Sometimes a $200 budget is all you need for a cinematic breath of fresh air – Daniel Wood goes off to explore Wakaliwood.
It can be easy to start taking films for granted, but a clear reminder that sometimes cinema is nothing less than pure, unadulterated joy can come from the unlikeliest places – like Wakaliwood and its film Crazy World.
I discovered the film through the We Are One Film Festival and decided to give it a go. Set in the slums of Uganda, we see that the Tiger Mafia are kidnapping children to sacrifice them, yet inadvertently they find themselves up against a young group of child kung-fu masters called the Waka Stars and their highly trained parents trying to rescue them.
So far, so what? Yet one of the major things that made it unlike anything else I’d seen was narration from a ‘Video Joker’, a Ugandan oral tradition where someone, in this case VJ Emmie, live-narrates the events in the film as they happen.
This provided a consistent madcap fourth-wall breaking commentary that accentuates what happens on screen in a way that is self-deprecating, over-the-top and yet central to the overall enjoyment.
Another big highlight was the fourth-wall breaking, plot-interrupting, anti-piracy PSA advert involving several Crazy World watchers from all over the globe (who had evidently submitted clips of themselves for use in the film) ‘pirating’ the movie and being subsequently hunted by a Pirate Hunter. Everything about this scene is wonderful.
Its $200 budget and shoestring special effects also add to the charm. We see a real-life helicopter frame and clip-art explosions green-screened over the top of the picture. Actors are often wearing the same clothing in different scenes, and members of the public regularly become unwitting extras in the background of many shots. The final product is one of the most entertaining, bizarre films I’ve seen. It’s impressively aware of its own silliness but, perhaps, more importantly is an incredibly earnest and wholesome tribute to classic Hollywood actioners with a surprising level of understanding and execution, and a great deal more heart and joy than most of them.
So where did it all come from? Well, the Wakaliwood studio is the brainchild of Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana, aka Nabwana IGG, who is the one-man-band writer/director/ producer/cinematographer and editor of its several low-budget, schlocky action pastiches including Crazy World.
The studio went viral when a trailer for Who Killed Captain Alex was posted on YouTube. This one, in fact…
It caught the attention of film festival director Alan Hofmanis who then flew to Uganda to produce a documentary on the studio, and eventually decided to stay out there and help promote Wakaliwood’s films worldwide.
“I jumped on the first airplane I could and ten days later I landed in Uganda,” Hofmanis tells me, “I have never been there, what the hell do I know? But I knew I’d find him, because the films are so nuts. I knew he’d be a local hero… I’m in the country literally three hours and I find him because I found someone selling, on the corner, the movies.” Upon meeting Nabwana IGG, Hofmanis immediately realised that he was an extremely talented filmmaker contrary to what his expectations were. “I thought he would be like me, meaning someone who was a little crazy with some friends and a camera, and very quickly it’s like, no, he’s the real thing. It’s a studio and it’s a whole village doing this.”
Nabwana’s background is as extraordinary as his films. He grew up during the regime of Idi Amin, although he and his family were lucky to avoid most of the violence. He developed a love of filmmaking from reruns of Hawaii Five-O and Logan’s Run as well as classic Hollywood movies, although he’d never actually set foot inside a cinema. He is self-taught, via an online course on video editing and tutorials, having turned his new skills to creating Ramon Film Productions, otherwise known as Wakaliwood and producing (what Hofmanis believes to be) over 32 films.
It’s easy to forget that a lot of the subjects of these films are based on real-life issues Ugandans face. By empowering the children as martial arts experts, Crazy World presents a hilarious vision of child abduction, but the reality is that child abductions are a real problem and something that Nabwana wanted to use his filmmaking to address. “He was afraid for the kids, because kidnapping is a thing, as it is anywhere,” Hofmanis said. “And his answer was ‘let’s get all the kids together, the actors who have children, let’s get them altogether and let’s make an action film where the kids are tough and can fight back.’”
The studio has also had its own setbacks, with a cast member getting ill from the cow blood used for special effects, leading them to use food colouring instead. It also had to reshoot its 2010 film Tebaatusasula after a power surge destroyed the hard drive it was stored on. Many of its earlier films have been lost too.
Even more startling was the revelation that most of Wakaliwood’s studio has been destroyed by flooding. In the opening moments of Crazy World, shot exclusively for the We Are One Festival, we were shown a memorial wall with the names of everyone who has died in a Wakaliwood film written on it, which is all that remains.
In spite of all of these issues, everything about the production of Wakaliwood’s movies is endearingly handmade and lovingly unpretentious. It makes props and jibs out of DIY parts, bloodshot special effects are using condoms filled with red food colouring and rigged with fishing wire. The films themselves are edited on computers that Nabwana himself has reassembled. Even its website is a hilarious riff on what it does. “I think he’s the real thing. I think he’s the real deal,” says Hofmanis, “And I think if he was born anywhere else he would have been famous 20 years ago, not a doubt!”
In 2015, a Kickstarter was set up asking for just $160 for a new film. The studio received over $13,000. Subsequently, Wakaliwood films have screened at some of the most prestigious film festivals around as crowd favourites.
Wakaliwood has gone from a passion project of one man making films for his community to become a much-loved global cult phenomenon. It’s an extraordinary example of passionate, amazing filmmaking not only offering people an escape, but bringing a community together. I defy anyone to watch one of Wakaliwood’s films and not enjoy the hell out of it. That’s what Nabwana IGG is doing it for, to entertain people and make them happy. And surely that’s what the magic of cinema is all about.
You can find out more about Wakaliwood at its website, here.
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