Who Killed Captain Alex” – Inside Wakaliwood – Ugandan’s First Film Studio
Isaac Nabwana’s RFP studio has made more than 20 films despite having very little money and inconsistent electricity. Can he make the world care about them?
The trailer for ‘Who Killed Captain Alex’
Last November, I visited Nabwana in Uganda. Wakaliga, the Kampala neighborhood where he lives and works, is bisected by Sir Albert Cook Road, a main artery clogged with minivans, trucks, and boda-bodas. The stench of diesel is overpowering. On the unnamed lane that leads to RFP, vehicle exhaust abruptly gives way to the smells of a slum: smoke, garbage, sewage. An open trench runs parallel to this road, snaking through the neighborhood until it splits into tributaries of liquid filth, some of which must be crossed on rickety planks.
His compound sits in one of the lowest and most flood-prone sections of Wakaliga. Nabwana built the main house himself, using bricks he baked by hand (he inherited the property from his grandfather). Just outside the back entrance is an open-hearth kitchen. Nabwana and his wife, Harriet, share the bedroom with their three young children, and in-laws and tenants dwell in the remaining rooms. All dozen people on the property share one outhouse. There is no running water.
Beyond the home a small parcel of land holds a rehearsal space, a recording studio, four back rooms for tenants, and a small shack that sells scrap metal. Across from this tract is the dump—a repository for dead animals, soiled diapers, and medical waste—where a patch of green cassava leaves offsets the slum’s dominant colors of red and brown. Past this, in the far distance, stands Mutundwe Hill, a wealthy neighborhood that is rumored to house a Ugandan prince. In a needlessly cinematic touch, this hill always has electricity, while Wakaliga suffers frequent power outages.
Nabwana greeted me at his house, a one-story brick cottage that is the same shade of russet as the surrounding dirt. His closely trimmed goatee hides a boyish face, and heavy-lidded eyes make him seem weary. After several minutes of hearing him talk, however, I understood that this is a man who has tapped into an unlimited reserve of confidence. Even his attire marks him as a tireless self-promoter. Every morning during my visit, Nabwana dressed in a fresh blue-and-white RFP polo shirt. The studio’s slogan—”The Best of the Best Movies!”—perfectly reflects his buoyant self-assurance.
We stepped through the door of his home to escape the fierce equatorial sun. Power had been out for days, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the shade. He seemed defiantly cheerful about the outage.
“There are other challenges,” he told me. “At least nowadays, power is stabilizing. You can have it for a week!”
An exclusive look inside the studio
Previously we used cow blood. We could go where they slaughtered cows and we collected that blood and then bring it. And you could you know, drink it and spit it out pretend to be shot. Something like that, but we had a problem with that. One of our actors got tetantus and he went to the hospital.
The clutter of his studio surprised me. Several dilapidated sofas faced desks overflowing with computer parts, books, hard drives, clothes, random pieces of broken equipment, and many unrelated objects destined to become props in his films. There seemed to be just enough room for his Acer computer. The windows of the house have bars inside the glass, and he always sleeps with his video camera and CPU under his bed.
On a stack of papers near the computer, I noticed a toy assault rifle still in a plastic wrapper reading rapid gun. It was a gift from a stranger; people often come by to donate toy guns that are then used in his films. The studio has a footlocker full of fake weapons, battered and cracked and slightly pathetic from years of action scenes.
“If we make them heavier, it’s very easy for the actors to show that it’s real,” Nabwana said of his preference for using metal guns as props. “But if you make it light, no. That’s why nowadays we don’t use the plastic ones. We buy them to get the models. Then we copy and modify them.” From molds based on cheap toys, the studio crafts its own metallic gun replicas. Nabwana mimicked the kick of a heavy fake weapon. Having actors pantomime this gesture with inferior ordnance is an unnecessary chore.
For Who Killed Captain Alex, actors supplied their own costumes, often buying them piecemeal in public markets. Nabwana drew on a spirit of constant improvisation, using house paint for alcoholic drinks and a modified car jack for his video camera’s tripod mount. If he didn’t have enough people for, say, an assault scene, he would place a mask on one of the actors and reuse the same person in a different shot. Filming with toy guns made passersby understandably nervous, and he learned to shoot quickly when on location. The entire film was shot and edited in January 2010.
Not that much of his local audience would catch any Obote-era allusions. The median age in Uganda is 15.5 years, and Nabwana specifically targets younger viewers. Most Ugandans (including every RFP actor except one) grew up long after the violence of Idi Amin and the civil war. Before Captain Alex, Ugandan action films had never been attempted because of cost—not because of any wish to avoid reliving old traumas.
Eventually the power came back on, though no one seemed to think it would last. I sat on the front porch and discussed distribution with Harriet, Nabwana’s wife. While her husband projects a weary resolve—an iron determination to persevere—Harriet seems nonplussed by the challenges of Wakaliga. Every time I saw her, she was elegantly dressed and quick to laugh at some perceived joke (or faux pas). Besides raising three children and taking on as much editing side work as she can get, Harriet handles all the bookkeeping duties.
As with nearly every other aspect of Nabwana’s filmmaking, RFP’s distribution is homegrown and entirely original. No theaters have shown their movies. Instead, the actors themselves provide distribution, hawking DVDs in the street and sharing profits with the studio. Each film sells for between 2,000 and 3,000 shillings (between 70 cents and a dollar), depending on where and to whom it is sold. The profit margin is around 15 cents a disc.
If a film sells 10,000 copies, as many do, then the studio clears a total profit of $1,500. Rescue Team, released in 2011, cleared 8,000 copies in its first month, and Who Killed Captain Alex has sold 10,000 discs so far (ten times as many with piracy). But this yield has to cover losses when more discs are made than sold, as well as all filmmaking costs. Nabwana has longed to buy portable DVD players for each seller to show potential customers what they would be buying. But the cash just isn’t there yet.
The studio also covers travel expenses for sellers going “upcountry,” meaning west or east, but not north (northern Ugandans speak Swahili, and Nabwana’s actors speak Luganda). Upcountry sellers usually travel for a week or so, offering their discs “man to man” (Nabwana’s term), and send back RFP’s cut using Mobile Money, a phone-based digital-wallet service. Harriet keeps track of their inventory and burns more discs when needed.
Nabwana IGG normally builds and repairs the computers himself with used and scrap parts. A computer will last two or three months at best, eventually falling victim to heat, dust, and power surges.
Isaac edits with a variety of software including Adobe Premiere and After Effects. His special effects have earned him the reputation in Uganda of being a powerful witch doctor – even by the local Police, who still do not understand how he can make a bullet come from a wooden gun.
There are no film distributors in Uganda. Wakaliwood must sell and market their films themselves, selling door-to-door in around the slums of Kampala, with the occasional road trip when money is available.
DVDs are burned, labeled, and packaged at home when electricity is available. Copies are sold for 2500 UGX (about 90 cents US). Half goes to the actors who do the selling, the other goes back to Wakaliwood.
A Video Joker is a live narrator that can best be described as a cross between a cheerleader, stand-up comic, and slum tour guide. Uniquely Ugandan, the first VJs appeared in Kampala in the early 80s.
Ugandan cinemas, or video halls, typically have two television screens: one for a football game (with the sound turned off) and the other for the feature presentation. In lieu of subtitles, the VJ provides the necessary exposition so the audience can better understand the movie. The joke was that VJ’s didn’t know the story either and just made it up – and a comedy act was born.
Who Killed Captain Alex: Uganda’s First Action Movie is first film to be presented with an English-language VJ. Enjoy:
Who Killed Captain Alex: Uganda’s First Action Movie (English Subtitles & Video Joker)