Isaac Nabwana is not a conventional filmmaker. He does not follow the rules taught in a film school but produces movies that Ugandans enjoy watching.
He is a self-taught filmmaker. His editing room is a cluttered scene. There are piles of CDs littered on different tables, sharing space with paper and books, perhaps film script books. They are all half-covered in dust.
He sits on a stool in the middle of the room with three students, paying keen attention to every word he says. Between his elaborate explanations, he points to the computer screen and reaches for the keyboard to illustrate.
He is seated directly opposite a window and at the evening hour, the sun’s rays shine on Nabwana’s forehead on which beads of sweat are beginning to form. He pulls out a handkerchief and wipes his forehead and then quickly goes back to disseminating, and sharing his skills.
Inside the studio
His wife doubles as his assistant and before I am let into the congested room, she has to confirm with her husband whether I can find space to sit.
The narrow corridor that connects to the editing room on one side and an audio studio on another, is lined with a number of computer monitors which I imagine help the filmmaker and his team to burn movies onto CDs.
It takes a few minutes before the filmmaker can give me attention. He is used to multi-tasking because as he instructs the three students and says a quick hello, his phone rings and he spends a few minutes trying to give directions to someone on the other side of the phone.
The semi-complete structure that houses his studio and editing room is adjacent to a line of basic rentals. One of these is a store for his equipment, like toy guns and pistols.
My attention is drawn to a heavy green toy high-calibre machine gun which is as heavy as those that Sylvester Stallone, alias Rambo, holds in all-time favourites like First Blood.
Nabwana is stuck in the 1980s kind of movies because it is precisely the time when his movie-making dream was born.
He was in Senior One, in 1988, at Old Kampala Senior Secondary School. With his brother Robert Kizito, they started training in Kung fu.
The two were inspired to learn martial arts, having watched a number of movies and read Chinese sports magazines that promoted martial arts and illustrated movements of the sport.
Well, a lot of what he learnt back in the day reflects in his works. The Kung Fu trainers were abrasive and Nabwana decided to learn acrobatics instead, since he was agile and flexible.
He never finished school because his guardians could no longer support him in school. As such, he did not go beyond Senior Six. That was in 1995.
He then went into metallic fabrication but his heart was to go into film and try out those moves that he saw in Rambo and Chuck Norris’ movies. His dream was thwarted by the fact that film was expensive.
He earned peanuts as a welder. He was paid Shs10,000 per week so he left the job and returned home. He started making and baking bricks and built two schools and the rentals.
He also set up an audio studio. That was in 2005. His girlfriend was heavy and needed to relocate because the family was criticising him for letting a woman give birth while he is still at home.
He shifted from Wakaliga to Lungujja and started searching for ways he would maximise his studio. He learnt how to use FL audio software. A friend helped him learn. His first production was Yesu Webaale, a gospel song. He started calling out for artistes to visit his studio and record music.
Producer Shady was one of the first people that went around, and then Njagaza Rastas and then Eddy Kenzo, Dr Hilderman and Master Parrot who had just released Kikompola. All along, Nabwana was producing music free of charge. He still hungered to acquire extra skills.
“I went looking and ended up at Praise Electronics on Kirumira Towers. It was a mechanical training workshop where I learnt how to fix computers. They asked me to enrol for a course of six months at Shs600, 000 but I could only afford to pay Shs100, 000 so I made sure I learnt everything within that time,” he recounts. His idea was not to study to pass but to learn and do so in the shortest time possible.
Against all odds
One day, he decided to go to Image Vision, one of the leading production houses at the time but on his way, he saw a story on a newspaper of an Old Boy, Robinson Jjingo who incidentally owned the production house. Nabwana did not proceed to Image Vision because he thought that Jjingo would have thought that he was going to him after seeing his profile story in the newspaper.
He then went to a filming school in Rubaga which was run by George Ssengendo, a film tutor, who taught him how to make ‘action films’. Ssengendo told him Uganda had not grown to a level of producing such films. He instead promised to teach him camera work.
Alex Mulozi, another tutor, taught him adobe premium and editing.
Soon after training, Nabwana shot two music videos, Nimekuja and Basambagala by Njagaza Rastas which played on WBS television’s Late Show which was presented by Straka Baby. It was a big achievement.
He called on his artiste friends and also used it as an opportunity to let the neighbourhood know about his works. “My landlord was not happy and he immediately increased rent. I tried to work hard and pay the dues but at some point I felt it was too much so I moved back home in Wakaliga,” he recounts.
After setting up at home, a friend brought someone, Isaac Ssempijja, who was interested in making a film. When the two met, a symbiotic partnership was created. Ssempijja was a good script writer while Nabwana had learnt camera work.
Testing the waters
When Ssempijja shared his film script with Nabwana, he agreed to work with him.
They travelled to the location, in Lyantonde and Nabwana shot the film in four days and edited it immediately.
“However, as I shot the film I realised Ssempijja wanted to use a Muslim in a character, who was giving a bribe at a policestation. Muslims were against that,” he recollects.
Nabwana wanted to broaden the synopsis so he asked about the history of Lyantonde and he was told about a ghost that lived up in the rocks.
He suggested to Ssengendo that this would add some dramatic effect to the film so they agreed to add scenes of a ghost.
When the film was produced and taken to the market in Lyantonde, it sold like hot cakes. It was titled Ekisa Butwa, loosely translated as “kindness is poisonous”. It was also heavily pirated but Nabwana says it was inclusion of the ghost that appealed to locals. That was in 2008.
However, the filmmaker was unhappy. Nigerian films still had a lion’s share of the market. “From this film, I confirmed that Ugandans like movies which portray witchcraft,” he recalls. He then did Byabuuka.
Distributing and selling it was a bit of a trick. All movie distributors at Majestic Plaza were one and the same, offering peanuts according to Nabwana. “We sold it to CD international at Shs1m and agreed to retain the royalties. We split it into three masters of the film and that was the last time I dealt with Ssengendo.
Scouting for market
“I began a strategy to sell in Owino Market (St Balikuddembe Market)but everywhere we went, we were asked if the films had big stars like Mariam Ndagire or Abby Mukiibi,” Wakaliwood’s director recollects.
He had to scratch his head harder. He had initially burned 100 copies of the movies. He burned another 200 copies and decided to go back to Owino. He told his team to distribute the film copies to stall owners and promise to return the next day to pick them.
“The next day, we were impressed when those we had given copies of the movie called us asking us for more movies.
“They told us we were better than some of the established actors and actresses. In that day alone, we sold more than 500 copies of Byabuuka,” a jovial Nabwana narrates.
They were selling each copy at Shs5, 000 which earned them Shs2.5m. His team was composed of 30 people and they then moved to Kisekka Market.
The filmmaker would make sure he put some movie adverts of forthcoming films. He resolved that they would market movies beyond Kampala, and went out to Jinja and other towns.
That was 2009. His model was to market door-to-door, convincing people to buy a copy of his movies.
Who Killed Captain Alex? was well received. “I had talked to Bobi Wine to headline as a lead actor but he became busy and I had to replace him with someone else. I was looking at exhibiting this movie at the annual UMA showground.
“At first, people were hesitant to buy. I made another placard for our stall and wrote that it was Uganda’s first action movie. People started buying the movie. Policemen who were providing security were driven to our stall and bought a number of copies,” Nabwana shares.
There were foreigners who had seen the trailer on YouTube and were glad to buy the movie. But as he marketed the movie, he had a lot of explaining to do because the movie portrays Workers’ House being shot down and Namirembe Cathedral collapsing.
“I told my cast that if the movie didn’t bring us problems from authorities, it would open doors for us. Indeed it has opened the world to us. A number of international media houses have visited us,” he adds.
On the set
While we chat about his journey, he asks his crew to set up and demonstrate a scene in one of the movies.
The youthful actors go in, get dressed and come out. The main protagonist is in military wear reflected in strong green while the other actors come out in casual wear.
Outside Nabwana’s office is the setting for a scene. There is an incomplete aeroplane that is being assembled and besides it is a metallic booth whose background is used as part of the set. It is run by one of his tenants who operates a metal fabrication workshop whose products he sells to Nabwana.
“It is where we make some of my guns. If I need a pipe, I will buy it from him,” he says as he directs actors on which scene they should showcase for photography purposes.
For 90 seconds, two of the actors engage in physical combat action, kicking and punching each other. The main star then comes in, with a heavy machine gun and shoots them down.
As we are at it, two more actors have volunteered to also offer photographic moments. They are half dressed and their bodies covered in banana leaves.
At this point, passersby, mostly children from the neighbourhood are smiling and engaging in small talk but the sight of people in dry banana leaves gets them loud. “Laba abasezi,” they shout in excitement, through their sunny smiles. This is interpreted to mean, “Look at night dancers”.
The two actors dance around a stranger and go on to floor him and start chopping and eating his body parts. It is Wednesday and more of his cast are taking shelter in one of the rooms, waiting for him to chair a meeting for some upcoming productions.
History of Wakaliwood
“These are people who are passionate about making film. We are not yet there. I do not pay them much but they keep coming and together, we have made a number of films,” Nabwana tells me as he takes me around Wakaliwood and Ramon Film Productions, the companies under which he handles film production.
In Wakaliwood, he fused two words, an acronym of the area where he is based- Wakaliga, and Hollywood, home of United States’ film industry.
The most expensive movie he has produced is Who Killed Captain Alex, a movie that is listed on IMDb, one of the world’s most popular and authoritative source for movies, television and celebrity content. The movie has attracted a number of foreign media, including Al-Jazeera and BBC.
He spent US$200 (about Shs700, 000) on the production which is peanuts compared to Hollywood movies that cost a lot more.
Little wonder BBC’s Vibeke Venema labelled Nabwana’s Ramon Film Production, the Ugandan film company that makes low-budget action movies in the slums and has found a cult following online.
One of those who watched Who Killed Captain Alex is Alan Hofmanis, a programme director for the Lake Placid Film Festival. He left the US and came to see how Nabwana makes films on such a meagre budget.
“I realised what I am looking at makes no sense - but it is complete genius,” he told BBC. The movie is among 50 movies Nabwana has produced. He says making movies has not been about money but working with passion and people who share the same ideals.
Nabwana says finances are a big challenge. He says that he has tried to access financing from Centenary Bank but was turned down by the loan officer. “Another challenge is lack of female actors. Husbands cannot let their wives act because they think films are trivial and then the copyright law is not effective,” he explains.
Nabwana’s wish is to buy a piece of land on which he can set up a film academy where he can teach and impart skills.
He says he is self-taught but advises any filmmaker to acquire education and learn doing film the conventional way.
Some of his top movies
Who killed capt Alex?
The Return of Uncle Benon
Bukunja Tekunja mitti”The cannibals”,
Ani Mulalu”The crazy world”,
Ejjini lye ntwetwe,
Operation Kakongoliro ‘The Ugandan Expendables’
Million dollar kid