Cathryne Czubek & Hugo Perez’s endearing doc about Ugandan filmmaking group Wakaliwood is both accessible and specific.
(This review was originally written as part of our coverage of titles set to premiere at the canceled SXSW 2020; We’re reposting around the doc’s world premiere at DOC NYC 2021 on November 12th and 17th.)
Indie filmmaking tends to be inspiring. Who doesn’t have their hearts warmed by filmmakers bringing their visions to life on shoestring budgets? But the filmmaking group known as Wakaliwood chronicled in Once Upon a Time In Uganda are the scrappiest of scrappy indie directors. Located in the Ugandan slum Wakaliga, this gaggle of artists, led by the director known as Nabwana I.G.G., creates super-violent action movies such as cult sensation Who Killed Captain Alex? on budgets as minuscule as $200 USD. Their productions may not be super polished, but the obvious passion they have for their craft dwarfs the minimal artistry of far more expensive Hollywood tentpoles.
Once Upon a Time In Uganda follows New York film festival organizer Alan Hofmanis as he joins Wakaliwood to try and help Nabwana I.G.G. not only make films but also get his productions greater visibility worldwide. In the process, he and Nabwana become like brothers, though the relationship has its fair share of challenges. The story of Hofmanis has its fair share of intriguing moments, particularly an amusing scene where he chats with his stunt double for a cannibal movie Nabwana is filming. Of course, Hofmanis isn’t in Wakaliga forever. This introduces a subplot of Hofmanis as he struggles to maintain long-term relationships, but it ends up making up the weaker part of Uganda’s story.
Director Cathryne Czubek and co-director Hugo Perez present this unlikely creative inspiration for Nabwana’s work with real depth, shedding more light on what some may dismiss as explosion-laden nonsense.
Whenever the camera focuses on the mundane trials and tribulations of Hofmanis, one can’t help but wonder when we can get back to the gung-ho filmmaking of Wakaliwood. Luckily, much of Once Upon a Time In Uganda dedicates its time to this type of material and it proves to be immensely entertaining. Just watching these movies come together alone proves to be a joy to watch. In one scene, an experienced prop master provides a number of enjoyable anecdotes about the clever ways he’s crafted all the guns and weapons throughout Wakaliwood’s films.
Also proving to be engaging are sequences where Nabwana explains certain distinct elements of Wakaliwood filmmaking. The constant voice-over providing comedic exclamations in these action movies, for example, is part of how Nabwana I.G.G. wants the viewer to constantly laugh at what they’re watching above all else. Why would he feel comedy is so essential to action cinema? Well, a separate interview where Nabwana notes how he grew up in the middle of a gruesome civil war sheds light on that matter. Grisly carnage was a common sight for the budding filmmaker. Now he can make movies where he not only controls the violence but can also neuter it by turning it into a farce.
Director Cathryne Czubek and co-director Hugo Perez present this unlikely creative inspiration for Nabwana’s work with real depth, shedding more light on what some may dismiss as explosion-laden nonsense. But in the same vein as Ed Wood or Brigsby Bear, Once Upon a Time In Uganda recognizes both the personal importance and creative passion that lie within even the most ridiculous art. That’s especially true when it comes to the works of Wakaliwood. Their productions, like Bad Black, have already provided audiences with plenty of entertainment. Now they’ve inspired a well-made documentary too. Will the wonders of indie filmmaking ever cease?