Once Upon a Time in Uganda: How to Market Microbudget Masterpieces

What you see on-screen is an effusive love for movies and community. This is the most you can do with the least amount of money. The actors are friends and volunteers, the props are handmade, and the heads are blown apart with low-end computer graphics. These are some of our century’s most celebratory works of cinema. These are movies made by folks who have never been to the theater. They have still interacted with movies and the ideas of movies. internalized the tropes of our Western action cinema and sent it back to us with enhanced enthusiasm and a bolder style. You know the movies are awesome because there is a backing track accompaniment of a hype man yelling how awesome they are that runs the entire movie. And they are correct. The excitement is validated directly by what has been created: intensely genius masterworks by Nabwana IGG, who used to lay bricks until, brick by brick, he saved until he could buy a camera and build his small indie movie empire in a hot and dusty African town that has no capital and has no movie industry at all.

The making of these movies is an extraordinary story about the creative potential of the human spirit. Somehow, that’s not at all what the documentary of the movies is about. The documentary is about how an American, Alan Hofmanis, saw the remarkable trailer for Who Killed Captain Alex (2010) and upended his life to go spend six years bringing these movies to the rest of the world. We have enjoyed the fruits of his labor and the three movies we have received are staggering works of independent cinema, each crucial and additive to the cinematic fabric of Africa as a whole.

The bad news is that we may never see another one of these movies and everyone should get to see them. This is how the editing of the documentary frames the material shot — it’s a story of two men, an American programmer for New York film festivals and this auteur director who makes movies out of nothing that feel bigger than where they came from. Even sharing the focus between them seems to be missing the point but the documentary is actually about our American Friend and how he has marketed the films to the West, how the relationship between the friends has fractured over time, and how there became a contradictory purpose between sharing these movies with the world and getting international attention but little regional support or respect.

The team who made these movies only wants to expand the cinematic culture of Uganda and particularly to create the only entertainment export from their very poor neighborhood of Wakliga (hence the production moniker Wakaliwood). The documentary is mostly interested in the cross purposes here, of a cinematic product so good that the entire sphere of World Cinema benefits from having it and the struggle for Uganda to recognize any merit of what its impoverished population creates. It’s an interesting contradiction that ought to be in the documentary. It shouldn’t be the whole documentary.

There are a dozen other incredible stories to tell here. Something as simple as a dedicated process documentary would be a remarkable thing. Just watching these artists work with the conditions and resources they have would be inspiring. Profiling why the movies are great would be essential but is almost entirely overlooked for the human interest report about this unlikely friendship and how it was developed and then fizzled out once the friends accomplished what they could accomplish together.

There is still so much joy in it because these films are joyous creations from dedicated filmmakers and craftsmen that are producing some of the most exciting works we have seen. Then we leave the film with this slightly down feeling. As I researched the online profiles of those involved, I realized there was an abrupt stop in the promotions of Wakaliwood as of a year or two ago, depending on the platform. This documentary seems to be the only ongoing promotion of these works and perhaps our final document about them in the West. Extra sad when Crazy World (2014) made the festival circuit a couple of years ago and was one of the most special films of that year. The only conclusion we can reach is that it’s been over for a while and this documentary is now a last remnant and history of a subject so many of us love. The shame in that is that it doesn’t tell anyone from outside our circle why this is the most crucial kind of filmmaking, how exciting the movies are, or show nearly enough of them for anyone to draw their own conclusions.

We’re left with a hollow-feeling pit in our stomachs. Is this the end? It feels like the end of our own parasocial relationship, our only connection to this community through a series of films that already beautifully document themselves. In some way, the work was already done and everything has been said by the few movies we have received. Outsider cinema that is this far outside the bubble must be celebrated. It needs to be seen and we saw it. Then folks started coming to the filmmakers, asking them for things, thinking they had made any money out of being famous. There are too many threads and stories that are missed here. There is an incredible piece of cinematic history at the periphery of everything the filmmakers shot. We have to watch this other movie about the marketer of the films we want to see the movie about. There’s just enough here for superfans but nothing to convince new converts who are just better off watching the movies and doing a little light reading about how they are made and distributed. In case we do not get to print it again: “Hooray for Wakaliwood!”


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