Once Upon a Time in Uganda: Communal Filmmaking

Once Upon a Time in Uganda follows the unique filmmaking community of Wakliwood, home to their own African Tarantino by the name of Isaac. Isaac has spent his life trying to make action-comedy films and his passion has carried into his community. He becomes a man that the village surrounds and supports, using the most basic tools and sharing all of their skills so he can try to make the most ridiculous and fun movies possible. Soon, as Isaac shares the beginnings of his filmmaking journey, he makes a viral trailer for his movie Who Killed Captain Alex?. While it garnered him some recognition on the internet, it never manifested into anything until one man from New York decides to find Wakliwood and slowly becomes part of Isaac’s extended filmmaking family.

The story of Wakaliwood and Isaac’s Ramon Productions is framed around Alan, a white American film enthusiast, whose big life change sees him come to Isaac to be their humble servant (or mzunga). Alan quickly falls in love with the hands-on work and comradary of Isaac’s productions and seeks ways to help Isaac leave his mark as a filmmaker and artist. He spends a lot of time encouraging Isaac to find new ways to connect with the world and even starts to make calls that get Walkliwood the attention of international press. Their work together creates a strong bond and it’s a partnership that Alan had always seemed to desire in his life. (In fact, it also sees him cast in lead roles as the only white man available for the films that he makes on a almost monthly basis.)

A lot of the most engaging parts of Uganda come from the unique situation itself. Most people don’t think of filmmaking as a prominent part of the life of people struggling to be steady above the poverty line, let alone those in a third world country. But the resourceful nature of Isaac’s community let’s them pull off some impressive stunts because many productionswould not have the audacity (and the rest would be told they don’t have the insurance). Isaac and his friends truly go for broke and that bond is what brings Alan in as he gets to witness a selfless community where the normal paywalls and hierarchy surrounding filmmaking don’t exist. As a result, he quickly becomes a part of a filmmaking collective that cares about having fun and simply putting out the best film they can with their limited resources.

There’s a point in the film where Alan’s connection to Isaac seems to dissipate as Isaac agrees to make a TV series with the major Uganda TV network and Alan struggles to keep them on the same page. Alan continues to push Isaac towards the prestige of international press screenings and film festivals where he might get more money to make his vision into a more ‘Hollywood production’. Ultimately, the film is about a dreamer who is able to take his passion and creativity and uplift his community in a unique way that gives people hope and spirit in the way that only art can do. It addresses how important film can be in any part of the world and how the beginnings of artists need to be nurtured and supported if we are to get films that are the work of a person’s passion and dreams. (Personally, I think that’s what everyone should hope they get to see when they walk into the cinema.)

Uganda gives us an inside look into that mindset and the doc covers these moments with great care. There’s clearly creative inspiration from Isaac rubbing off on the film in a way that makes this more formal doc seem often as fun as the wacky, violent actions films that Isaac was able to bring to midnight madness at TIFF.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda is available in theatres on Friday, July 14th, 2023.

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