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July 07, 2023

Once Upon a Time in Uganda

once upon a time.jpeg

Cathryne Czubek - 2021
Yellow Veil Pictures

If it does not accomplish anything else, Once Upon a Time in Uganda does not only bring a little more awareness regarding not simply African cinema but popular African cinema. While the films have none of the polish of Nollywood, Nigeria's well developed film industry, it is also distant from the films of Senegalese Ousmane Sembene or the older films rescued and restored by the Film Foundation. What may make some cinephiles pause is that lack of acting skills, geysers of blood, and cheap computer generated special effects featuring exploding heads are all features rather than bugs.

Isaac Nabwana is a one-man film industry from Wakaliga, a slum in Kampala, Uganda. With a succession of home video cameras and a computer he built himself, Nabwana has made close to fifty films of over-the-top action laden with a sense of humor. Self-taught in every technical aspect, Nabwana's initial attraction to filmmaking was through his older brothers recounting the stories of the films they saw, largely 80s action films starring Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, as well as the films starring Bruce Lee. Nabwana's cast would be made up of friends and neighbors. These were all labors of love, with Nabwana also working as a brick maker for income. Nabwana's films became cult sensations on YouTube that brought the filmmaker greater attention.

Cathryne Czubek's film is part documentary, part dramatic recreation of Nabwana working with former film programmer Alan Hofmanis. Making it his self-appointed mission, Hofmanis left New York City to meet and work with Nabwana in 2011. The film follows the evolution of a business partnership that survived a temporary breakup and eventual success with Hofmanis bringing Nabwana to international attention, culminating with the premiere of Crazy World at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019.

Even if Nabwana's DYI no-budget films have brought a certain amount of attention, any financial benefits seem negligible. With Hofmanis back in New York City, Nabwana is given a commission to make a film for Ugandan television. The director who laughed at the end of every take is replaced by a stricter taskmaster who has some professional grade equipment and a small crew at hand. Actors are still unpaid, but Nabwana's continually cheerful and supportive wife is glad to at least have funds enough to make sandwiches for the cast. Nabwana points out how his appearances in the news have made people assume that he has money. Not mentioned in the documentary is that the budget of Nabwana's earlier films was approximately $200.00, and that Nabwana would attempt to sell as many DVDs of his new films within the first week to beat the inevitable bootleg copies that would follow.

While I generally subscribe to the notion that filmmakers working with low or no budgets should work within their limits, Once Upon a Time in Uganda dispels conventional ideas about filmmaking when one has imaganation coupled with a healthy sense of humor.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 7, 2023 07:38 AM