Film Reviews

Once Upon a Time in Uganda – Documentary Review

Some of the most passionate filmmakers are the ones who don’t really know what they’re doing. They don’t know the ins and outs of the industry, they don’t know the techniques, they’re not trained, but they love the medium so much that they grab a camera and some friends, and try their best to make a film. Many of these people never gain any kind of attention, and most of those who do end up falling into obscurity, but there are a few who go on to become well known, and who make a career in film. Nabwanna ‘Isaac’ I.G.G. might not quite fall into that last category, but he damn well deserves to.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda is a split narrative documentary film from director Cathryne Czubek, who begins by following Alan Hofmanis, a guy from New York who loves film and wants to work in the industry, but has struggled to find his passion. When one of his friends shows him a trailer for an action film called Who Killed Captain Alex?, a movie shot in a Ugandan slum, he knows that he has to find the man behind the film. Alan packs his bag and heads out to Wakaliga, where he meets Isaac for the first time.

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Isaac was a brick maker (and still is) who grew up in a turbulent Uganda, after the fall of Idi Amin. Having grown up witnessing real violence, having seen the kinds of horror most of us couldn’t imagine, but loving the big Hollywood action blockbuster, Isaac wanted to make something similar, yet tonally quite different. Isaac doesn’t want serious movies, he doesn’t want films where characters go through hell, where the violence is brutal and real, he wants the viewer to have fun. As such, Who Killed Captain Alex? and every subsequent film Isaac has made has been filled with humour, ridiculous characters, and effects that are so incredibly well made under the circumstances yet so terrible in execution that they can’t help but bring a smile to your face.

Isaac isn’t making films to be famous, nor is he making them to get rich, as he and all of his cast and crew are still living in slum conditions even when their films are gaining global awareness. It’s a passion for them, an escape. But it’s also something that they’re good at, and Alan saw that. Travelling to Uganda, Alan soon strikes up a fast friendship with Isaac and his family, likely due to him being a white man who travelled the world to tell them he loves their films. We learn that in Uganda there are large amounts of the population who hold the muzungo (the white man) as something to care about, and as such, getting a white man to pay attention to and care about their work is a big thing for the filmmakers in Wakaliga.

Believing in Isaac and the team at ‘Wakaliwood’, Alan sells his car, his apartment, and all of his belongings, and moves into Isaac’s home in Wakaliga. Thus begins a years long journey as Isaac continues to make films (at almost one a month) whilst Alan uses his knowledge of the film industry and connections to try and spread the word about what Isaac is doing. This is the main narrative of Once Upon a Time in Uganda, as we chart the journey these two men go on. Alan takes part in the films, helping to create the ‘beat up the white man’ genre, and Isaac’s work attracts journalists from around the world.

A large part of what makes Once Upon a Time in Uganda so amazing to watch is seeing how Isaac’s films are made. We get treated to small snippets of the cartoonish action throughout, and seeing how it’s put together is shocking to say the least. We see why the shootouts in the films have lots of post-production VFX put on them, as the actors gun are made from old scrap welded together. Shots with cars flipping and exploding are done using toys. Characters hanging off helicopters are filmed against a green screen at the back of Isaac’s house. And all of it is edited together, with effects made on computers that Isaac has had to build and piece together from scrap and third hand parts that end up breaking and burning out before too long.

The content of Isaac’s films are funny, often bordering of farcical, and at first you look at them and think ‘that looks pretty bad’, and I’m sure that there are a lot of people in the world who could create better effects using their home PC. But after seeing Once Upon a Time in Uganda, these charming but bad effects become phenomenal, because you see the environment in which they’re made. These films have been created in a place where there’s no running water, no plumbing, where it can be a struggle to buy food. It’s not just wonderful that Isaac is pouring his passion into making these movies, it’s astonishing he even can make them.

And that’s the other big focus of the film: Isaac and his journey. And it’s not an easy one. There are times in the film where it feels like it’s all going to fall apart. At one point Isaac is offered a deal to turn Who Killed Captain Alex? into a television series in Uganda. Because Alan is in charge of international promotion as well as being a producer, Isaac doesn’t consult him much on the offer, and the relationship between the two becomes strained. They end up not talking for weeks, and in the end Alan leaves, heading back to New York. But despite this Alan still believe in Isaac, and still pushes to promote his work, building an audience around the world. When the two finally reunite, they fall back into their old relationship, as friends having fun making movies, with Alan being a member of his family.

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The big emotional conclusion of the film is Isaac travelling to Canada, where his film is shown at a film festival in front of 1,200 strong audience. The film is a rousing success, with the audience cheering and clapping for him as he comes onto stage. You see the emotions on Isaac’s face, and he can barely get words out as the moment hits him. You have to be made from stone not to feel something for him in this moment, to see this filmmaker from a Ugandan slum who’s never made a penny from his art cheered for on stage. He’s living a dream in that moment, and it encapsulates the wonder and magic of film making.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda is a wonderful advertisement for Isaac’s work, and you’ll come away from watching it quickly wanting to jump onto YouTube to try out one of his films. It’s an amazing way to show the global audience this amazingly passionate creator. But it’s also a love letter to the world of film. Watching Isaac and his friends and family creating movie after movie, not earning a living from it, doing it just because it brings them and others joy is perhaps the most beautiful representation of what this medium can do.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda is out in cinemas from 5th September from Blue Finch Film Releasing.

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