GFF 2022: Once Upon a Time in Uganda

Welcome to Wakaliwood! Entertaining documentary Once Upon a Time in Uganda takes us inside the world of filmmaker Isaac Nabwana and the no-budget gonzo action movies he makes from a slum in Kampala

Film Review by Rory Doherty | 08 Mar 2022
  • Once Upon a Time in Uganda
Film title: Once Upon a Time in Uganda
Director: Cathryne Czubek (co-director: Hugo Perez)
Starring: Isaac Nabwana, Alan Hofmanis

If you ever laughed yourself silly at a low-res Who Killed Captain Alex? trailer back in the early days of YouTube, you’ll be glad there’s now a feature-length documentary about it. More broadly, it’s about Wakaliwood, the Ugandan home of no-budget gonzo action movies directed by Isaac Nabwana, all of which are packed with ambition and martial arts. (Because, to quote, “Everybody in Uganda knows kung-fu.”)

Directors Cathryne Czubek and Hugo Perez have assembled a wildly entertaining doc from a wealth of footage: on location in Isaac’s home of Wakaliga, hysterical action movie clips courtesy of Ramon Film Productions, and home movie footage recorded by Alan Hofmanis, the American who uplifted his entire New York life to work with Isaac in Wakaliga after seeing the Captain Alex trailer. Czubek and Perez make this cross-cultural friendship the emotional core of their doc, as Alan becomes entirely committed to making Isaac’s films reach the broader, global audience he is utterly convinced they deserve.

There’s no irony to Alan, he thinks Isaac’s films are incredible cinema with complete earnestness. It’s a fault of the film that only Alan’s psychology is fully probed by the filmmakers, as scenes of Isaac directing with his crew are in short supply. Problems start to coalesce in the doc’s last third, where the narrative can feel forced and a crucial emotional resolution isn’t sold convincingly. But when the final stretch gives Isaac his well-deserved recognition, you’ll realise how much you’ve been rooting for these jokers the whole time.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda screened at Glasgow Film Festival