Once Upon a Time in Uganda

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Cathryne Czubek

Director: Cathryne Czubek, Amanda Hughes

Once Upon a Time in Uganda is a hilarious film which follows the unlikely friendship of Isaac Nabwana, a self-taught film maker living in a slum village in Uganda and Alan Hofmanis, a New York film enthusiast. When Alan catches sight of a whacky trailer for one of Isaac’s home-make comedy action films, he up sticks and moves to Uganda to try to help Isaac’s enterprise.

But there’s a delicious tricksiness to the film. Both men exist – Isaac, aka Nabwana IGG, does indeed make surprisingly successful low-budget films and has confidently renamed his little production company, Ramon Film Productions, ‘Wakaliwood’. You can read up on Alan online too. But this film is genre-defying. It’s billed as a documentary, but it’s not quite what it seems. The film is not just directed but written by Cathryne Czubek and there’s definitely a creative hand invisibly at work here, merrily stretching the genre out of shape.

The basic story is so great – the against-the-odds rise of Isaac to international acclaim, set against the near-tragic breach in his friendship with Alan – that we’re all carried along at top speed without questioning the account. A second viewing is highly recommended, however. Can we really swallow all we’re told?. What, for example, is that ludicrously portentous opening scene of Alan atop a mountain in Kazakhstan. Why Kazakhstan we’ll never know. Alan talks at some length following his dream, then releases a vast bird of prey. And do we really believe his back story about coming to Uganda became his fiancée turns him down the day he bought their wedding rings? We wouldn’t dare question Isaac’s back story, though – humble peasant brickmaker turned cineaste who gets his first experience of violence under Idi Amin’s dictatorship in the 70s. We’re won over by his philosophy that comic violence is better than endless focus on his country’s poverty. And it’s funny that all his early scripts were eaten by termites. But is it true? Who cares? It’s a great story.

Certainly Isaac’s enterprise could not be more basic. He’s rigged up a homemade green screen for special effects, his signature stunt being exploding heads. He also does a good line in exploding cars, quickly substituting a model car at the crucial moment. It’s all deliberately comic, and we see glimpses of local children hooting with laughter as fake blood spurts from gunshot victims. Isaac writes and directs, for props calling on a mate who knocks up anything he wants out of scrap, including machine guns and a skeletal helicopter. He continues to turn out dozens of short movies on almost no budget. Look them up now and you often meet the description ‘so bad they’re good.’

American Alan is in love with the whole enterprise, moving in with Isaac and his wife, determined to get him and the embryonic Ramon Film Productions, world-wide coverage. He gently tries to persuade Isaac that his invented genre, ‘Beating up the white person,’ maybe has had its day. But later we see everyone delighting in hapless Alan being forced to play the muzungu – the white man – in a film about cannibals. Isaac is forced to get a body double for Alan. ‘He’s talented,’ he admits, ‘but his martial arts is awful’. “We’ve never tasted muzungu!” exclaim the banana-leaf-clad cannibals.

It’s at this stage we may wonder if we’re really watching a documentary or a fabulous fiction. And that’s the way the film so cleverly conceals its workings, banking on the fact that all the apparent artlessness will happily convince us of the the story’s truth. The story arc – and there is a clearly constructed one – is that the innocent, happy life of the villagers all helping out Isaac with his films is gradually soured by Alan’s determination to get publicity for them. We’re told that classy media sources from the Wall Street Journal to Al-Jazeera all cover the phenomenon of Isaac’s Wakaliwood. But somehow this brings in no money for anyone. Then when a Mr Big from a Kampala TV company discovers them, Isaac sells out to him.

It’s not long before the laughter stops. Villagers look glum. Alan is seen sulking in his shack with only a kitten for company. Isaac apparently has stopped talking to him and Alan reluctantly tells himself it’s time to leave. The resolution, however, has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood feel-good movie.

It’s all enormous fun. But what have we been watching? Perhaps it’s a new genre: comedy documentary?

OnceUponaTimeinUgandais in cinemas from 5 September

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Hilarious comedy documentary

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