Review by Sean Boelman
Taking a look at one of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers working today, Cathryne Czubek and Hugo Perez’s documentary Once Upon a Time in Uganda will be an entertaining watch for anyone who admires the craft of filmmaking. Some unusual directorial choices aside, this is an inspiring and funny real-life buddy movie.
The film tells the story of Wakaliwood, a movement led by Ugandan filmmaker Isaac Nabwana that makes low-fi action movies with budgets of a couple hundred dollars, and film programmer Alan Hofmanis, who helps to bring his wacky films to the world. Since Wakaliwood movies have gained a bit of a cult following after playing as midnight movies on the festival circuit, this documentary will be of interest to anyone who has seen these unbelievable films.
Czubek and Perez approach this documentary in an extremely narrative way, detailing the friendship and working relationship between the Ugandan director and his American ally in a very interesting way. Although the movie does lose track of its strengths heading into the third act, it is able to recover with a satisfying ending.
Of course, viewers will be immediately endeared to the film if they are a fan of its subject, but Czubek and Perez do an excellent job of making the viewer admire the sheer force of creativity that Nabwana exhibits. No viewer will walk away from this movie unimpressed with what Nabwana has been able to do despite his obstacles.
In addition to the film’s inspiring message about creativity, Nabwana’s contributions to his community are emphasized. Nabwana does some really interesting things to inspire the children of his community to be creative, and in the documentary, he treats these things as something that should just come naturally. People can learn from his generosity and benevolence.
A majority of the story is told through fly-on-the-wall footage that accompanies Nabwana and Hofmanis as they make films and promote them, respectively. There’s obviously a substantial sense of humor to the documentary because Wakaliwood movies aren’t meant to be taken seriously, so audiences will almost certainly have fun watching this.
That said, it does take the film a bit of time to get moving. The first few minutes of the movie, before Nabwana and Hofmanis cross paths, are told via re-enactments. Although it is understandable why Czubek and Perez chose to use this method for this part of the story, this wasn’t the most integral part of the narrative and could have simply been cut.
Once Upon a Time in Uganda is a very entertaining documentary, and while there are uneven portions, it’s a solid crowd-pleaser. It isn’t groundbreaking, but as an exploration of an unorthodox creative process, this is a success.
Once Upon a Time in Uganda was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.