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#HotDocs22 Review: Once Upon a Time in Uganda

April 30, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 28th to May 8th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Director Cathryne Czubek’s documentary Once Upon a Time in Uganda takes us behind the scenes of Wakaliwood, the low-budget, high-spirited action movie studio run by Isaac Nabwana out of his home in the Kampala slum of Wakaliga. Inspired by American action stars like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone, Nabwana’s films are known for their exploding heads and creative special effects done on a shoestring budget of a couple hundred bucks. They make their own props and equipment, with the whole village getting involved in the productions as actors and film crew.

Czubek’s film mainly focuses on the friendship that forms between Isaac and Alan Hofmanis, a former film festival programmer from New York. Hofmanis stumbled across the viral trailer for Nabwana’s 2010 production Who Killed Captain Alex? on YouTube, and impulsively flew to Uganda in the wake of a bad breakup to track down the filmmaker behind it. Despite being a “muzungu” (Swahili for “white man”), Hofmanis is embraced by the village and taken on as a new victim in their films, much to the delight of local audiences who like seeing the “muzungu” get beat up.

First and foremost, Once Upon a Time in Uganda is a lot of fun, capturing the spirit of the low-budget filmmaking process. But the film also goes deeper into the friendship between Isaac and Alan, and the tensions that arise between them. While Alan is largely focused on getting the Wakaliwood films in front of Western audiences, convinced of their crossover appeal and worried that a financial incentive will take away from the purity of the work, Isaac is more focused on making a name for himself in Uganda and seeking funding within the country.

Toronto audiences will surely remember that the Wakaliwood film Crazy World actually played as part of Midnight Madness at TIFF in 2019, and Czubek’s film features some great footage of the sold out crowd at the Ryerson Theatre reacting to the screening, which also happened to be Nabwana’s first time in a movie theatre. It’s just one of the elements that makes Once Upon a Time in Uganda such a blast to watch, offering a super enjoyable tribute to Wakaliwood and the pure joy of making movies.

Screenings:

Thursday, April 28th – 9:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Monday, May 2nd – 2:00 PM at Varsity 7

The film is also available to stream across Canada for five days starting on April 29th at 9:00 AM.

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