Several years ago, Isaac Nabwana turned his eye from brick-making to filmmaking. Since then, he has been creating action films on a miniscule budget and with props and equipment made from scrap metal. The films themselves are in the vein of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, feature gratuitous violence, and are filmed entirely in Wakaliga, a slum in the Ugandan capital of Kampala – more affectionately known by Isaac and those around him as Wakaliwood. Captivated by Isaac’s work after seeing trailers online, New Yorker Alan Hofmanis travelled to Uganda to meet the director and began working alongside him to make the films and to help bring them to the wider world. Once Upon a Time in Uganda is their story.
Beginning with an almost fictionalised retelling of how Alan met Isaac, shot in a fashion not dissimilar to one of Isaac’s movies, it’s hard not to assume that there will be a light-heartedness to the documentary. In reality, there’s a great deal more to uncover. The film proves to be a fascinating exploration of the unifying power of cinema and the pressures that come with success.
Director Cathryne Czubek takes an incredibly hands-off approach to making this documentary, instead allowing the subjects to tell their own story. While this works for the most part, it does naturally lean towards Alan’s perspective and experiences which makes the entire affair feel one-sided at times.
This feels especially true as he grows frustrated at Isaac’s desire to focus on developing his filmmaking in Uganda, while Alan wants to build an international audience. The film feels as though it barely scratches the surface of Isaac’s ambitions in developing Uganda’s film industry and creating opportunities for the underprivileged. Likewise, it never questions the sense of white-saviourism that seems to belie Alan’s frustrations, and the final product feels a bit lesser as a result.
Ultimately though, that’s not what the film is about. It’s about cinema – those who make it and those who love it. Early on, Isaac explains that he doesn’t want to make films about poverty having grown-up under the oppressive regime of Idi Amin. Instead he focuses on brevity and bringing joy to others in the same way that films have always done for him. It’s hard not to sympathise with him, or to see the artfulness and creativity that go into his films and the documentary never judges Isaac’s films like others in the Ugandan film industry have done.
The fact that his films have allowed Isaac to become close friends with someone from a radically different walk of life on the other side of the world is a testament to their scope. As is the fact that Once Upon a Time in Uganda exists and that it can help bring Isaac’s work to even more people. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a fascinating and heart-warming ode to the power of film and those who have an unrequited passion for it. If it encourages even one audience member to delve into the history of Wakaliwood films then it’s a triumph.
Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022