How to Make $300-Budget Action Films in Uganda

Wednesday June 13, 2018 Written by Rohan Williams

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Isaac Nabwana has directed more than 50 films, but he’s never seen any of them on the big screen. In fact, he’s never seen anything on the big screen. He grew up poor in Wakaliga, a slum village on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. The city’s few commercial cinemas were always tantalisingly out of reach. Which only made him all the more obsessed with them.

“My brother was lucky enough to have a friend who took him to the cinema hall,” the 45-year-old director recalls. “And he used to come home and narrate all of these films to me.”

The young Nabwana would sit, enchanted by the daring adventures of Bruce Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris. He longed for his brother’s dispatches, though they were conducted in secret: Nabwana’s parents sheltered him from violence, both on-screen and off. Raised under the brutal regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote in the ’70s and ’80s, he was forbidden from going outside where the bloodshed was.

“I never saw anyone get shot,” he says, “but I heard the gunfire. The bullets were all over.” His imagination fuelled by that tumultuous soundtrack, and by his brother’s stories of action heroes, Nabwana has spent a lifetime dreaming of commandos, helicopters and explosions.

Today, those dreams come to life at ‘Wakaliwood’, a makeshift film studio Nabwana built himself, using bricks he baked by hand.

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Starting out with a borrowed camera in 2005, Uganda’s answer to Quentin Tarantino (or, depending on how you view his works, Ed Wood) has built an unlikely empire out of scraps and spare parts. Every day, dozens of volunteer actors and crew members (including his brother) come and go from the studio, which doubles as Nabwana’s home. Today, a self-taught kung fu master with a glued-on moustache leads a troupe of child actors through their daily training sessions. In a shed out the back, a props master works away, turning sticks, PVC pipes and metal salvaged from landfill into fake guns and bombs. Next to him, condoms are filled with a dark red liquid to simulate gunshot wounds.

“We used to use cow’s blood,” Nabwana says, “but one of our comrades got sick after they exploded, so now we use food colouring.” Why condoms? “Because the NGOs give them out for free! We are always improvising.”

It’s coordinated chaos, as Nabwana juggles five films at once, all in various stages of development. When power outages – which occur frequently – prevent him from shooting one film, he turns his hand to writing or rehearsing another. And when the power is on, there’s no time to waste. “On set, I’m a tough director,” he admits. “When I say ‘Action’, it means ‘Action’. I take charge, because I need things to be done the way I want them to be done. But as soon as I say ‘Cut’, we’re always laughing.”

This is art, yes, but it is outsider art. Nabwana’s films, which are made for less than $300 and can take anywhere from two weeks to a year to shoot, feel like incredibly elaborate home movies. His style is marked by primitive CGI that would have looked outdated on a PlayStation 1, an obsession with violence and kung fu that would make even Tarantino blush, and surreal plots that routinely go off the rails. 

Who Killed Captain Alex? is his best-known film outside Uganda, thanks to the trailer, above, that went viral in 2010. It tells the story of a Ugandan Shaolin monk avenging the death of his super-soldier brother. Ostensibly a murder mystery, the film ends with an action sequence that leaves us absolutely no closer to learning who killed Captain Alex. 

While other filmmakers aim to reach as wide an audience as possible, the Ugandan auteur never intended for anyone outside his village to see his movies.

“Ugandans were amazed to see that I could do something which had not been done in Uganda before,” he beams.

But word of mouth has now spread much further; pirates are spreading copies of his DVDs to “all corners of Africa”. Meanwhile, the trailers Nabwana uploads to YouTube have helped build a large international following.

He knows that some of his foreign fans are laughing at him, not with him, but he doesn’t mind. “People have the right to interpret art any way they want,” he says. “But they are meant to be funny movies. People go to the movies for entertainment, and I focus on giving them that.”

Read the full story in Smith Journal Volume 27, on sale now.

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Photography: Frédéric Noy

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