Wakaliwood: The Documentary is a powerful tribute to human ingenuity and passion for filmmaking. An independent filmmaker living in Uganda, I. G. G. Nabwana is hoping to turn his region of Africa into what he likes to call “Wakaliwood.” Working in the slums of Wakaliga, Nabwana recruits local aspiring actors, stunt performers and editors to take part in his various productions, most of them high-octane action films inspired by the classic Expendables era of 1980s heroes like Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis.
Ben Barenholtz, known for his producing duties for visionaries like Darren Aronofsky (Requiem For A Dream) and the Coen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing) joined forces with Alan Ssali Hormanis (former Director of Special Programming for the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre) to shine a spotlight on Uganda. We spoke with Barenholtz and Hofmanis, the directors of Wakaliwood, as they prepare for the film’s debut at the Hamptons International Film Festival.
Q: How did you learn about I. G. G. Nabwana?
Alan: Well, it began as a viral YouTube phenomenon, he had around four million hits on his own site, but something like ten million hits on YouTube. That was back in 2010.
Ben: Just on the trailer.
Alan: Back in December, less than a year ago, a friend of mine showed me the trailer for “Who Killed Captain Alex?” (the first in a trilogy for Nabwana) and that was it. Viewing emerging talent within a limited budget for production, “Captain Alex” blew my mind. In the west when you have no money, you shoot a conversation over a table, somewhere you can control the production. Here, it’s a hundred people, and everyone is acting at eleven, meaning they’re being directed. For me, that showed integrity. It was almost decided for me, and two weeks later, I was in Uganda.
Q: The film really embodies the DIY/indie spirit, is there a message there for aspiring filmmakers do you think?
Alan: I think, almost for anyone doing anything, you know, for me, when you look at what Nabwana’s doing with his limited resources, I don’t think there’s any reason you can’t do anything. Not just film.
Q: What is the African film production/development scene like? In the US, we’re not really exposed to it.
Alan: The best-known is probably the Nigerian film scene, also known as Nollywood. It’s an enormous industry, probably on par with Bollywood or Hollywood at this point in terms of output. The films don’t really translate well outside of Africa, though. Uganda’s film scene began around 2005, around the time Nabwana started making his films. Uganda is really fighting to build its presence, even in its own country, against Nigerian films.
Q: That’s something shown in the film, where some of the actors and production people from Nabwana’s team are going around promoting their own work, selling DVDs, etc.
Alan: They actually have to convince people in their own country and towns that they can actually do this and do it at the same level as Nollywood.
Q: Are there any locally-funded art or film programs in Uganda to further develop younger, future filmmakers?
Ben: Very, very little. There are no governmental-supervised programs. I don’t think they’re very interested in promoting the kind of films that Nabwana is doing or other African countries. They’re great action films, great escapist films, etc.
Alan: They don’t even recognize the Uganda film industry. This works in Nabwana’s favor, actually, in that he doesn’t have to pay government-imposed fees, but at the same time, he’d love to use parks and facilities, shoot at government spaces, but there’s just no way for the African government to support it right now. That’s why most of his films are shot in his neighborhood, that’s all he has access to.
Q: How does Nabwana’s community/tribe regard him now? In the film, his cousin mentions that, growing up, he was viewed as a bit of a loner or an outsider.
Alan: See, now, it’s finally starting to make sense to people (laughs). He’d be alone in his room drawing all day, just a kid, eight or ten years old. He’d organize his friends to do like, “Kung Fu VS. Commando” and put on plays and shows, pretending to film them. People recognize it, now, though, he’s a hero in the community. What’s important there is that children are growing up with film, they’re learning to support it, whether they become filmmakers themselves or not.
Q: Towards the end of the film, there’s an interview with one of the actors and he basically talks about how he didn’t grow up with a father-figure, but Nabwana has taken him under his wing and shown him the ropes in terms of filmmaking. Now, that actor has a taste for editing, inspired by Nabwana, so, a very father-son relationship in that sense.
Alan: Yeah, and that goes for a lot of them working with Nabwana. It’s a generational thing, a lot of young men now grew up without fathers because of the civil wars in Africa. Uganda’s families were just fractured in that way. In the early eighties, Nabwana and his mother would literally just take in children that were orphaned by the civil war. Nabwana ended up with something around forty brothers and sisters.
Q: Has Nabwana obtained any kind of distribution since the development of the documentary or anything?
Ben: The showing at the Hamptons Film Fest will be the premiere, so we’re hoping that, once the film debuts, that’ll help get the ball rolling for Nabwana. That’s the next step, of course, getting him the recognition and support he needs to improve his filmmaking and working conditions. While his methods are somewhat primitive, they’re also incredibly refreshing. It makes you think of how film began, to just be able to invent things as one goes along and improvise. It’s very inspiring on that level, just to see what can be done if you have the passion.
Q: Right, he’s not exactly working with a $2,000 Macbook or anything like that.
Alan: (laughs) Oh god, no!
Q: It was inspiring, in the film, to learn that Nabwana literally put his computer and editing studio together piece by piece, it’s true that most young filmmakers take that stuff for granted.
Ben: The really commendable and impressive thing is that nobody whines, nobody complains, they’re all just happy to be part of the filmmaking process, Nabwana was teaching acting, and truthfully, it wasn’t very different than any acting class you’d see in New York.
Q: Alan, what was it like working on Nabwana’s film “Black”?
Alan: It was like being ten years old again and wiffle bats were lightsabers. I went there wanting to work with them and meet him, but after our initial conversation, I wanted to work for him. I was the first American they had met and I was the first American that had visited because of their film industry. Working with them, it’s like you’re a kid, in the greatest sense, in the greatest way.
Q: What are Nabwana’s future film plans?
Alan: He wants to build a native film industry from the ground up in Uganda, and it’s actually happening. They’re making movies, they’re finding talent. There are limitations (electricity, dial-up internet, running water etc) but it’s happening.
Q: How excited are you guys for the Hamptons Film Festival?
Alan: You can’t imagine. I wonder what’s going through Nabwana’s mind, though. I talk to him regularly and he just keeps thanking us for the opportunity. It’s a big deal for them. His films have barely played Uganda or the slums of Kampala. For the work to be seen outside of Uganda, it’s gotta’ be incredible.
“Wakaliwood: The Documentary” is part of the HIFF and will be playing October 5th at 4:30 pm at the Sag Harbor Cinema and Sunday, October 7th at 8:45 at UA East Hampton Theater 3. The film is brilliant and inspiring, so if you’re looking for a touching, true story, check out “Wakaliwood: The Documentary.”