Ugawood is the next big thing happening in the film world, yet it probably won’t be coming soon to a theater near you in the near future, even if you live in Uganda. Ugawood is the nickname that Ugandan filmmakers have lovingly attached to their movement, hoping its work will soon find a place beside its Nollywood neighbors (Nigeria), Bollywood extravaganzas (India), and, of course, Hollywood blockbusters.
Unfortunately, the Ugandan film community has numerous challenges to overcome before it can hope to make its mark within the provinces of world cinema. For example, there is very little infrastructure to support a film industry in Uganda. First, one must consider the political history of Uganda and its ramifications. The Republic of Uganda was under British rule until it finally won its freedom in 1962. Naturally, freedom for colonial dominance brought its own turmoil and instability.
In 1971, Dictator Idi Amin staged a military coup against Uganda’s first freely elected government, inaugurating a new reign of terror against his country’s people. Subsequently, the new government withdrew all support for the arts, as the overall national economy suffered in accordance with rule by a military dictatorship.
Under Amin, cinemas throughout Uganda were closed and converted into live theaters where various forms of drama were performed. Under these conditions, there wasn’t any culture that gave rise to even the vague notion of creating a film. There was no opportunity for people to learn the rudiments of filmmaking, such as scriptwriting, directing, or editing. There are still very few educational programs available for students of film to study the trade.
However, in 1991 while director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding) was in Uganda filming Mississippi Masala, she became enchanted with the country and, in 2004, established the Maisha Film Lab in Kampala, the country’s capital. Essentially, Maisha is a film school for East African filmmakers with seminars in all of the necessary components for putting together a film.
The majority of Ugandan films, though, resemble guerilla affairs, as most of the filmmakers are not officially trained, many of the films are improvised on the spot, and equipment can be as rudimentary as VHS camcorders and torch lighting. In a sense, much of the Uganda film industry is very punk rock.
Strides are being made to standardize aspects of the burgeoning film movement, but since there has never really been an industry structure in place, or any governmental recognition of a film industry at all, Ugawood is literally starting from zero. Essentially, there is nowhere to go from here but up. Since there have been no regulatory standards to follow, the industry is broken into many factions, sort of like a divide between mainstream filmmakers and independent filmmakers.
The mainstream Ugawood proponents aim to produce family dramas, telenovelas (they actually do a huge business in Uganda), and, generally, safe and inoffensive Hollywood-style fare that will not cast a bad light on their people or their culture. They hold film festivals and have red carpet ceremonies and judge entries that are submitted for committee approval and award prizes. In this way, Ugandan film is looking to legitimate itself in the realm of world cinema, and who can argue with that?
Then, there are filmmakers like the legendary Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana, aka Nabwana IGG, the owner and operator of Ramon Film Productions, and the creator of low budget instant classics like Who Killed Captain Alex, Rescue Team, and Return of Uncle Benon. Nabwana is credited with producing Africa’s first action film (Who Killed Captain Alex), and is the perfect example of Ugawood’s indomitable independent spirit.
Nabwana’s films touch on aspects of Ugandan culture that, perhaps, the more commercially minded film community benefactors in Uganda don’t appreciate. For example, his films are full of witchcraft, exploding heads, demon possession, green screen helicopter attacks, and Fu.
Kung Fu like we haven’t seen since 1972. This shit is wack.
Nabwana, with his Ramon Film Production, is a true trailblazer and pioneer in Ugandan cinema, whether he gets the credit in his homeland or not. He told his local human rights publication Campus Journal in 2012 that he didn’t even own a camera when he made his first film (he borrowed one from a friend, who borrowed it from his father, even though his father didn’t know), and he recruited his actors from a friend who taught Kung Fu at a local school.
Nabwana’s were true independent productions in every sense of the word. The “actors” paid for their own transportation to the filming locations, and if they ended up getting hurt, well, they paid for that too, even though they were not getting paid for the film. But, the point is, Nabwana IGG got in there and he did it. He completely conceived and executed his films in a culture that not only said it couldn’t be done, but hadn’t even imagined independent, local filmmaking as a tangible possibility.
Unfortunately, since there is no standardized film distribution network or strict enforcement of copyright protection in Uganda, most films produced there are pirated and sold illegally, meaning that independent filmmakers like Nabwana never see any profits, or any money at all, for their efforts. In addition, most Ugandan theaters don’t show local films, preferring, instead, to stick with safe moneymakers from Hollywood, or, to a lesser extent, from Nigeria.
Ugawood filmmakers also call for Ugandan journalists to give them some attention and spread the word through the media that these local films are being made. They have come this far without any encouragement from the establishment, but every now and then a kind word could really help.
The IMDb notes that Nabwana IGG is currently working on a film called “ Plan 9 From Uganda.” Should be another masterpiece!
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.