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Review: Once Upon a Time in Uganda – “The delight and dedication are obvious and contagious”

“The Beatles of exploding heads.”

A cursory look at the headlines about Uganda highlights tragedy, violence, ecocide, and the fact that it’s not a great place to be gay. It’s all the more heartening then, that even in such a situation, there are people like you and me who love films (a fair assumption, given the name of the excellent website where you’re reading this).

Once Upon a Time in Uganda is a gleeful documentary about the work of Isaac Nabwana, founder of Wakaliwood and Ramon Film Productions in the heart of the country. With camera tripods made from car-jacks, lovingly created replica mini-guns, liberal CGI, and a constant fight to keep computer equipment running in a hostile environment for electricity, never mind electronics, Nabwana, together with his family and friends, including American convert Alan Hofmanis, have been producing gonzo action comedies for years now, such as Who Killed Captain Alex. Subtle, they are not, but the passion and joy are abundant and obvious. Nabwana isn’t trying to be Ken Loach. The films he loves are 80s American action films starring the likes of Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

The documentary is made by Cathryne Czubek and it seems likely to be part of the marketing push that Hofmanis is seen tirelessly working on throughout the film. It doesn’t spend a great deal of time looking into the backstories of the protagonists. Hofmanis is the Western avatar figure who guides us through this world and we learn that he originally sought out the film-makers after experiencing heartbreak back in the USA. There is one short scene that shows some of the terror that Nabwana experienced as a child, but little other than this explains who he is and what makes him tick. There is an effort to describe some conflict between the central pair, but it feels a little contrived for the film and the journey and structure are familiar. Czubek and her cinematographer Matt Porwoll make use of drones and their own CGI to add visual interest, but generally, they just keep out of the way and let the enthusiasm, hard work, and innovation speak for themselves.

What does come across strongly is how inspiring Nabwana is to those around him, particularly the kids, who are learning martial arts as much to get roles in his movies as for its own sake. There’s a lovely scene with a homemade torch projecting a reel of film onto the wall, literally lighting up the children’s faces.

While it’s admirable that they walk their path with their movies and refuse to conform to more obvious expectations, I did feel a little uneasy about the image that they’re projecting to the world. It’s clear that this is fun for them and meant to be comedic, so maybe it’s a little po-faced to worry that films focusing on violence and cannibalism play into prejudice, but there it is.

Despite that, the delight and dedication are obvious and contagious and I defy any film lover to watch this and not grin from ear to ear at the many exploding heads.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda is in cinemas from 5 September. It will screen at Odeon cinemas nationwide on 5 September together with a recorded Q&A with Wakaliwood film-maker Isaac Nabwana.

Odeon tickets on sale:

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