DOC NYC 2021: ‘Once Upon a Time in Uganda’ Is a Wondrous Celebration

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Once Upon a Time in Uganda

In the slums of Uganda, a genius by the name of Isaac Nabwana (aka Nabwana I.G.G.) uses a meager budget and a DIY approach to create incredible action movies that understand the genre better than most of Hollywood’s massive productions. Once Upon a Time in Uganda is the story of his filmmaking group, known as Wakaliwood, as it struggles to grow and get recognition for its work at national and international levels. It’s also about artistic passion and a love story, but not in the traditional way.

The romance factor stems from the figure of Alan Hofmanis, a New York publicist and festival programmer who, after being dumped by his girlfriend on the same day he bought her an engagement ring, watched the viral Who Killed Captain Alex? trailer and immediately decided Uganda was his next destination. Director Cathryne Czubek and co-director Hugo Pérez use Alan’s voice to guide us through the first section of the film as he narrates his arrival in Wakaliwood and rises to slum fame as producer and actor for Nabwana’s films. 

In Wakaliwood, Hofmanis found what was lacking in his experience in the business-centric American film industry: fun and a strong sense of community, which are exactly what the directors capture as the film moves along. Nabwana edits and creates the VFX in a cramped office with an old computer; condoms are used for blood explosions. His actors and actresses are both volunteers and salesmen because, besides performing, they go out to the streets to sell Wakaliwood DVDs. And while doing all of this, you can see the joy in everyone’s faces. Genius prop maker Dauda explains his creations with contagious excitement, kids are being taught acting and kung fu, and laughter is heard on set. You learn the importance of the VJ Emmie (Video Jockey) to mix humor with action and keep the entertainment flowing. This unique filmmaking exudes a sense of unity and harmony. These people are creating magic with passion. Action cinema, anchored by Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Rambo, was a powerful tool of escapism for Isaac while growing up amid a violent sociopolitical landscape. And he is now trying to provide that same magic to new audiences with his action-comedy approach.

But there are many struggles while trying to translate these efforts into profit and growth. Nabwana and his wife Harriet explain the social divisions in Uganda, where cinema is a luxury for the rich and the White man is God to people. Wakaliwood is loved by peasants, particularly children, but it’s hard to break the ceiling and get upper-class support to finally make some sort of profit. 

Enamored by the project and now friends with Nabwana, Alan is tasked with bringing international attention to Wakaliwood. He’s confident at first, but he soon faces a narrow Western vision of Africa. His American contacts condemn the violence in Nabwana’s film and are only willing to take him seriously as a director if he makes a film about poverty in Uganda. These few minutes are a tremendous encapsulation of obstacles faced by international and indie filmmakers everywhere when trying to get exposure in the United States, a country where big shots have little idea, or just don’t care, about how the world truly works. This topic, however, isn’t explored nearly enough by the filmmakers.

Big publications from America and Europe take notice, but funding is still not trickling in. So when Wakaliwood gets the chance to create a TV series for an important local network, Nabwana jumps at the chance, inadvertently upsetting Alan. Here’s when the love story, and some social differences, come into play. Jealousy and White entitlement show their ugly faces as Alan feels ignored by Isaac. Just like the American contacts that rebuffed him, he shows a narrow vision of what could take Wakaliwood to the next level. Lack of communication makes the matter worse, leading to a break-up of their bromance. Can there be a reconciliation?

At this point, you are fully invested in the future of Wakaliwood and its artists. Through excellent editing and a charming approach, you’ve now learned about their struggles, their sweet personalities, and the profound passion in their artistry. You are rooting for this underdog story to have a happy ending. But what comes next is even more powerful.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda is a heartfelt and engaging documentary about passion and artists fighting for the recognition they deserve. It’s a tale of how the creative artistry behind the most ridiculous of head explosions can be used to create community, escapism, and love.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda screened as part of DOC NYC 2021, where it won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Competition. You can find and purchase Wakaliwood films on their official website.


Once Upon a Time in Uganda
  • 8.5/10
    Rating - 8.5/10
8.5/10

TL;DR

Once Upon a Time in Uganda is a heartfelt and engaging documentary about passion and artists fighting for the recognition they deserve. It’s a tale of how the creative artistry behind the most ridiculous of head explosions can be used to create community, escapism, and love.