The Ugandan Movie Studio Making the Best Microbudget Neo Grindhouse Madness You’ve Never seen
Low fi CGI fills the frame as a car explodes in dramatic fashion. Piles of balaclava wearing gangsters fall in dramatic puddles of red food coloring. Kung fu fight choreo and machine “guns” full of wooden bullets join forces to help our hero as he hops over walls and through tight corners. Voiceover gleefully declares him the “Ugandan Schwarzenegger” and the unseen narrator cheers him on and cracks jokes at the expense of the bad guys on screen. Welcome to the self proclaimed home of the “best of the best movies” Ramon Film Productions, a.k.a Wakaliwood.
The last place anyone would likely think to look for the emergence of a movie studio is the slums of Wakaliga, Kampala, in the central African nation of Uganda. Thanks to a man named Nabwana Isaac Geoffrey Godfrey (credited as Nabwana IGG), the cheekily named Wakaliwood is taking over the world. With a pile of DIY equipment and a deep love of action cinema, the studio is thriving in the face of sub $200 film budgets and a daily set of behind the scenes obstacles, an origin story worthy of a movie of its own.
Nabwana IGG is an entirely self taught film maker, who used the proceeds from a career as a bricklayer to buy his first camera at age 32. Building a rudimentary editing computer from spare parts and utilizing a lot of trial and error, he began to make his own films. His brothers loved to go to the make shift cinema halls, and came home full of action packed stories to tell their sibling, instilling a life long love of both Asian kung fu epics and American lone wolf action blockbuster heroes. Nabwana mixes these influences with the culture and experiences of his life in Uganda, using a literal village to bring each DIY epic to life.
As there is very little established film industry in Uganda, the Wakaliwood crew must create everything from scratch on budgets that rarely top $200 USD for an entire film. The kung fu training for the actors is based on forms shown in old books and magazines. The guns, props and camera rigs are welded together from bits of junkyard scrap metal, including a (non functional) helicopter. Squibs are condoms filled with food coloring. It used to be cows’ blood to cut costs, but was switched over when one of the actors got sick from bloodbourne pathogens.
Nabwana’s wife helps with the film editing, as well as the special effects. The CG is done on home built computers Nabwana builds himself. The “Waka Stars” featured across the films are the children of cast and crew. Everyone has day jobs, and then comes to Wakaliwood on the weekends to fill multiple roles both in front of and behind the camera, often for little more than the experience and the collective hope of a future film industry in Uganda.
Wakaliga only has electricity roughly 3 days per week, and scenes are shot depending on the camera’s remaining battery life. Nabwana IGG has made something in the realm of 40 movies, but many are lost as footage must be deleted to have enough memory to shoot something new. The resulting DVDs are sold in street markets all over Uganda, and only have about a week of profitability before they are widely bootlegged, as the movies are a local sensation.
What launched Wakaliwood onto the world stage was a simple YouTube upload. While Nabwana IGG has made a variety of genre films (primarily action, with the occasional horror) , it was the massive viral success of the trailer for 2010 action comedy Who Killed Captain Alex? that really placed a global spotlight on Wakaliwood and its incredibly singular blend of styles. Rapid fire kung fu fight scenes, over the top explosions and crazy chases on foot, all with “Video Joker” VJ Emmie providing narration, context and plentiful wisecracks. Emmie is our guide to Uganda, and to Wakaliwood’s influences, his role somewhere between film narrator and hype man.
The madcap spirit of the film is so infectious, New York based film producer Alan Hofmanis sold everything he owned and moved to Uganda, determined to help Wakaliwood reach an even larger audience. Between acting, producing and assisting with a successful crowdfunding campaign , Hofmanis (and his American passport, as Uganda’s unstable government makes it very difficult for their citizens to travel) brought 2015’s class revenge fantasy Bad Black to several of the larger genre festivals (Fantastic Fest, Bi Fan) to near universal rave reviews. AGFA even issued both of the studio’s viral hits as a double feature Blu Ray disc.
Watching any Wakaliwood movie, its easy to see why both the man behind the curtain and the movies he makes have gotten so much acclaim despite their beyond microbudget status. The cast and crew in every one of these films is clearly having as much fun as kids playing cops and robbers in the backyard, so gleeful to be making an honest to goodness movie that the makeshift props and occasional splash of raw sewage don’t even matter.
Nabwana IGG and his cast of regulars are a do it yourself dream factory. Much like the many regional labors of love that dotted the grindhouse golden age, Wakaliwood proves it might just take a village to make a movie, and the whole is far more than the sum of its low budget parts. What Nabwana IGG lacks in resources, he more than makes up for with a sheer love of cinema, and a super fan’s innate understanding of what makes each piece of his unique puzzle of influences entertaining.
Both Bad Black and Who Killed Captain Alex? are available in full on Wakaliwood’s official You Tube channel. Go check them out and “expect the unexpectable”. Namely, that the best neo grindhouse films of recent memory are not whatever Tarantino knockoff or mildly more violent than average arthouse flick the establishment is slapping that label on this week, but instead tales of kung fu commandos and evil Tiger Mafias that prove that no matter how humble the circumstances are where you happen to sleep, the movies will always be the place where you can build bigger dreams.