Before Bad Black screened at Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn last night, there was a promo clip showing commandos dropping out of a fake, obviously green-screened helicopter and machine-gunning Katz’s Delicatessen into a ridiculously large fireball. The clip’s Lower East Side setting was bizarre given that it was a promo for the movies of gonzo director Isaac Nabwana, who has shot over 40 films in his village outside of Kampala, Uganda. Last night the film’s producer and star, Alan Hofmanis, revealed the fun story behind the Katz’s fireball.
In 2011, Hofmanis proposed to his girlfriend and promptly got dumped. At a bar on St. Marks Place, a friend tried to cheer him up by showing him the viral trailer for Nabwana’s cult hit Who Killed Captain Alex?. The lo-fi aesthetic, crude explosions of fire and blood, freewheeling kung fu, amateur acting, and kooky voiceover convinced him that Nabwana was “a frickin’ genius.”
“I did what anyone else would do; I bought a ticket to Africa,” Hofmanis said during last night’s Q&A. He flew to Uganda just to “figure out what the hell this was”; in the end, he sold his car and other possessions and stayed there to produce a documentary about Nabwana as well as the director’s films. The idea behind the Lower East Side-set promo clip was that Hofmanis, who lived on Ludlow Street, was blowing up his past. Eventually, he even got a Ugandan name: Alan Ssali Owe Nkima Musajja Wakabaka Ne Mafene Yesu Muganda Laptop Hofmanis.
Not only did Hofmanis produce Bad Black, but he plays the village doctor who, in order to catch a thief, is trained as a commando by a kick-ass little kid named Wesley Snipes. The bandit and femme fatale, Bad Black, is herself seeking vengeance on a man who wronged her during a traumatic childhood. True to the Ugandan tradition of “Video Jokers” who offer live narration alongside American movies for the sake of non-English-speakers, a hilarious Mystery Science Theater-like voiceover runs atop the movie. “Worst doctor ever!” the VJ exclaims as Dr. Ssali steps over the corpse of someone he just machine-gunned to death. “This doctor needs borders.”
Hofmanis is now touring with Bad Black in an attempt to bring still more attention to Wakaliwood films (the term is a play on Wakaliga, the village where Nabwana IGG, as the director is also called, shoots films in his front yard). After last night’s screening, he sold posters hand-painted onto a material normally used for wrapping corpses. And he passed around a prop machine gun that had been welded from scrap metal and loaded with a magazine of wooden bullets.
That kind of creativity and resourcefulness in the face of poverty is a trademark of Wakaliwood: dollies are constructed in a workshop by a propsmaster who also works as a mechanic and food vendor. The hundreds of volunteer actors are unpaid, though they get a cut of the DVDs that they sell in the street. The blood, which splatters on the screen like paintball pellets, is food coloring (it was cow blood until an actor became infected). Nabwana has a generator so he can work through regular power outages. His wife serves as co-director, publicist, and makeup artist.
For over seven years, Hofmanis has been championing Nabwana as a “world treasure and a storyteller on an international level.” While the tireless director has earned a cult following, his films have faced challenges both abroad and in Uganda, where he’s been “shut out of the media.” Ugandan entertainment reporters, Hofmanis said, didn’t want to cover movies made in the so-called “ghetto,” especially since they weren’t filmed in respectable English. “I felt like it was the 1950s with the Whites Only water fountain or something,” said Hofmanis of the rejection they experienced. “But for [Ugandans] it’s not race, it’s economic status.”
Hofmanis also met resistance back in the States. Colleagues from his former life as a film programmer “really hated what I was doing promoting this, because they felt I’m promoting the image of violence in Africa.” He knew he could be a boon to production— “because I’m American I can get meetings like that,” he said, snapping his fingers— but when he pitched producers he encountered a “weird thing where people loved what they saw but then were really afraid of it.” The fact that Uganda had passed some horrific anti-gay laws didn’t help things, even if Nabwana was demonstrably progressive in casting female leads.
Nabwana, who has been called the Quentin Tarantino of Uganda, likes to use machine-gun fire, explosions, and roundhouse kicks as the “spice” that keeps viewers “eating” his films (he’s not a fan of dialogue, though Bad Black has some unexpectedly tender moments as well as serious subtexts about poverty, prejudice, and child abuse.) “It’s just frickin action comedies,” Hofmanis says in response to those who feel the movies are “giving a very poor representation of Uganda” to the world. “Isaac would get furious [about criticism] because he’s like, ‘Why can’t I make an action movie? Where’s this list of countries that are not allowed to make action films? And who made this list?’”
As “a white guy from Long Island presenting this stuff,” Hofmanis is acutely aware that he might be accused of exploitation. On the other hand, he said, he’s presenting the film at the invitation of Nabwana, who has been denied a visa three times and has to conduct Q&As via phone. Ugandans have told Hofmanis that the support of a non-Ugandan is crucial in getting the films wider attention, he said.
Hofmanis is also an asset on screen. That became apparent when Nabwana invited villagers to fight him on film. “There ended up being a row of people who were like, ‘Dude, can I beat the shit out of the white guy?’” The director chose to shoot Bad Black’s fight scenes first, in case Hofmanis bailed out of the project (actors are often wounded and at one point Hofmanis accidentally fell into a ditch full of human waste). “Isaac knew enough that if we have these scenes of beating the shit out of some white guy, that will sell, and [he] can put that into any movie,” Hofmanis said. “It can be a dream sequence, it doesn’t matter. People will buy that shit.”
At the same time, Hofmanis proved to be a problem for Nabwana; his presence made fellow villagers think the director was wealthy, so they harangued him up for money. A Kickstarter that raised over $13,000 (even though budgets for Wakaliwood movies are closer to $160) didn’t help the matter.
With the success of the films, Wakaliwood stars have become famous in their village and beyond. Though only his voice appears in the films, the Video Joker is a “rock star” whose car doubles as a “mobile hotel” for female fans, Hofmanis said. But with the groupies come security concerns. According to its producer, Nabwana’s next film, Crazy World (his first in HD), grew out of a fear of kidnapping. “Isaac sat down the actors who have children and said, ‘Okay, what if we make an action film starring our own kids with self-defense, where they’re kung fu masters fighting kidnappers, in case someone in real life decides to kidnap them?”
Given that Nabwana has made dozens of films (some in just 10 days), it’s no surprise he has others in the pipeline. One of them, Demon Village, is about “a pumpkin that gets drunk and goes on a murder spree,” Hofmanis said. Another, Eaten Alive in Uganda, centers on the concept that “cannibals think I’m Chuck Norris, so I must be delicious.”
Don’t expect that movie to get bogged down in dialogue. According to Hofmanis, “the whole thing is a giant chase.”
“Bad Black” will screen again May 17 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.