Once Upon a Time in Uganda Review: As part of GFF22

Once Upon a Time in Uganda (2020) is a documentary about filmmaking in Uganda, more concretely in Wakaliga. The word documentary, personally, usually brings images of beautiful but still shots of landscapes and people, but this documentary, as well as the films featured in it, was quite unique. The (invisible) crew follows Alan Hofmanis, a New Yorker who upon seeing a film produced by Ramon Film Productions (also known as Wakaliwood) on YouTube flies to Uganda to find out how and where the magic happens. There, he meets Isaac Nabwana, the director-mastermind behind the popular cult films. The fascination only grows from here: Alan observes how with little money and materials, the whole town of Wakaliga throws themselves into the filming and production of comedic action movies. Ramon Film Productions works not only as the creative centre for the films, but it is also a school for martial arts, makeup, lighting, acting and anything that could aid in the future films to come. They take pride in nurturing young talent. Here, the saying “It takes a village to write a book” applies to the constant string of films that Isaac, his wife Harriet, and his team put out. The number now is 44 films.

Partly, the fascination with Wakaliwood’s films is their comedic tone whilst talking of serious issues. Isaac states that they wanted to portray the life of poor people in Uganda: filled with crime and precarious living but with a funny twist. Being able to joke and talk about these topics in a lighter tone was, somehow, therapeutic. The documentary portrays this perfectly whilst focusing on another topic entirely: the clash of the vision of success from an American point of view (making it ‘big’ in film festivals internationally) and Ugandan point of view (being known in Uganda and getting national recognition). There was some criticism of this documentary enforcing a ‘white saviour’ narrative, but I disagree. The film shows two friends that have a misunderstanding, that have different dreams for the gem that is the films that are created in Wakaliwood. I do not believe race or a sense of superiority from Alan’s part is what took place here. On the verge of conflict, we all view ourselves as victims, especially when who hurt us are close to us. I cannot blame Alan or Isaac for miscommunicating and reacting in a moment of hurt, they are both people and not characters at the end of the day.

I would have appreciated Glasgow Film Festival to have created a double feature with this documentary followed by one of Nabwana’s previous films such as Bad Black (2016) or Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010) but nevertheless it was a fantastic experience. The room was vibrant and ready to immerse itself into the fantastic and creative Wakaliwood. I would love to experience it again. The Q&A that followed the screening was also incredible, led by the Glasgow Film Festival Young Selectors and accompanied by the director Cathryne Czubek, the writer Amanda Hughes and the producer Gigi Dement. They revealed to us jokingly that they viewed this as a bromance, a romantic comedy that placed Isaac and Alan as the protagonists. But the real protagonist here, what really steals the show, is the art of filmmaking. If nothing else, this documentary convinces the audience of the magic of cinema, dulling the experience of watching a movie from your Netflix account in a tiny computer screen at home.

[Eva Lopez-Lopez (She/They)]

[Image credit: https://www.instagram.com/onceinuganda/ ]

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