EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Isaac Nabwana and producer Alan Hofmanis of Wakaliwood

Ahead of our event, Wakaliwood Forever, we spoke to two of the Ugandan studio’s creative minds  – director Isaac Nabwana and producer Alan Hofmanis – to talk about the popularity of their action films, how the studio is expanding and what new projects they’re currently working on.

The film-makers of Wakaliwood have been the subject of numerous press articles since the trailer for Who Killed Captain Alex? went viral on the internet with the likes of The BBC, The Guardian and numerous other outlets covering their story… and what a story!

Isaac, who has been dubbed ‘Uganda’s Quentin Tarantino’ never grew up watching movies but became fascinated with stories when his brother would recount the plots of films he’d seen in the city.

Alan, on the other hand, was born and raised in New York and was such a fan of Wakaliwood’s output, that he packed up his old life and moved to Uganda to help out on their films!

It should be noted that when I spoke to Isaac and Alan via Skype there were working on several new projects and were happy to show me (by rotating their laptop) the studio’s latest production creation – a full-size replica of a Huey H21 that was sat in the middle of the quarter acre that represents Wakaliwood’s studios.

As such, I thought that was a good place to start the conversation!

So tell me about building a helicopter in the middle of your homes. Where do you get the materials from? Does the military have something to say about it? Do you have to get permits?

Isaac: It’s a prop like any other, but we built the chopper after we asked the government if we could use one and they said “No!” So we thought we’d build our own and use it in our movies!

Alan: It’s not so much dealing with permits, but the police will shut you down! So we shoot everything that’s possible on this quarter-acre. Isaac is very smart and wise on how he can make this area look different film-to-film, but we could get arrested as the commando uniforms we use are illegal. We could be done for impersonating an officer, even though we have obviously fake guns.

That’s why we do everything here, because if you’re near another village and you start yelling “Attack!”, people will flip the fuck out!

When you’re shooting battle scenes, do you have to warn the locals to prevent panic?

Alan: Oh no, it’s quite the opposite now. They know and they’re all part of the production most of the time! However, with some things, like when we’re shooting cannibals, we try to hide it as the kids get scared and the parents would yell at us for having our cannibals walk around in their costumes!

Obviously, Who Killed Captain Alex? is the film that Wakaliwood is best known for. Were you surprised at the reaction that got online and how much press it generated?

Alan: With Captain Alex, we had journalists coming for a year and a half afterwards. They were here every week! We have CNN here right now and they’re here for a week and whenever they come, we have to shut down because they need shots and we end up working for them to an  extent. They want to interview everyone, see where we do everything and it can disrupt production, but it’s a blessing.

After Captain Alex, we really had to tidy up our films. Perfect the subtitles and figure out what we were going to do with the V.Js (video jockeys).

Let’s talk about the video jockey aspect as it’s a key part of all your films so far. Are you going to phase that out with your new films or is it going to remain a key part of Wakaliwood?

Alan: It’ll always be there as an option. (New film) Bad Black’s Coming is married to that, but we’re going to present it as an option on the DVD for our new films. The V.J. is a tradition here in Uganda. There are generations of V.Js and I think I’m the first one to translate it! I would see people loving it when we screened a film, jumping up and down on their chair as the live V.J is going, but it’s dismissed everywhere else – in the West and by the upper class – as just some local thing. When it came to Captain Alex, I was afraid of it being seen as a foreign film. Without a V.J. and with subtitles, it just becomes a foreign film and I wanted to make it a unique experience.

On the DVD, we’re going to have the option to take off the V.J. and just watch it with subtitles, but we also have kids in Turkey and Bulgaria doing their own version of the V.J audio track, so it’ll play around the world.

Isaac, I read that you didn’t grow up watching films until you were 20, but you now you’re making action, martial arts and horror films. Is there a particular genre that you’re drawn to? 

Isaac: It’s action! I didn’t grow up watching movies, but my brother would go and watch them and come back and tell me the stories of the movies he’d seen. I used my imagination! Also, as he was telling me the stories, he’d never mention the love story so it was just action! That’s what I grew up hearing and seeing the posters outside the cinemas. They were all action stars! Jet Li! Bruce Lee! Schwarzenegger! Chuck Norris! Van Damme and others! All action stars!

Was there a particular film your brother told you about that you were drawn to at all?

Isaac: Banana Joe with Bud Spencer!


Isaac: Whenever my brother would talk about him, I just imagined a huge powerful guy! Also, Schwarzenegger with that incredible gun in Predator destroying forests and everything! But after seeing his poster on the cinema walls, it was all about Chuck Norris. He had the best posters! It was a mix between a cowboy and a fighter!

Alan: Isaac and these people aren’t influenced by movies like people are in the West. They’re influenced by life. Isaac didn’t see his first film until he was 20! He’s called the Ugandan Tarantino, but it’s quite the opposite. He’s influenced by things he sees and elaborates upon it. He heard about people like Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, but he never saw them until much later.

You’re clearly a fan of martial arts as you feature it prominently in all your movies. Can you tell me about your introduction to martial arts cinema and how martial arts became so big in Uganda? 

Isaac: What I learned from watching Western action movies is that they’re very expensive, so if trying to make them without a lot of money, you still need action! There is a big martial arts following, especially among men my age as they grew up watching Bruce Lee films. Bruce Lee is responsible for the martial arts in Uganda! And then later, it  was Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

We taught ourselves martial arts from a young age – me and my brother Robert, the one who would tell me about about the movies he watched. He even opened a training school near here in the late 80s. So many kids joined that school that people were either playing football or doing kung fu! We used magazines from China to learn the moves and now we have several schools in the area. That’s how people started learning. As I speak now, Robert is actually training at the Shaolin Temple.

The actual Shaolin Temple? In China?!

Yes! Yes! (Check out the pictures!)

Alan, what are your biggest challenges as a producer on these films?

Alan: When Isaac and I first got together, seven years ago, when I first came here, I originally thought I could do my work in New York, but it was impossible. The time difference, internet, phone and language, but it was impossible.

Then in 2012, we were also blacklisted from every film festival and exhibition. They rejected us and would get angry at us, because they saw us as glorifying violence and promoting guns in Africa. Isaac would get furious because we were just making an action film and what rule is there that dictates what countries get to make action movies and which can’t?! They were just terrified of the idea of Africans with guns in movies, even though I feel they actually enjoyed them. At the same time, in 2012, the Ugandan government was also pushing through lots of anti-homosexual legislation making homosexual acts illegal, so the Arts Community took Uganda off the table. So the combination of violence and what the Ugandan government was doing fucked us and that’s when I decided to move here.

Now, we’re in a better place. We have money coming in from DVD sales and the Patreon account, but the challenge for me is focus. Now that Wakaliwood is getting attention in the West, many people and charities want to work with us. For me, it’s deciding what’s best because Isaac would happily make a film with them, but no-one would want see these message movies or dramas! It’s just about finishing what we have on our plate. When people see our next couple of films, they’re going to love them.

Technology has obviously come a long way since Who Killed Captain Alex? What are the biggest challenges for you guys when it comes to making films? 

Isaac: We don’t yet have the money to get the latest equipment, so we’re still struggling and improvising. Getting equipment from outside the country is so expensive that we try and make our own here. Computers are the hardest as they need to be powerful to do good effects and editing. It’s a challenge as is electricity as it’s expensive.

Another thing is women! We want more women in our films, but because of the local culture, it’s not common for them to do martial arts, so that’s another challenge!

We also face piracy as there are no copyright laws. People pirate our films very quickly. When our last movie was released, within three hours, it was being sold 150 miles away on pirated DVDs!

Talking about computer effects, you also seem to be a big fan of practical effects, such as squibs filled with cow blood…

Isaac: If I fail to do a effect practically, then I use the computer, but if I can I try to do it practically, because it’s more beautiful than when it’s done on computer.

What do you hope is the next step for Wakaliwood?

Isaac: For me, it’s about improving the quality of the camerawork and having a big studio, about 10 hectares, where we can teach production methods and do all our films there. I don’t have space to do a lot of things here, and we don’t have as much money as people think because of piracy. So, I’d like our own compound to shoot films on set, because the government says we can’t even use the forests. Maybe we could grow our own forest!

And what do you have coming up in terms of new films?

Bad Black’s Coming is out now and is winning a lot of stuff, but we’re working on Crazy World, a child kung fu film, and Eaten Alive in Uganda, our cannibal horror film. That’s what we’re in the middle of right now. We’re so small, but we can’t release a film until it’s ready as we’ll have to do the promotional tour and all of that.

Isaac: Crazy World is almost done… and it’s crazy! Eaten Alive is the first horror from Wakaliwood!

Alan: That film is going to be a classic. There’s something happening that does not yet have a name and Wakaliwood, through hard work, is the first of something, but we’re not the only one. There are villages all over the world that have 10 years of films, but they’re only just getting them out there because of the internet. And it’s always genre films! It’s always horror or action! That’s what people want to see. It’s what they respond to. I’m very proud of the next wave of films we’ve got coming. They’re really great, man. They’re really great.

Isaac: People always told us that we couldn’t do action, but we did! We changed everyone’s mind and started a film industry! It is growing at a very fast rate and people can’t believe it. We have so many people say that we’ve inspired them and are doing it themselves.

All profits from Wakaliwood Forever will be going to support the film-makers of Wakaliwood. You can donate and support their projects here.

All images used with permission of Wakaliwood.com