The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a Ugandan director is making great action movies on $200 budgets

In the Kampala slum of Wakaliga, Isaac Nabwana’s films turn his neighbors into action stars. (Courtesy of Ramon Film Productions)
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It starts out like any other training montage. Alan is a white doctor in Uganda, and the children of the slum resolve to teach him the ways of the commando. A child soldier, armed with a makeshift assault rifle strung together by yam sticks and slung over his shoulder, chases the hapless doctor into a small stream. Alan falls face first.

“That, my friend, was poo poo, for real,” the film’s omniscient narrator exclaims through giggles. “This is Uganda. Poo poo everywhere.”

Madcap moments like this are emblematic of Wakaliwood-style films. And Wakaliwood is one Ugandan man in a slum.

Isaac Nabwana, 44, is the architect of an entire film industry in Wakaliga, the Kampala slum where he and his family live and work. It’s the setting of more than 30 ultra-violent, DIY action films that Nabwana has completed or has underway. It’s also an impoverished town with unreliable electricity and water that also happens to house a school of martial artists, self-taught through magazines and Bruce Lee films.

Nabwana’s profile grew in 2010 with a trailer for “Who Killed Captain Alex?”, a war epic shot with a budget of less than $200 and watched by millions on the Internet. This past weekend, Nabwana held his first American premiere, in Austin, showing his latest project, “Bad Black” — with the sewage-drenched training montage — to attendees of Fantastic Fest, a genre-focused film festival. Most of his distribution has been through his YouTube channel. His budget still doesn’t go beyond $200, and his films are often made for about $60. He dresses up his own home to look like different buildings, and his props shack is made up of household items chiseled to look like bombs and guns.

“Everything is difficult, here and elsewhere,” Nabwana told The Post. “But you need determination and work. It takes action to make action.”

Nabwana’s films are a triumph of imagination over resources. Sure, the blood is food coloring, and the green-screen effects used to portray large-scale action sequences and vehicle crashes are cheap and transparent.

But the films refuse to be defined by low-resolution footage. Instead, the action pops. The kung fu fights? The gun battles? They’re all choreographed with an expert eye for clear action and storytelling. The shaky-cam action sequences made standard by the “Bourne” movies work just as well here as they do with Matt Damon. The inspirations are obvious: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lundgren action flicks, John Woo’s Hong Kong gun fight choreography a la “Hard Boiled” and old Shaolin kung fu movies from the Shaw Brothers.

Here’s a short trailer for “Operation Kakongoliro! The Ugandan Expendables” to get a taste of Nabwana’s signature style, including the “Video Joker” narration that adds some comedic context to the narrative. (Warning: There is violence, but it’s transparently fake.)

Like an early hip-hop pioneer from the 1970s, Nabwana could see and hear the sounds and experiences he needed to make. But with no resources and unreliable Internet, he had no access to a sound library of explosions. The solution? Watch “Commando” and sample it.

“Action films are an incredibly expensive genre, in staging it and finding the talent,” said Alan Hofmanis, a former New York film festival director who discovered the “Alex” trailer early and ditched his life in the United States to work with Nabwana full time, promoting the other man’s movies. He also plays Alan in “Bad Black.”

It’s been a long road to seeking acknowledgment from within the film industry and to move beyond viral success, Hofmanis said.

“It’s the violence,” said Hofmanis, describing how they had to pitch the movies to film festivals and distributors. “They tell us, ‘If Isaac is serious about movies he shouldn’t be making action movies, he should be making movies about poverty.’ But there are so many films about poverty. How many are from it?”

Nabwana is working through memories of growing up around violence. As a child he would hide under his bed away from stray bullets.

“In his movies, the good guys can die at any time,” Hofmanis said. “He wants to show that you’re not invincible just because you have a machine gun.”

Nabwana is also driven by an innate need to entertain. He regularly holds screenings for schoolchildren in the area. And people get a thrill from seeing themselves on screen.

“We made them to make [the villagers] happy and so they can hear their own language and locations they recognize,” Nabwana said. “Even their friends could be in the movies.”

In the end, it’s less about fame and recognition, and more about planting the seeds for other would-be filmmakers to become do-it-yourself dream factories.

“Hollywood is a tool,” Nabwana said. “The end goal is for everyone in the world to know that they can do something with very little. That they can create something that is good and enjoyed all over the world. Hollywood can help with sending that message.”

That’s as much a plea as a statement of fact. Despite the audiences he’s been able to reach, Nabwana has one major milestone to reach as a movie lover and director. Over the weekend, he was able to Skype in to chat with Austin film festival attendees. But this self-made auteur has still never set foot inside a movie theater.