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Essay

THE PEOPLE’S ART: WAKALIWOOD AND THE ACTION MOVIE AS A DEMOCRATISED WORKING-CLASS EXPRESSION

Crazy World, the newest film from Uganda’s Wakaliwood studio, entrenches them as one of the most exciting loci of contemporary cinema

Words by Ruairí McCann 

There aren’t many genres with popularity as widespread as the action film. Its stories often emphasise a principled underdog struggling against a corrupt power, told through a lexicon of movement and mien over dialogue—and so hold an enormous appeal for those disenfranchised the world over. It’s this appeal that is responsible for a figure like Bruce Lee. A Hong Kong actor and martial artist, frequently pitted against white villainy, who reached superstardom despite Hollywood’s racist order and who, despite a premature death, lives on as a powerful pan-Asian symbol as well as an influence on other cultures. It’s evident, more specifically, in the anecdotes Jackie Chan is fond of telling to illustrate his international stardom, about filming in countries like Namibia or Vanuatu, which are extremely peripheral as far as mainstream film distribution is concerned, and yet he is greeted by locals with a level of fanfare historically reserved for Roman generals on a triumph.

This inspiration is not only detectable in the plot of Crazy World, which features a group of children and their fathers mustering their martial gifts to resist a local gangster and his scheme to kidnap children in order to anoint his wealth with their blood sacrifice. It’s also omnipresent, right down to the marrow. For this is a movie by Ramon Film Productions or, as it’s better known, Wakaliwood—a rare and enthusiastic example of action filmmaking as both an underclass production and expression.

Active since 2008, Wakaliwood is a grassroots film collective located in Wakaliga, a poor suburb of the Ugandan capital of Kampala. As of this writing, they have dozens of films under its belt with Crazy World, made and released locally in 2014 but premiering internationally in 2019, only their third to get complete English subtitling. Though spearheaded by director, writer, and editor Isaac Nabwana, credited as “Nabwana I.G.G”, Crazy World is filmmaking as collective folk art, with production and acting roles shared between Nabwana’s family, neighbours and, since their breakout hit Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010), devotees who have travelled near and far. 

Nabwana is informed just as much by the local and the everyday, as well his experiences of the Idi Amin regime (about which he hopes to one day make a film). He infuses his films with a social imperative, focusing on the hardships and inequities of life on the bottom rung.  

Promotional poster for ‘Who Killed Captain Alex?’ (2010)

This increased attention has, through crowdfunding, improved their resources beyond what Nabwana could originally acquire through toiling as a bricklayer. But still, their means are limited. Budgets sit within a $1000-2000 US dollar range at their zenith, but often come in at much less. Props and FX are not only handmade but a lot of their equipment is too. Hostile conditions include an unsympathetic police force, floods, blackouts, and power surges that have reduced completed films to fragments or nothing at all.  

Their output so far has been invariably action-packed and usually orientated around the antagonism between ‘supacommandos’ and the ‘Tiger Mafia’ and their cops and robbers style skirmishes, with characters’ fighting style and flair informed by a constellation of international action stars (influencing monikers such as Kid Norris, Wesley Snipes and Steven Senegal). Though Nabwana is informed just as much by the local and the everyday, as well his experiences of the Idi Amin regime (about which he hopes to one day make a film). He infuses his films with a social imperative, focusing on the hardships and inequities of life on the bottom rung. 

This socially conscious side is most evident in Crazy World during its digression heavy middle section, guided by Dauda (Dauda Bisaso, who is also props-master), a commando turned crazed-man of the dump, haunted by the loss of his family and with a  bullet in the head. A plot thread is fashioned around whether his madness is put on or genuine, but it’s beside the point, for either way he uses his social exemption, as a holy fool, to expose the seams in the society around him. In one scene he draws attention with his plastic bottle binoculars to a Breughel Proverb style example of plutocracy in action, in which a counterfeiter swindles a landlord. And out of one of his many rants he lets spill a warning about police inaction, which comes to fruition when the cops respond to a plea to help find the child by lazily and abusively arresting the wrong man, and so perpetuating their sclerosis.

Contrary to the received wisdom of social realism, the prevailing tone of Wakaliwood is not sober but unapologetically melodramatic and comedic.

Geoffrey Nabwana, Charles Bukenya, Kizza Manisuru Ssejjemba

Bisaso’s deliriously bug-eyed performance, embodying madness as series of whiplash movements and mood changes, is demonstrative of how, contrary to the received wisdom of social realism, the prevailing tone of Wakaliwood is not sober but unapologetically melodramatic and comedic. The latter in both a knockabout and self-aware sense, and amplified in this film by very entertaining interruptions from the Piracy Patrol—an elite global force out to hassle and imprison people who try to pirate the film. 

The epitome of both these strands is the ever-present VJ Emmie. He is what is called a “video joker”, a staple of Ugandan movie halls whose closest analogy would be the Japanese tradition of a benshi. In that, he and others serve a role that is somewhat functional—by translating, or otherwise interpreting, for audiences movies that largely either in English or Chinese. He also enhances, by hijacking, the viewing experience, with his live-recorded commentary making him a modern jester. Serving not only to clarify the narrative and hype up the action but also to poke fun at the characters and institutions. ‘Welcome to Uganda’ and ‘In Uganda…’ are two common refrains, sounded off against a particularly violent scene or otherwise a moment where the social contract is null and void. His commentary for Bad Black (2016) may outstrip this particular iteration when it comes to sheer ruefulness and the number of laughs, but he remains a funny and subversive presence throughout. 

There is a trap that anyone attempting to discuss Wakaliwood can seriously risk springing. It is leaving the impression you are giving the benefit of the doubt, that the self-referential and social conscious elements are apologising or otherwise covering for dodgy filmmaking. In actuality, Crazy World, like their other films, is an extremely sound action film, with Nabwana consistently pulling off the complicated feat of cutting the action with a rapid, prismatic style while ensuring spatial unity, with every hit and muzzle flash present and impactful. 

Fast editing is often used to cover up a heavy use of doubles and shoddy choreography. Here there’s no need, for the kung-fu is not only performed full-on but is well-accomplished. This is thanks to Nabwana—a martial arts autodidact—and his brother Robert Kizito, who went the next step in setting up his own school in which many of the Wakaliwood troupe have trained.

Nabwana has a practical reason for showcasing the Waka Stars. By presenting them as tough and resourceful, he can assuage the sadly rational fear that, with Wakaliwood becoming a known quantity, his family could become the target of kidnappers

Promotional poster for ‘Crazy World’ (2014)

One of his star pupils is a man called Bukenya Charles, known here and elsewhere as “Bruce U” (the Ugandan Bruce Lee). A stern presence and svelte fighter, his appearance is more fleeting this time around, though his skills get a satisfying airing in the pull-out-all-the-stops climax. A reprisal and an expansion of the opening set-piece in that it drags not just two, but multiple parties through an action sequence defined by its location—a tight, maze-like section of Wakaliga. It’s a  game of crossed-wires and cat and mouse which hurtles along at an escalating pace, which Nabwana regulates without sacrificing any momentum by inserting a mid-point moment of relative calm. In an extended wide shot, he displays the scene’s mass absurdity and his own comprehension of the space, on-site and on-screen, by having one group sprint out of frame at one side while another exits out the other.

One reason why Bruce U is on the bench is that this is one for the kids. Specifically, The Waka Stars, a group of child martial artists and singers that include two of Nabwana’s own. They channel Jackie Chan or Buster Keaton with their action being more environment and prop based. Fight scenes are dependent on them being small and nimble enough to fit into narrow or high places and wait until they can pounce on an unsuspecting adversary and deliver a decisive thwack to the solar plexus or a bonk on the head. Along with Alex Ssemwogerere’s meanness-in-miniature as the villain Mr Big, they also warrant comparison to two other Jackies, Coogan and Cooper, as reminiscent of a tradition, lost in Hollywood but alive in Uganda, of the child performer as a working-class scamp who expresses him or herself with an intense rowdiness and emotionality.

Nabwana has a practical reason for showcasing the Waka Stars. By presenting them as tough and resourceful, he can assuage the sadly rational fear that, with Wakaliwood becoming a known quantity, his family could become the target of kidnappers. It is also an idealistic choice, fundamentally tied to his frequently stated goal that this filmmaking community he has set up, against the odds, will not end with him but continue on as a creative outlet for future inhabitants of Wakaliga. This importance paid towards community—as something more than an empty, political buzzword—is apparent front to back. Quite literally, for in a special lockdown introduction, Nabwana himself draws attention to a wall cluttered with signatures from everyone who has flocked to bite the dust in a Wakaliwood movie, and with the credits there is a memorial and a celebration of those who died and were born during the film’s production. 

In a global film industry where cinema is becoming increasingly seen either as a predominantly commercial or extracurricular activity, removed from the experience, let alone the means, of those who live below, or not far above, the poverty line, Wakaliwood’s conception of filmmaking as an outlet for the voiceless and an inlet for maintaining close bonds and community spirit is one of many reasons why it has become a vital front for those searching through contemporary cinema, hoping to find not just signs of museumification but an art that is still alive to the world. 

Crazy World is available to rent or purchase through Alamo On Demand. Two other Wakaliwood films, Who Killed Captain Alex? and Bad Black, can be found, in full, on the official Wakaliwood YouTube channel


Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.