It’s Ugawood!

Inside the nascent Ugandan action film industry

Staying off social media is one of my hardest disciplines, but a particular Facebook post—a video that was trending—was proving irresistible and I found myself bursting into raucous laughter.

An army-green helicopter landed on a photoshopped New York City highway; three soldiers with machine guns jumped out and started shooting.

A few seconds later, they bombed one of the buildings in the city. The trailer looked like a joke, more like a video game. My husband, who had been surreptitiously watching over my shoulder, also began to laugh.

I sensed that the thousands of people watching that video at that moment had been sent into fits of giggles, too. The clip was from an action movie called Ugandan Expendables produced by Ramon studios. Ramon was the first Ugandan action movie producer based in Wakaliga—a slum in Kampala, the capital, better known as Wakaliwood because of its action movie productions.

Nabwana Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey (known as Nabwana I.G.G.)—a self-taught film producer and Wakaliwood’s founder—has never been to a movie theater, but has huge film-production dreams and the passion to drive them. With no money to fund his films (to date he has produced more than 50, each on an estimated budget of $200–$300), Geoffrey began chasing his dream with a camera and computer, using his house as the studio—a home surrounded by sewage water.

He has used cow blood to portray wounded victims, guns fashioned from metal and costumes designed by a neighborhood friend. Inspired by Geoffrey’s work, several other men and women from Wakaliga joined him, taking on roles such as costume designing, stage management and all sorts of behind-the-scenes work for no pay.

When Geoffrey asked the government for their helicopter to shoot scenes, they refused, so his team built their own out of scrap metal. “Not even do they allow us to use the forest,” Geoffrey says. “If we move an inch away from our space we can get arrested. We have to shoot everything on half an acre of land which is the land my house sits on.”

Working in Uganda’s nascent film industry is tough. It lacks government backing, and has no proper circulation channels, limited funding and few institutions allied to it offering formal training.

Whenever Geoffrey produces a movie, he has one week to sell it before pirated copies appear in shops, sold for peanuts. His tactic is to dress up a movie’s actors in their costumes, then send them around the city selling the DVDs door to door.

That way, people are excited to see the movie stars and buy the movie without much hesitation and without the second thought of going to their competitors to buy pirated copies.

Cristiano Civitillo, a Uganda-based Italian film director, believes the best way the Ugandan film sector can succeed is if it gets support from a film fund. But Alan Hofmanis, a Wakaliwood actor and producer, thinks Ugandans should judge their progress by who they were yesterday and not where a place like Hollywood is today.

I ask Hofmanis whether he thinks Wakaliwood actors need proper training. “No,” he says. “We consider our actors some of the best-trained performers in the world. Many have left their lives behind to live and study in Wakaliwood.”

Hofmanis himself moved to Wakaliwood in 2011 after watching a movie trailer for the film Who Killed Captain Alex.  He sold everything he owned, left New York and moved to settle in Wakaliga to help Geoffrey and Wakaliwood improve their film production.

He didn’t come to Uganda to act, but after speaking to Geoffrey his head was spinning with ideas, and back at his hotel room that night he called Geoffrey to say he wanted to work with him.

“Nabwana said he wanted time to think about it,” Hofmanis said. “I thought that meant, ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’ What it really meant was, ‘Let me write a movie for you.’”

Ever since then, Hofmanis is the Mzungu (white man), acting in almost every Wakaliwood movie that requires a white character.

There are people and organizations that are trying their best to help improve the Ugandan film industry. Maisha Film Lab is one of them. Founded by Mira Nair—the award-winning director of the 1991 film Mississippi Masala, featuring Denzel Washington, and shot in Kampala—Maisha Film Lab began in 2004, training filmmakers funded through scholarships. So far, hundreds of  people have attended the nonprofit’s film production labs and dozens of its students’ short films have been screened in film festivals around the world. Nair hopes the Ugandan film industry will one day become self-sustainable through telling its own stories.

“… seeing your own situation and your own language and your own struggle onscreen is a very powerful thing,” Nair has said. “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.

Many of the Maisha film trainees have gone on to thriving film careers, but like Geoffrey, they face several challenges, and to succeed you sometimes need to improvise. Everyone in Wakaliwood is exceptionally creative: Harriet, Geoffrey’s wife, is the studio’s make-up artist. Behind the scenes of the movie Eaten Alive in Uganda, she was creating an undead look for the zombies using food coloring and wheat flour. She also helps with the editing and cooks for the actors whenever they come over to her house to shoot scenes.

Another friend makes the machine guns and all the other weapons using scrap metal. He has just finished creating a huge weapon he calls “The Maria Gun,” meaning the mother of all guns. He spent two weeks crafting it.

Geoffrey uses his own house to shoot various scenes for his movies and he is inspired by Chinese kung fu, which he teaches the children and actors in the movies he produces. One of Wakaliwood’s films, Bruce U, attracted some outside help. Chinese donors heard how Bruce U was based on Bruce Lee’s movies and how Geoffrey grew up unable to personally watch kung fu movies in the cinema, but heard them narrated from his brothers who had seen them.

This moved the donors to come to Wakaliga and pay for Geoffrey to have satellite television installed so he could access kung fu channels for more inspiration. They also purchased satellite TV for almost all the homes in Wakaliga.

Geoffrey believes Bruce U is going to become a bridge between the Ugandan and Chinese film industries.

The Wakaliwood team is now dedicated to finishing their upcoming horror comedy, Eaten Alive in Uganda, and their children’s kung fu film, Crazy World, ready for release in the West.

Eaten Alive in Uganda is about a white tourist who visits Uganda but gets eaten by cannibals who think he is Chuck Norris and should be delicious. Hofmanis plays the role of the tourist in the movie.

Like Mira Nair, I too think it’s powerful to see your language and story being told in a movie. Uganda has a vibrant oral storytelling culture. But maybe Wakaliwood will one day become the subject of a movie itself.

Check out the trailer for Who Killed Captain Alex



Esther Muwombi

Esther Muwombi is a freelance writer, based in Kumpala, Uganda, and mother of two girls and one boy. She has been writing for the past 11 years and enjoys telling stories about her beloved Africa. When she's not writing, she loves to relax by the beach with her family.

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