The Movie Waffler Hooray for Wakaliwood! | The Movie Waffler

Hooray for Wakaliwood!

Isaac Nabwana is a true maverick, producing, directing and editing action movies from his home in the slums of Wakaliga, Uganda. American film-maker Alan Ssali Hofmanis was inspired to make him the subject of his new documentary "Wakaliwood". The Movie Waffler caught up with Hofmanis to hear his fantastic story.

The Movie Waffler: Let's begin with how you discovered Isaac.

Alan Ssali Hofmanis: It's really really simple, but kinda crazy I guess. My background is in film production - cinematography, editing, sound, even art direction. It was always film for me and I got really into programming for film festivals and art house theaters. Then my girl dumped me the day I got the ring, (yup), and my friend pulled me aside in a bar and showed me the trailer for "Who Killed Captain Alex". Two weeks later I'm an action movie star in Uganda running around with a machine gun made from welded car parts. 

TMW: So you literally decided there and then you were going to Uganda?

ASH: I didnt even contact Isaac first, I just showed up. But it was more like I HAD to go. I was actually trying to get friends to convince me not to. I didn't know anything about Uganda but the trailer posed so many questions for me, because of my background in film. It was clear they had no money but here was a cast of 100. In the West, if you have no money, you shoot two people talking across a table. "Captain Alex" had helicopters, explosions, etc and it was clear he was really really serious. It was funny, but not ironic, there was no winking at the audience, you know? Plus this had to be put together by someone, it's such a huge production, and everyone is acting on eleven, you know? Which means it was directed. I couldn't get it out of my head, this was my background in production and curating talking. So I just showed up in his slum, which was an adventure in itself, it's not like they have street names and addresses.
When I met him I said, "Hello I am Alan, I came here from NYC. I was hoping I could talk with you for a moment." He didn't blink. "Sure." We sat for five hours, while his wife made tea and his kids played at our feet. That's when I realized he was the Real Deal.
It may sound crazy, but he is the Lucas, or Spielberg, of Uganda (he has never heard of either). Teams of Kung Fu artists, stunt people, actors, prop masters, assistants etc, all working in a slum, making films for the slum, the only place they are welcome. I went there wanting to work WITH him. That night I decided I would work FOR him.

TMW: Is he well known across Uganda or just in his area?

ASH: It's interesting, his films are made for, and by, the slums. He is completely self-taught (there are no real films schools to speak of). There are other filmmakers in Uganda, maybe twenty at this point. The "industry" itself started in about 2005, that's how young it is. The other film-makers belong to the upper and middle classes. They all know Isaac and respect what he is able to accomplish but they think he is damaging Uganda's reputation because his films aren't "serious", which is complete BS. Also, he shoots his films in Luganda, a local dialect, and any "proper" film-maker would use English or Swahili, but his audience is the slum, that's what they speak.

TMW: It sounds like here in Ireland where there's a real snobbery towards certain genres.

ASH: Yeah, it's fucked up, and so freakin' stupid. He's a filmmaker like any other, so he's struggling for the same basic things; distribution, money, etc but also because of where he is, he struggles with shit like Electricity and Malaria.
He sold 6000 copies of his last movie, "Rescue Team", (much more by now probably - that number was in February),  but he sold those not in Kampala (the capital) but ONLY in the slums surrounding the city, to people who don't even have electricity. They buy the discs because someone they know may have power, but they have to get together in a group to watch it because someone may have electricity, another a TV, and another a DVD player. They love what Isaac is doing so much they support him while in the capital, where people have money, fifteen minutes away, the upper classes wont buy the films, though now that's starting to change.

TMW: It's great that he has an audience willing to accept him. In the west people are so cynical when it comes to movie watching, they won't watch a film if it doesn't have a star name.

ASH: I'm getting that now with the doc. Many people are asking if he plans to make real films? I'm like, whaaaaaa?  They're referring to the fact that he makes action films, if he made films about starving people in the slum, then they woud watch it.

TMW: I think there's a certain patronizing attitude towards Africa, it makes us in the West feel better about ourselves if all we see is hardship.

ASH: Yup, many people aren't ready to see Isaac and his crew laughing all day while making action movies.

TMW: It's not so easy to sell the idea that people in the developing world enjoy the same stuff we do.

ASH: Exactly.

TMW: Have you seen the movie "Sullivans Travels"?

ASH: Oh man, years ago, Holy Cow though!

TMW: It's that basic idea that people would rather be entertained than patronized. In Ireland, middle class film-makers try to make films about the working class and they come across as ridiculously false and insulting.

ASH: What I'm getting from people is that Isaac should make movies about the slum, and I'm telling them "THIS IS A FUCKING MOVIE ABOUT THE SLUM", it's just not the version you want to see, or are expecting to see.

TMW: People who actually live in hardship don't want to see more hardship when they sit down for a movie.

ASH: Yeah, that's true, and Isaac's films are extremely entertaining for those living there especially.

TMW: When you arrived first, how much of a culture shock was it?

ASH: There's a saying, and I believe it, "Uganda takes more than she gives". It's manic, and some parts are 24 hours a day. I think people sleep in shifts of four hours instead of overnight. There's dust and motorcycles and people everywhere, completely disorientating. Where Isaac lives is incredibly peaceful and quiet though but Kampala is manic.

TMW: You were given the name "Ssali"...

ASH: We were near the end of shooting, and I said that my real surname, Hofmanis, isn't going to work. So they all got together, got very serious, and decided to adopt me. The way it works is there are tribes and clans. I was adopted by the Buganda tribe, which is Isaac's, but there are many different clans within Buganda; ox, crane, cow, elephant etc. They all have different attributes, cow is the provider for instance. They decided on Nkima, which is the fighter, and Ssali is a specific name for that clan. They were all very excited about it. I thought this was great, we're all the same family. The truth is, one of the girls pulled me aside afterwards and explained that it was a good idea to have my name changed because my real name sounds like "female parts" in their language and wouldn't look right on the screen. Can't make this up, seems they were wanting to change my name from the beginning.

TMW: You began acting for Isaac straight away?

ASH: I'm not an actor, by any means, never taken a class. I've been in a couple of films, but that's only because I work in film and have many friends who would need someone at the last minute to speak two lines. That first night, after meeting Isaac, I came back to my hotel room, it was like 1 am, and I gave Isaac a call (he's always up), and I told him I wanted to act for him. I just wanted to do it. On one level I knew it would help him to have an American in a movie, on another level I thought it would just be pretty damn cool. The reality was that I really really wanted to. He makes you feel like you are ten years old and having fun playing "Star Wars", it's just fun, not serious like America.

TMW: I got that feeling just from his trailers, it reminded me of when I was a teenager, my friends and I would shoot these crazy films.

ASH: That's EXACTLY how it is but with a hundred man crew.
Isaac and I both get it, meaning we've seen the same films, make the same jokes. I know what he's going for. When I cut my hand open on the welded gun they wanted to stop shooting. I said "No. I ain't got time to bleed", ala "Predator". They all cracked up.

TMW: What type of equipment does Isaac have at his disposal?

ASH: I went there thinking it would be real guns, because I'm ignorant, and it's Africa so they have to be real, but also because I thought it would be cheaper to use real ones, like Robert Rodriquez did for "El Mariachi". Everything is constructed by hand, the guns are all made from scrap metal and used car parts and the tripod is a modified car jack. They built a frickin' twelve foot jib when I was last there, and it works! All costumes are recycled twelve times easy.
When I was first there I was also kind of testing them, meaning I would ask what they needed. No one ever asked for money, all they would ask for is training (like for stunts) or props. A big one was mustaches, the women couldn't understand how in the movies you can have a mustache then take it off. What's funny is that they thought everything in Hollywood movies was real. They kept asking about the guns, are they real? I said no, are yours? They loved that one.

TMW: And the camera itself?

ASH: A Panasonc PD 170, Mini DV. He saved for years paying for it.

TMW: Tape?

ASH: Yeah, which is good in that there's a hard copy. He now has a Solid State camera, but at the time he was laughing, "I hear about this HD but I have no idea what it is. But I will learn!" 

TMW: When you were shooting the doc, presumably your equipment was far superior. Was Isaac ever tempted to borrow it?

ASH: No, he was so focused on his own work. He was shooting, you know? But also he is patient. We've hooked him up since then, so now he has probably the best camera in Uganda! 

TMW: There seemed to be an increase in the quality of his trailers.

ASH: That's all him, he hasn't shot anything yet with the new stuff. He's getting better. 

TMW: His latest film "Black" has effects which are crude by Hollywood standards but very impressive for his situation. It also seems much more technically adept than his earlier work.

ASH: Yeah, and you see how the camera is on the move now? "Captain Alex" was just a year and a half ago and looks "stagey" in comparison. 

TMW: He built his editing computers himself?

ASH: Oh yeah. That was the first thing he had to teach himself when he decided to dedicate himself to film-making. 

TMW: At what point did you decide to make a documentary on Isaac?

ASH: That first night I met him, but it wasn't until the next day that I realized just how big this was, when I saw how many were involved. That's when I decided I needed backup and went to Ben Barenholtz, the guy who discovered David Lynch and produced "Raising Arizona", "Barton Fink" etc.

TMW: Did he take much convincing?

ASH: He needed zero convincing. I showed him some video of Isaac and that was it. My enthusiasm sure didn't hurt either. Six weeks later I went back to Uganda, this time with Ben and a cinematographer.

TMW: The doc is complete now?

ASH: The world premiere is next week (The Hamptons Film Festival, New York). There are no plans to shoot further, but there's so much more that could be filmed. 

TMW: The Kickstarter campaign is to raise distribution money?

ASH: Well, and to finish post. The cut is done, but what is screening at the festival still needs sound mixing, color correction ($8000 alone), music, proper titling, proper subtitles, etc. Plus marketing and getting a sales agent. That's to get it to audiences. Finishing the doc is damn important because its the gateway drug to Isaac's work. 

TMW: Has Isaac seen it?

ASH: Yeah, he's seen it, he just keeps saying "Thank You".

TMW: Is he attending the premiere?

ASH: No, not possible this time. It's hard for lower class Ugandans, it's the Visa that's the problem. Europe would be easier.

TMW: Any plans to screen it in Europe?

ASH: Berlin looks like a very strong possibility, it would be great there, also that's where we'd get distribution, but the film has to be finished by then (March). After that anywhere and everywhere.

TMW: We have a documentary festival in Dublin.

ASH: Yeah, Ben wanted to bring it to Ireland this year, he loves the festivals there but the film wasn't ready.

TMW: What's Isaac working on now? 

ASH: Finishing "Black", then we're gonna have a long talk. We have definite ideas, one of which is a Ugandan version of "Bloodsport". 

TMW: So you plan to keep working with him?

ASH: Oh hell yes! What I want to do is map out two, or even three, films over the next few years. 

TMW: If audiences outside Uganda want to see his films what should they do?

ASH: Contact us, actually the best thing would be to say they want to see the doc. If there is strong interest in Isaac and the doc, we can release his films. They need a lot of work; sounds, subtitles, etc but they're cool as heck. The plan is to release them if the doc does well enough. Or they can go to Uganda to buy the DVDs!

TMW: He sells them in local markets?

ASH: If it is in a kiosk, it's pirated. It's only the real deal if an actor is selling the discs personally, at a street corner or market.

TMW: So it's a real case of a film-maker being directly affected by piracy?

ASH: He tells me he has six days to make money on his films, after that the sales drop because of pirating. That's also why he has to keep making movies. 

TMW: The profits are divided up between cast and crew?

ASH: Isaac makes less than the actors on each disc, actually. They sell for 3000 schillings ($1.20 US, maybe 1 euro?), 500 goes to the actor who sells, 600 is for the blank DVD, 400 is for the color label etc. 

TMW: Does Isaac have another job or is this his sole income?

ASH: Everyone has a few jobs, he was a French teacher, if you can believe it. Now he has a printing business with his brother and collects some rent in the village, but he never asks for it because no one has money, but they do pay once in awhile. 

TMW: When you were acting, did you speak in English or Luganda?

ASH: Both, but man, Luganda is tricky. Next time it will be full Luganda, they freakin' love seeing it.

TMW: Tell us about the character you play...

ASH: Oh man, okay. The film is loosely based on a real person. Her name is Bad Black, and she's like the Courtney Love of Uganda, the bad girl. In real life, she seduced an executive from England and took him for all he's worth, and when he went home to his wife and kids and complained, she became a rock star, started dating all the musicians etc. 
Now, check out how Isaac's brain works. Instead of an oil executive, he makes me a US Commando and instead of stealing money she takes my dog tags. So instead of whining and going home, I go on a killing spree, tearing up the slums with machine guns till I get back what is mine. 

TMW: One final question. With hindsight, are you glad you got dumped?

ASH: That's pretty funny. Well, I made a decision at that time, when I saw "Captain Alex". I could either hunker down, get a better job, a nicer place, and work hard to get her back or I could follow my heart and go to Uganda. I thought that the only real answer would be to follow my heart and let the chips fall where they may. Otherwise I would have always been wondering about Isaac. I did the right thing, I believe, but I'm not over her and think about her every day, and I think that once this chapter closes, with the doc, I'll give her a call and we'll see...

For more info on Wakaliwood check out these links

Enjoy some of Isaac's trailers