If Alan Hofmanis looks a wee bit out of place at the 19th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, it’s not because his hair is a throwback to the ’70s classic rock style, or that he’s wearing a patchwork jacket with camouflaged sleeves. It’s because he’s carrying a giant gas mask that makes security personnel at the festival grimace. “It’s a prop. It’s for the Ebola Hunter,” he says, affably, smiling at them for that extra bit of reassurance. Nobody who hears that looks reassured. Hofmanis doesn’t mind the looks and the stares — this can partly be attributed to the fact that he has that easy American confidence, but mainly because it was his destiny to become a walking-talking advertisement for Uganda’s “Wakaliwood”, an entirely independent film industry that specialises in creating the best kind of kills and thrills.
Six years ago, Hofmanis was weeks away from walking down the aisle with his girlfriend in New York City, when two things happened — first, he got dumped, and then, he watched the trailer of a low-budget Ugandan action film called Who Killed Captain Alex? “I worked at film festivals and in film production and I’d never seen anything like it. I had to find the whole film. I had money saved for the wedding, and so I bought a plane ticket to Kampala to meet the makers of this film, Ramon Film Productions (RFP),” says Hofmanis, now in his late 40s. Once he landed, he saw that the road to Wakaliwood was not lined by trees, and there was no giant sign that signalled its location either. Located on the periphery of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, Wakaliga might appear to be a slum to most Westerners, but it is, as RFP’s slogan goes, the home of “the best of the best movies”. And Wakaliwood was no more than the little patch of land and a trench filled with sludge and sewage outside the brick house of its creator, Nabwana Isaac GG.
The two men talked about films for six hours, and Hofmanis discovered that in the past decade or so, Isaac had taught himself to make action films from scratch, and he was churning them out faster than anybody in the world. “He learned how to assemble a computer, he taught himself VFX. From 2005 onwards, he’d written, directed and shot over 25 films before I’d even heard about Who Killed Captain Alex?,” says Hofmanis, who quickly decided to quit life in the Big Apple and join Isaac and Wakaliwood. “We have two computers, an intermittent supply of electricity, a green screen outside for action sequences, and a host of actors who live with Isaac and his family. They don’t get paid because all the money goes in making the film, but anybody who works in the movie gets to sell the VCD/DVD and pocket half the price,” says Hofmanis, who is also the first mzungu or white person, to act in Wakaliwood. RFP’s productions are not much longer than an hour, and feature fight sequences that are as humorous as they are bloody, with dramatic subplots that appear out of nowhere, and what they lack in technical finesse, they make up in sheer ingenuity.
At MAMI, Hofmanis has been invited to showcase Bad Black, Isaac’s “34th or 35th film”, and his first as associate producer, about a woman hell-bent on seeking revenge against those who wronged her and her family. That would be the simplest explanation, but Isaac’s movies are much more than a crude pastiche of Hollywood action movies of the ’80s and ’90s. “He’s a very intelligent man and he’s aware that when the world thinks of Uganda, or even just Africa, they’re thinking of civil war, child soldiers, poverty, corruption and violence. Through his movies, Isaac is simply owning that narrative. For years, he’s fought the West’s perception that his films glorify violence. He makes action-comedies — if there’s a whole lot of killing, there’s a whole lot of laughing too,” says Hofmanis. And if there’s a nod to the civil war and genocide that tore Uganda apart not so long ago, it is in the name of his production company. “Ramon is the portmanteau of Rachel and Monica, Isaac’s two aunts who saved him and brought him up during the war,” says Hofmanis.
Bad Black has already made its way to 10 film festivals so far, but Isaac is unable to travel beyond Kampala. “He has a passport but no country is willing to give him a visa because he’s not got that kind of money to show, and we’ve not got that kind of money to bribe anybody,” says Hofmanis, who adds that Isaac isn’t too bothered by it. “He’s working on nearly five films as we speak, including one about the Ebola Hunter, and when they’re ready, they’re going to be uploaded on YouTube for everybody to watch. Isaac initially thought that only Wakaliga would be watching his films, but now the world’s calling.”