'Once Upon a Time in Uganda': Film Review | SXSW 2020

Courtesy of Lights Camera Uganda LLC
A sloppy but exciting look at a no-budget African auteur's career.

Cathryne Czubek and Hugo Perez follow an unlikely partnership between a gonzo DIY African filmmaker and the American who champions his vision.

[Note: In the wake of SXSW's cancellation this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

Hearing the term "Wakaliwood," most cinephiles will think of Bollywood, Nollywood and other portmanteaus used to designate a large region of cinematic production — often one viewed with some condescension (if seen at all) by the more entrenched parts of the film industry. But like the suffix "-gate," "-wood" is easily co-opted by those hyping smaller phenomena — like an American enthusiast hoping to attract attention to a single self-taught filmmaker in the suburbs of Kampala, Uganda. "Wakaliwood" consists of a few square yards in a slum called Wakaliga, where Isaac Nabwana makes as many as four or five movies a year for pocket change. (One of his biggest hits reportedly cost eighty-five bucks.) While Hugo Perez and Cathryne Czubek don't tell a perfectly crafted story in Once Upon a Time in Uganda, their film captures enough of Nabwana's resourcefulness and enthusiasm to make one wish his movies (which have played some fests in North America) were easier to see here — not on YouTube, but in theaters where their shout-at-the-screen, howl-with-your-seatmates vibe would be just the thing to remind you how essential the communal experience of cinema is.

Nabwana (try searching "Nabwana IGG," a nickname not used here, if you want to find him online) used to support himself making bricks by hand, one at a time. He made enough to buy the camera he had long dreamed of; just about anything else he needed, he and friends would make for themselves. Maybe store-bought computers would have better protections for hard drives that are easily fried by unreliable electric service. But maybe store-bought computers are for pampered filmmakers, who wait for perfect conditions before following their dreams. Nabwana dives in headfirst before the pool is full.

Czubek and Perez never show us long enough clips of Nabwana's many movies to suggest how well their stories might play for a Western viewer. Instead, they present a barrage of tiny clips suggesting how attitude and enthusiasm trump budgetary constraints: These are action movies informed by '80s American schlock, which means they require helicopters, explosions and torrential machine-gun fire — nearly all of which are pasted into the action via hilariously fake-looking computer FX. Nabwana's favorite prop maker, his wife/partner Harriet, and his casts embrace his breakneck approach to shooting and his indifference to verisimilitude; once they've thrown together an edit, they get a local VJ (that's "video joker") to provide a running commentary, both explaining the action and milking it for laughs.

New Yorker Alan Hofmanis saw some of this online and, in the wake of a bad breakup, decided to fly to Uganda and see what Nabwana's Ramon Film Productions was all about. He wound up staying for years, becoming part of the extended family, and playing an assortment of white villains in the films. Hoping to be the company's evangelist to the world beyond Uganda, he eventually attracted attention from media outlets including CNN and The Wall Street Journal.

But as the spotlight intensifies, something sours between the brother-like Nabwana and Hofmanis. The doc fails to capture their rift or satisfactorily explain its causes, and its storytelling is sloppy during the period after the American leaves. Suffice to say that he retains a sense of mission, and helps get some of these violent, comic adventures into film festivals while Nabwana sits at home with a familiar problem: Just because you've become famous for your art doesn't mean you have enough money to keep the lights on. Once Upon a Time remains hopeful that this story has a happier ending to come.

Production company: Lights Camera Uganda LLC
Directors: Cathryne Czubek, Hugo Perez
Producers: Cathryne Czubek, Gigi Dement, Hugo Perez, Philip Sanchez
Director of photography: Matt Porwoll
Editors: Cathryne Czubek, Amanda Hughes
Composer: Andrew Hollander
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)

In English, Luganda
93 minutes