By Henry Wasswa and Sinikka Tarvainen
In the Ugandan capital Kampala, a pot-holed dirt road weaves through a cluster of shacks along a stinking stream until a helicopter made from scrap metal emerges into view.
“Welcome to Wakaliwood,” movie director Isaac Nabwana says, stepping out of a group of actors dressed as soldiers or gangsters.
Nabwana’s company, Ramon Productions — known as Wakaliwood — in the low-income neighbourhood of Wakaliga, is the east African country’s answer to Hollywood.
Functioning on minimal budgets, it churns out movies so packed with action, humour and verve that they have attracted a global cult following and earned Nabwana the nickname of Uganda’s Tarantino.
Wakaliwood makes movies at a cost ranging from almost nothing to 200 dollars. Machine guns are made using old motorcycle engines and bullets are carved from wood.
The amateur actors do not get paid, but peddle the movies door-to-door and to shops, keeping half of the earnings of about 1 dollar per DVD.
“We do not make budgets. We just improvise most of the time. It is impossible to make a budget, because we have no money,” Nabwana says.
The 43-year-old director, who has more than 40 films to his credit, also wears the hats of actor, cameraman and editor.
Despite the difficult production conditions, a 2010 film, Who Killed Captain Alex, attracted more than half a million viewers on YouTube, most of them outside Uganda.
The story of a captain sent to track down the Tiger Mafia — showing lots of machine-gun fire, kung fu fights and helicopters bombing Kampala — is “more entertaining than what we have in America,” one viewer commented.
The movies are shot with video cameras. Special effects techniques are used to combining images of the scrap-metal helicopter, for example, with visual elements generated by animation software.
More than 300 fans from countries including France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Russia and India have visited Nabwana at his makeshift studio.
Dozens of the visitors ended up acting in his films, in which white men nearly always get killed.
“The visitors said they wanted to die,” says Nabwana, who thanks such actors by giving them “death certificates.” A semi-dark rehearsal room has a wall filled with signatures in white, red and blue of more than 50 visitors who “died.”
Visitors to Wakaliwood have included Alan Hofmanis, a programme director for the Lake Placid Film Festival in the United States, who saw Who Killed Captain Alex in December 2011.
“I loved the movie. Two weeks later, I came here,” he says.
Hofmanis made several visits until he ended up staying to join forces with Nabwana, in whose movies he acts and whom he helps to raise funds on the Internet.
A fund-raising campaign last year netted 13,000 dollars, allowing the film crew to acquire equipment such as muzzle flashes for guns and detonation materials for fake bomb blasts.
“Wakaliwood is not in a very good shape, but I want to assist it to get to some other, higher level,” Hofmanis says.
Coming from a modest background, Nabwana worked as a brickmaker after finishing school.
He later saved enough money to study computer maintenance, learned to edit films online and borrowed a camera in the hope of realising his lifelong dream.
“Since childhood, I have admired film stars. My older brother told me about kung fu, Bud Spencer and Rambo. I was inspired and determined to be in movies.”
Nabwana’s team now comprises about 30 actors, craftsmen and technicians.
“Whoever comes here to act is trained here, because we do not have film-training schools in Uganda,” the director says.
His earnings — often amounting to a few hundred dollars per film — are reduced by piracy, which Nabwana says is a “big problem.”
In the case of one of Wakaliwood’s most successful productions — The Evil Spirit of Ntwetwe, about a village awash with spirits — the company earned almost nothing because of piracy, the director explains.
“Piracy ... kills the value of films. Police can arrest a man who stole an egg and leave a pirate of a film worth millions,” Nabwana says.
The director is now hoping that his growing fame will help him raise funds for a modern studio with training facilities for actors and editors.
While most Ugandan films are love or family dramas, Nabwana markets his as the first action movies made in the country.
“The government has not supported the movie industry” which had long been neglected, noted Philip Luswata, a cinema expert at Makerere University. Luswata sees Nabwana as “aping Hollywood. He knows what his fans want.”
Nabwana, meanwhile, is busy enlisting visitors to act in his next movie, Wakaliwood Against the Rest of the World: No One Escapes Wakaliwood.
It will feature foreign mercenaries coming to rescue a foreigner who has disappeared in Wakaliwood. But they soon find they have tempted fate when they perish in fierce gun battles against Ugandans. —DPA
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