In March this year, like countless independent filmmakers before them, a small production company launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new film. The campaign was immediately distinguishable from the general aspirant Kickstarter dross for its title, The main image too was intriguing; it showed a typical New York street scene but with ultra low-budget special effects – largely a ginormous fireball – superimposed onto the shot. The most remarkable thing about the campaign, though, was its funding goal of 160USD (990RMB). If the filmmakers could raise this small amount pledgers would, the campaign promised, ‘help build a Ugandan action movie studio – Wakaliwood’.
There are few movie studios in the world doing something as barmy and brilliant as Wakaliwood. Based out of Wakaliga, a slum near Kampala, the Ugandan capital, ‘Wakaliwood’ is really the output of one studio, Ramon Film Productions (RFP), founded in 2005 by Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana, producer, director and editor.
The studio specialises in films that mix Western action and Chinese kung fu with distinctly Ugandan elements featuring local actors and low-fi, often comedic, special effects. In Uganda, watching a film in the country’s hundreds of video halls is a raucous affair, as ‘video jokers’ drown out (or spice up) the soundtrack with live MC-type commentary over the film, and RFP pays homage to this tradition. The typical budget for an RFP production is 200USD and the studio is prolific: Nabwana has made more than 40 films. They have have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people in Uganda and now, due to digital technology and an appetite among Westerners for kooky counter-narratives from elsewhere, they are gaining notoriety abroad. The trailer for Who Killed Captain Alex has been viewed more than two million times on YouTube, and the movement was the focus of a recent Vice documentary.
Wakaliwood’s newfound success with viewers overseas has much to do with the efforts of an American, Alan Hofmanis. The story of his involvement is also bizarre. Having spent his career in the US in film, either in production or in the organisation of festivals, in late 2011 Hofmanis was in a funk. His girlfriend had dumped him on the day he planned to propose, and he was approaching middle age without a clear idea of where he wanted his career to go. In a bar in New York’s East Village he met with an NGO friend who had worked in Uganda. The friend pulled out his phone to share a trailer and less than a minute into the clip of Who Killed Captain Alex, Hofmanis decided to go to Uganda.
Hofmanis, who now splits his time between Uganda and the US in a quasimarketing role (though he also helps make and acts in RFP films), says his involvement is simple: I think the movies are awesome, and they need to be shared. [Nabwana] has produced over 40 feature films with a team of over 130 people. People don’t have to love his films, but he deserves to be part of the conversation. Until now his films were not seen outside the slums.’
Nabwana’s studio in the Wakaliga ghetto sits just behind his house, which he built himself using bricks baked by hand. There is no running water and the place is prone to power outages and surges – a frustrating scenario for any film editor. The studio crafts most of its props. Rocket launchers are fashioned from pipes and red food colouring doubles for blood hidden beneath actors’ clothing in condoms from an HIV charity until it’s time for the gory death. (In the early days actors were doused in cow blood from a local slaughterhouse until one actor was hospitalised with brucellosis.) ‘I think he [Nabwana] revives an almost childlike joy of filmmaking that we lost in the West,’ says Hofmanis. ‘You feel like a kid when watching and being part of his movies.’
Nabwana, like many Ugandans, grew up on a diet of Rambo, and Bruce Lee, and it is the twin genres of American action and kung fu that inform much of his directorial flair. In Who Killed Captain Alex, commandos battle a drug-dealing gang called the Tiger Mafia with a mix of martial arts and machine guns.
‘In the early-mid ’80s there were no kung fu schools, so they learned through watching movies martial arts magazine they would find in the stores,’ says Hofmanis. ‘The only way to see the films would be in the video halls. At that age, maybe eight to ten years-old, they would sneak in and hide it from their parents as video halls had a bad reputation.’ This education-of-sorts gave rise to a crop of Ugandan kung fu masters, including Bruce U (‘Uganda’s Bruce Lee’), who stars in Captain Alex and is a co-founder of County Wing Chinese Kung Fu, the country’s first kung fu facility. In a soft power play by the Chinese government, which has close diplomatic and economic ties with Uganda, a scholarship was created for Ugandans to study at Shaolin Temple, and the art is gaining in popularity.
Kung fu will remain central to Tebaatusasula: Ebola, even if the overwhelming response to the film’s Kickstarter campaign will allow RFP to raise their production standards and broaden their scope. In a single month the campaign raised more than 13,000USD, or 8,141 percent over the 160USD goal.
We ask whether there is a danger that the monetary boost will sabotage the low-budget, DIY aesthetic that is part of Wakaliwood’s brilliance? ‘I believe the opposite,’ Hofmanis says. ‘Steven Spielberg was ten years old when he made his first feature films on a Super 8 Camera. People didn’t say, “Wow, that’s great! But it’s all you should ever do.” When you find talent you have to feed it.
And yes, the films may change their character, but I’m here because Isaac is an artist. And what I believe and have seen is that what will come from this will be entirely unexpected. It’s in no way gonna be a boring Hollywood film with slick production values. It’s gonna be something the world has never seen. A slum with a budget.’