malls protected by armed guards, reserved for the upper classes and mzungus. Video hall screenings attract crowds, but film exhibition and distribution are subject to the local street level economy and piracy is an enormous problem.
The brunt of Wakaliwood’s DVD income comes from door-to-door sales. Domestic Wakaliwood poster art eschews the usual idea of a strong, central image and favours instead a cluttered affair packed with actors’ headshots, the logic being that twenty faces on the poster means twenty different actors/salesmen can use the poster to legitimize their sales pitch. Nabwana IGG estimates that he has a seven-day window to sell films door-to-door until he is pirated out of profitability. Internet service quality is poor in Uganda, so streaming isn’t an issue yet. Nabwana burns his DVDs with the “auto-start” feature because most players there do not have remotes.
Wakaliwood is the first collective of Ugandan artists to be internet savvy on such an international scale, and thus they are targets for plagiarism and pilfering (and there is no real copyright recourse in Uganda). In November 2015, it was abruptly announced on Facebook that a movie called Eaten Alive in Rakai was available for sale. Turns out some local upstarts stole from Nabwana the title and premise of Eaten Alive and churned out a hunk of junk before Nabwana IGG could finish his film.
The situation is unavoidable, but still hurts. Recently, a group of Americans were, according to Hofmanis, “Investing in ‘Wakaliwood style’ films down the street from us.” Working for an NGO but interested in movie-making on the side, they approached a Ugandan filmmaker who naturally said, “Yeah, I’m Wakaliwood!” So they gave him their money before realizing they’d been duped. Wakaliga locals are shaking their heads.
Those headshot posters aren’t the only promotional material, though. There are also hand–painted movie posters, most made by Magumba (“Bones”) aka Henry the Barbarian, a physically intimidating and extremely attractive leather jacketed badass with a heart of gold, and obvious street cred. Magumba grew up on “the beaches,” the sloped walls of central Kampala’s open sewers. He and Bukenya Charles sell backpacks inside the massive, sprawling, maze-like Owino Market, an unregulated, claustrophobic medina of used clothing sellers, which has been burned to the ground by authorities more than once.
Magumba’s posters, like Bisaso Dauda’s weapon and musical instrument props (my fave is a unique hybrid washtub/harp/machine gun combo in a music video for Go! Go! Gorillo), are legit works of art. The paintings are large and illustrated on rough bark cloth, a material traditionally used in Uganda exclusively as a burial shroud. At $200 USD apiece, they’ve netted over $1000 in sales so far.
In Fall 2015, the Wakaliwood Supa Store was launched, finally making Wakaliwood DVDs and merch commercially available internationally. The unreliability of the Ugandan post office has made this a challenge—mail sent to/from Wakaliwood is regularly lost, shipping costs are severe. And Ramon Film Productions does not have an actual street address. As per a Wakaliwood poster: “RAMON Film Production—Wakaliga, Sir Albert Cook Rd., Wakaliga Rd., near Veterans’ Market opp. New Petro City towards National Water Office, Nateete, Kampala, Uganda.”
There’s lots on the burner, including an upcoming kids’ robot film called Million Dollar Kid. According to Hofmanis, the robot “is going to have a remote control that the kids get hold of and they think it’s a game. And it destroys Kampala.” There are four to five music videos soon to be released, featuring musicians who either came to Wakaliwood personally to make a video, or hired them remotely. There’s also a major and possibly feature length Wakaliwood documentary in the works. If the overwhelming difficulties (financial and political) of securing passports and visas for Nabwana, VJ Emmie, Dauda, and other major players can be overcome, there are plans to travel around North America or Europe as a Wakaliwood roadshow.
The morning of my departure from Uganda, Nabwana informs me that it’s time to gear up. Dauda escorts me to the prop room, where I am sized up for a commando outfit, big black boots, and one of Dauda’s prop guns. Securing the army fatigues was a coup—“impersonating an officer” is a punishable offence in Uganda. You can’t just shop at an army surplus store.
As the green screen is nailed to the brick exterior wall of Nabwana’s house, the crowd starts to gather. Children, goats, and curious locals mill about and I’m feeling very conspicuous, a mzungu in war clothes. I am not an actor, and now I am sweating, expected to perform publicly in front of a green screen, no clue what I’m supposed to be interacting with, as Nabwana feeds me phonetic lines in Luganda.
Fumbling my way, I am then sent sneaking past the communal outhouses, around the side of a building. I give my best over-the-top look of horrified astonishment then leap into action, screaming and blasting at Kizza and Search—playing cannibals munching on Hofmanis’s innards—and faking recoil from the prop gun. The whole neighbourhood is watching me.
I find out later that Nabwana is logging footage for a future project, Wakaliwood Vs. The World, where all visiting mzungus will speak in Luganda and all Ugandans speak in English. Some behind the scenes footage has popped up in which they gave me the title: “David Bertrand—Canada’s Greatest Action Star.”
And why not? If Wakaliwood is proof of anything, it’s what’s possible if you have the supa commando spirit. For anyone thinking of visiting Uganda or East Africa, I’ve been instructed to tell you: “Please visit! We’d love to kill you.”
From the Wakaliwood & Ramon Film Productions Action-Packed Fanpage, Dec 31st, 2015: “Been a hell of year, and gonna get crazier!” MOAR SUPA ACTION COMING SOON!!