The Kung Fu Masters of Uganda

Alan Hofmanis at San Sebastian Horror and fantasy Film Festival / Picture: CC Bad Black (Wakaliwood): Alan Ssali Hofmanis

Imagine yourself travelling down a dirt road into a slum, where electricity and plumbing is unreliable, outside the capital of Uganda. One might picture a place where people have a hard time making ends meet in a country that’s considered to be one of the poorest in the world. What one might not expect to find is a thriving genre-based film industry full of zombies, Kung Fu, and cannibals that has garnered an international cult following. This is a place where fans from around the world travel to take part in the action. Welcome to Wakaliwood, the home of the low budget action films.

This is the outcome of one man’s vision whose name is Isaac Nabwana. Nabwana fell in love with action films as a kid after his brother’s faithful re-telling of the films he saw at the cinema. Nabwana grew up in a family who was against him going to the cinema as they saw it as a way for him to skip school. His older brothers, however, could get away with it. After taking classes in online editing and watching tutorials in filmmaking, Nabwana started the production company, Ramon film production, in the slum of Wakaliga, where he grew up. He started his career making music videos, but in 2009 he started production on the cult hit Who killed captain Alex? which was released in 2010. Since 2010 he has made over 40 feature films – all low budget action movies that take brutal violence to a comedic extreme.

Nabwana believes that this form of violence can act as the country’s salvation. By making these types of films, he believes that he helps his countrymen develop a new type of relationship with violence. A relationship that’s not based on the traumas caused by Idi Amin’s military dictatorship, but instead a cinematic violence that’s portrayed through humoristic means.

Isaac Nabwanas claim to international popularity began in 2010 with the release of Who killed Captain Alex? Which instantly became a cult hit when the trailer got shared countless times on social media. To date, the film has amassed over 4 million views on Youtube and given birth to countless memes. This is mainly thanks to VJ Emmie, a video joker who talks over the film to give exposition to the audience. Video jokers are commonly used in Uganda to give context to the country’s different ethnic groups, who don’t share the same language. VJ Emmie’s eccentric behavior has helped propel the film into a viral hit.

Media outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic, CNN and Al Jazeera, to name a few, travelled to Wakaliga to get a glimpse into the workings of this localized and obscure industry. In addition, film festivals such as the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival invited the crew over for screenings. Isaac Nabwana has made countless visits to Fantastic Fest, the largest genre-based film festival in the US, where he won the audience award in 2015.

The Wakaliwood phenomenon consist of three elements; a low budget, violence, and Kung Fu. The average budget for their films is approximately 200 US dollars, although there have been movies made for as low as two dollars. This led Isaac Nabwana to joke that they can’t call their films low budget because there is no budget.
Nabwana has had stints creating Kickstarter campaigns to get funding for his film, which he did in 2016 when he promoted his newest project called ‘Tebaatusasula: EBOLA’ which was marketed as the first crowdfunded action film. This kickstarter campaign raised 2000 dollars — 10 times greater than their average budget, and their biggest budget for a film to date. When it comes to the use of violence in their films, you quickly realize how wacky it is: fights seemingly starting out of nowhere, explosions, overdramatic deaths mixed with surprisingly well choreographed Kung Fu fights.

These films may look crazy, but they are loosely based on domestic issues and headlines that have dominated the country. For example, the film Crazy World was a production that aimed to discourage criminals from abducting children, a huge problem in the country. In Crazy World we follow the Tiger mafia, a group that often acts as the antagonists in Nabwana’s films, who embark on child-abduction spree. They try to kidnap a group of children who have mastered the art of Kung Fu and go by the name of WAKA STARS. This kidnapping attempt doesn’t go as planned and the kids manage to escape their doom. The kids in this film represent Wakaliwoods most important feature, namely Kung Fu, and how they are nurturing the next generation of stars.

CC Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh:  Kids in Patongo

Alan Hofmanis, the former Manhattan-based Programming Director for Lake Placid Film Festival turned Co-producer and Ambassador to the west for Isaac Nabwana, considers this type of low-budget filmmaking to be the start of something new. He noticed that other Ugandan villagers have started their own genre-based film industries alongside Ghana. In comparison, places outside the continent such as Afghanistan and northern India have started to produce their own remakes of American movies. According to Hofmanis, this shows the signs of a home- grown renaissance for low budget films in countries that aren’t usually associated with the art of filmmaking.

To summarize what the future might bring and the impact Wakaliwood has had on the film industry, one can be inspired from the analysis made by Oscar Harding, that thanks to Isaac Nabwana, a new wave of African cinema will form. Nabwana has broken away from contemporary African cinema, which has become something of an academic currency and instead started to make films that celebrate the spectacle of cinema. This way of returning filmmaking to its roots might be the key to push a new wave of films into the mainstream. This has been one of Isaac Nabwana’s missions, although only time will tell how much of an impact this form of low budget filmmaking will have.

Christopher Fletcher Sandersjöö

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