We caught up with 'Uganda's Tarantino,' I.G.G Nabwana to talk the making of his new kung-fu kids flick
"The best kidz movie eva!" As the opening credits roll, the voice of V.J. Emmie, the Video Joker, cuts in with flawless comedic timing. "He's the best director in the world...and father."
It's fast, it's funny, and the action scenes are choreographed with a sense of style and panache, all while clearly shot on a shoestring budget. V.J. Emmie's voice delivers a running commentary that translates, explains, and comments on the action of the film with the timing of a stand-up comic. Uganda's Wakaliwood productions, the brainchild of IGG Nabwana, is ready to take on the world after a well received set of screenings in the Toronto International Film Festival's (TIFF) Midnight Madness series. Crazy World was TIFF's closing movie.
"I need children!"
The story begins as the Tiger Mafia, a frequent antagonist from other Wakaliwood films, is in search of children to kidnap. The gang begins their usual reign of terror in the neighborhood, snatching kids from the streets. But, they've made a crucial error in kidnapping the Waka Stars, pint-sized kung fu experts who, with their parents, will fight back.
When writing his films, and despite the smoothly choreographed action scenes that audiences see, Nabwana says he works with actors collaboratively, with much of the blocking worked out as they shoot. "I don't write action," he tells OkayAfrica. "I just write the word, 'action'."
With dialog in Luganda and English, V.J. Emmie's voiceover is tailored to the audience. At the TIFF Press & Industry screening, he uses local references and even names. The Midnight Madness audiences got another version with Toronto-centric lines, with Emmie providing a live commentary in one section.
Nabwana's first trip to North America for his first screening in a movie theater almost didn't happen, with paperwork issues, and then a misdirection of his passport to another country to hold up his arrival until the day of the first public screening.
Crazy World is Wakaliwood's third feature to be translated into English and given an international release, after Who Killed Captain Alex? and Bad Black. The latter won the Audience Award at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas in 2016, and word began to spread of the Ugandan director and his hilarious action flicks.
According to the Wakaliwood legend, American Alan Ssali Hofmanis saw one of the earlier films, and decided pretty much on the spot to move to Uganda and make movies with Nabwana. Hofmanis co-starred in The Bad Black as the village doctor and resident Mzungu. He serves as co-producer and editor of Crazy World.
CRAZY WORLD Clip | TIFF 2019 www.youtube.com
Social media has spread the word about Wakaliwood and Ramon Film Productions, a fact that Hofmanis says is not fully appreciated back home where WiFi can be scarce. The Official Wakaliwood YouTube channel has over 105K subscribers, and Who Killed Captain Alex has amassed 4 million views. They've been profiled by VICE and other major outlets, adding to the momentum.
But, the online hype hasn't changed anything back in Uganda. "The budget is literally nothing," Alan says.
Crazy World got its official World Premiere at TIFF, but the movie was actually shot in 2014. Shot against the actual streets on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, the cast is made up of kids from the area, often acting with their own parents.
"Now we give you a tour of a Ugandan village." Between V.J. Emmie's acerbic wit, and the flying fists and feet, audiences get a look at life in the slums of Kampala, and social commentary.
Dubbed a "gonzo action auteur" by the international press, Nabwana says he slid into film from visual art. "I would say that, as a child, I grew up as an artist." He drew comics, and doodled in his school books. Eventually, pictures on a page weren't enough. "I wanted my pictures to move."
At the time, in Uganda, Nabwana says children were barred from attending movies, since the American and Chinese films screening were thought to be too full of violence and sex. However, his brother Robert was able to sneak into screenings, and told him about what he saw. It fueled a reverence for film, and a love of the classic action stars of the 1980s like Schwarzenegger and Wesley Snipes—the figures he still references in his movies. He remembers being influenced by Chinese kung fu movies, and the Hawaii Five-0 TV series, along with a German detective series. Sometimes, though, the reality didn't measure up to the hype. "When I watch the movies, the way Robert told me about it was more exciting," he laughs.
BAD BLACK [Official Theatrical Trailer - AGFA] www.youtube.com
Starting out in film from nothing is never easy, especially in an area where the equipment itself is scarce. "It was a tough time," he says, "but we had the passion." Nabwana and his brother learned kung fu from a magazine called China Sport. Robert excelled, and opened a dojo to teach others the martial art. By the mid-1980s Nabwana and his brother started to think about making action movies. "We thought we needed $1 million," he says. Naturally, that was an impossibility. "But, as art, I felt it could be done," he says. It created the resilient and resourceful brand of film making that he is now renowned for. "I wish I could have $1 million to spend, and see where it goes," he laughs.
After borrowing a camera, he began to shoot Robert and his kung fu students on their Sunday practices on the shores of Lake Victoria. But, he soon discovered that action itself wasn't enough—he needed a story. Nabwana soon found a playwright he could work with, and says he learned about script writing by filming his plays. A friend hooked him up with Adobe Premium, and he found a journalism teacher who allowed him to learn about film editing by watching his class. "I started shooting every night," Nabwana says.
He began to make money working with musicians and shooting music videos, but took on other work to finance his growing ambitions. "I was making bricks," he recalls. Brick making allowed him to buy his own camera, and also start a primary school in his neighborhood. "A lot of kids in that area were not going to school," he notes.
Scene from CrazyworldCourtesy of TIFF
Adding the Video Joker role was an inspired choice. "He puts in his spices," Nabwana says of V.J. Emmie's contributions.
"I'm a new generation," says V.J. Emmie. "It's what everybody calls VJ-ing. Back home in Uganda, they don't watch movies if they haven't been translated." He says he started started translating movies more than a decade ago. "He was the first person to give me the local movie to translate," he says of Nabwana. "At first it was hard." Making the transition to English brought its own set of challenges. "He's more spicy in our local language."
The role of storyteller, though, belongs to a very old Ugandan tradition. Wakaliwood movies are simply modernizing it for contemporary audiences. "I think we are bringing our culture to the West," Nabwana says.
Bad Black also told the story of a child who is kidnapped and fights her way out. The role of children in Uganda is something Nabwana is concerned about, and involving them in films is part of a plan. "I wanted to involve children in building the film industry," he says. It's about passing along the craft, and also building future audiences. "In Uganda, the market is still small."
Wakaliwood is making headway locally. He says that parents now bring their children to him to act. "I'm now going into schools, to teach cinema."
There is also a dearth of movie theaters in Uganda, another issue that Nabwana is hoping to fix. He says many of the old movie theaters have been converted to other uses. "If you don't do that, cinema is going to die."
His big dream is to build a large studio facility. "I want about 10 acres of land," he says. The studio would serve as a teaching as well as a shooting facility. "I believe in talent."