(WAKALIGA, Uganda) — Deep in a Kampala slum, young men kick each other while a stout man with a salt-and-pepper beard watches them, sometimes nodding in approval.
With luck, a stylish blow could become a stunt in the latest action movie to emerge from this tin-roofed collection of houses known as Wakaliwood, named after this Wakaliga neighborhood.
Here is the engine of Uganda’s tiny film industry, the source of $200-budget movies and a glimmer of fame. Later this month, the Wakaliwood film “Bad Black” premieres at Fantastic Fest, which calls itself the largest genre film festival in the United States.
Its organizers call the film an “exuberant DIY extravaganza” from an industry whose “reckless abandon manages to inspire more heart, grit and soul than a thousand Hollywood blockbusters.”
“I love that this is a cinema born out of a community of film lovers,” said Peter Kuplowsky, a programming director who also has screened Wakaliwood films in Toronto. He likes Uganda’s practice of watching films with live commentary by “video jokers” who help make plots more relatable.
A former brick layer who taught himself to direct, Isaac Nabwana is responsible for “Bad Black” and scores of the action movies that he sees as uniquely Ugandan.
Young people and even some foreigners have found their way to his studios in search of roles. Dozens have signed a “Wakaliwood Wall of Fame,” often because their characters died in a film, staggering dramatically as condoms filled with fake blood spattered in a hail of mock bullets.
“They have watched so many action movies from all over the world. When they come here, they know that appearing in a Wakaliwood movie will make you a star,” the 44-year-old Nabwana said.
He has been making films spanning various genres since 2005, but it is the action flicks that have captured the people’s imagination. “I like Chuck Norris,” Nabwana said. “I think the other guy was Clint … Clint Eastwood?”
With the help of an improvised green screen and digital editing tools, Wakaliwood actors can take aim at the Eiffel Tower or drop from the sky into the middle of New York’s Times Square.
“I thought it was genius, but I did not understand it also,” said Alan Hofmanis, a long-haired New Yorker who came to check out Wakaliwood in 2011 and stayed to help promote the movies overseas. Wakaliwood DVDs, T-shirts and posters are now sold online .
Hofmanis recalled the day when a friend in a Manhattan bar showed him a trailer for one of Nabwana’s films. He was astonished. “If you are in America and you have no money, you make a film of two people talking,” he said. “You don’t make a war film.”
Now, Hofmanis is also a part-time actor who eats and sleeps with the Ugandans here, surrounded by poverty. A canal with stagnant sewage is nearby. The toilet is a hole in the ground.
He sees potential for something big. “There’s a studio already, just no electricity or plumbing,” he said.
Nabwana said he spent less than $200 to produce “Who Killed Captain Alex,” the 2010 film whose trailer inspired Hofmanis. The film follows a loose plot as the military battles a violent gang.
Nabwana called the movie the “first action movie made in Africa, by Africans, on a low budget” — an extraordinary claim considering the presence of Nigeria’s long-established and equally raucous film industry, Nollywood.
Still, Moses Serugo, a long-time film critic in Uganda, said he gives Nabwana high marks for innovation and for making movies about the East African country and starring Ugandans. Now he hopes the films can break away from Hollywood-style plots.
“It has got to come down to us telling our own stories,” Serugo said.
Although Ugandans have been making more films, and more serious ones, since a local film festival launched in 2013, Wakaliwood’s action films remain popular because they are “crazy, fascinating,” said Dominic Dipio, a professor of literature and film studies at Makerere University.
“You can see imagination, fantasy going on rampage without any clear direction,” she said, smiling. “There is no evidence for me that this is scripted.”
Everything is improvised. A former mechanic uses scrap metal and other materials to fabricate all the props, including a small-scale helicopter and machine guns. Nabwana’s children perform as an orchestra in one of his movies, holding water bottles as microphones and saucepans as drums.
No matter their cinematic value, Wakaliwood movies have given hope to some young Ugandans who might otherwise be adrift.
One actor, an 18-year-old cosmetology student named Ritah Namutebi, said she had discovered her passion in Wakaliwood after dreaming as a child of becoming an actor. She spends some days here practicing her kicks on young men who share her goal of earning roles in Nabwana’s films.
“What I wanted was action, and I got it here,” Namutebi said. “I think if all goes well and the Ugandan film industry starts paying, why would I go anywhere else to look for a job?”