Deep in a Ugandan slum, gory low-budget movies are being directed by the country’s own Quentin Tarantino. Machines guns made from scrap metal, computer-generated helicopters and toy trucks all make for a stroke of DIY genius rarely seen in Hollywood.
Ramon Film Productions, owned by Isaac Nabwana, is a film studio that operates out of Wakaliga, a slum on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital of Kampala. For the past decade, an estimated 40 films have been released (Nabwana doesn’t have the technology to archive his films), with an average budget of $200.
Nabwana says, “It is passion that really makes a movie here.” He’s not wrong. All films are crewed by volunteers, who are paid half the profits from any DVDs they sell – which usually go at around 3,000 shillings, or $1. Dressed up in full costume, they use the one-week window before the movie is pirated to make door-to-door sales.
Whilst Wakaliwood’s story is eccentric, perhaps the most unexpected facet of this story is the involvement of Alan Hofmanis, a 41-year-old American originally from New York who now lives in the slum.
Hofmanis found himself at a loose end in December of 2011, where his girlfriend had dumped him after he proposed to her. He’d been dedicated to film his whole life, but still had no direction with his career.
One night, he was with his friend – an NGO worker who had been to Uganda – who showed him the trailer for a Wakaliwood film “Who Killed Captain Alex.” After 50 seconds, Hofmanis had decided he was going to Uganda, using the now redundant $16,000 he had saved for the wedding and honeymoon.
On his first day in Kampala, Hofmanis happened upon what he had come for by chance. Wandering the busy Owino Market, he spotted someone selling DVDs in a Ramon Production t-shirt. He took off after him.
The local term for a white Westerner is mzungu, so naturally the stranger saw trouble when one was running towards him and sprinted in the opposite direction.
After a short chase, Hofmanis caught up with him and explained his motivations, asking if he could be taken to the Ramon Film Productions studio. The pair set off on a boda-boda, a motorcycle taxi, a journey during which Hofmanis nervously practiced what he would say to Isaac Nabwana when he arrived.
The slum was a shock to Hofmanis’ senses. Raw sewage spilled in front of Nabwana’s house, goats and chickens ran wild. Hofmanis was used to spotting talent after previous jobs – and to see what was being done here excited him.
Inside Nabwana’s house, he was welcomed by the calm 38-year-old, who didn’t seem shocked by his arrival. After some awkward small talk, they entered a five-hour discussion about his filmography, the technology he used and how Hofmanis could get involved.
The rest was history. Nabwana agreed to cast Hofmanis in his next movie, much to his excitement. He said “When I was a child, I would go through my father’s closet, find two belts of his, tie them together, and now I’m Indiana Jones. And the trees are Nazis. That’s what this is.”
His first fight scene didn’t go so well after the brawl took an accidental tumble into raw sewage – but this ended up being his baptism, his initiation into slum-life where most wouldn’t expect that kind of behaviour from a Westerner. He was now at home.
After 6 more visits to Uganda following this one, in March 2014, Hofmanis sold his possessions and moved permanently to Wakaliga. Hofmanis is now part of the family, living next door to Nabwana.
It turns out Hofmanis’ Western expertise is proving to be of great benefit to Wakaliwood. A Kickstarter campaign started to raise $160 for a movie ended with them raising $13,000. Support has come from all corners of the world, with a cult following being generated all round the world.
They immediately went on a shopping spree to buy toy cars and trucks for Dauda Bissaso, an actor and mechanic who makes many of the movies’ props out of scrap metal. The toys will help him build their functioning counterparts. Nabwana even has plans to build a helicopter out of scrap metal.
Being one of the only white men around, Hofmanis is now something of a celebrity in Wakaliwood. He even recently played Jesus in a chart-topping music video.
There is however a darker side to living in the slum, that he explains on his personal blog Mud, Blood & Wooden Guns. He has lost 55lbs (25kg) since he moved there and didn’t even have enough money to put his possessions in storage in NYC, never mind get a flight home.
But that’s what makes this a unique story – a film industry emerging in a place where some of the most fundamental necessities are lacking. Something being made from nothing – a challenge to the Western notion that only impressive CGI and elaborate plots make for good cinema.
Hofmanis reminds us, “The story is still being written. This is just the beginning, or the beginning of the beginning, as Isaac says.”
We can only watch and wait with anticipation as Wakaliwood comes into its own, while hoping flourishing popularity doesn’t tarnish its bare-bones charm.