The bizarre and wonderful Wakaliwood is making ripples around the world.
The morning we visited the “studio” of Uganda’s homegrown action movie industry, the team was expecting a group of French and German reporters. The story has been picked up by the BBC, VICE magazine, Al Jazeera, and national Irish television. The films have a cult following, with fans in Russia, Guatemala, China. In the rehearsal space – which doubles up as a bedroom for some of the actors and storage space for props and equipment – there’s a wall with foreign names scribbled on it.
“Are these all your visitors?”, we asked.
“No”, we were told, “just the ones we ‘killed’”.
We didn’t get killed; the crew weren’t filming that day. But we did see where it all happens, and began to understand how a whole movie – their most successful, Who Killed Captain Alex? – could be made on a budget of around 80 US dollars.
Everything is improvised: weapons and even a helicopter are created from scrap metal, explosions are computer-generated, and distribution involves all the actors selling the DVDs door to door.
The man behind it all is Isaac – dubbed Uganda’s Tarantino (there’s a lot of dying in his films). He grew up here in Wakaliga slum, taught himself filmmaking by reading manuals, and gradually attracted a team of dedicated actors, singers, make-up artists, and stuntmen from around Uganda to this otherwise unremarkable corner of Kampala. So far, he’s made over 40 features.
The sheer resourceful, inventive spirit of Isaac and his team is perhaps only fitting in a country that’s recently been named the most entrepreneurial in the world. Yep, while “advanced economies” Italy, France and Japan sit at the bottom of the league, Uganda comes top, with the highest percentage of adults who own or co-own a salary-paying business.
It seemed hard to believe, but the more people I met during my month in Uganda, the more it rang true. So many – including those with relatively well-paid office jobs – maintain a business (or two) on the side.
And it’s perhaps telling that the four Ugandan social businesses I’d identified as “ones to watch”, and arranged to interview, are all based on models that help individual entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs boost their income.
They’re all growing quickly, too, with more demand for their services than even they expected. Schools are prepared to pay for entrepreneurship classes for their students; motorbike taxi drivers are queueing up to pay higher rates each month so that they can ultimately own, rather than rent, their bikes; the network of “Avon-like” ladies selling healthcare goods around their neighbourhoods is set to expand to five times its current size.
Not that continued expansion is self-evident. More than one of the organisations I interviewed lamented being stuck in the “missing middle” – that funding gap where the company has become too big for microfinance but too small for commercial bank loans. Investors are still cautious about their returns.
As for Isaac and his team, they’re still looking for proper funding, largely with the support of Alan, an American filmmaker who’s made Wakaliga his adopted home and who’s battling to get Isaac in front of the Hollywood executives who can take Wakaliwood to the next level.
It’s not about selling out to the mainstream, though, he says.
“People think it’ll change our films if we get money”, Alan told us. “But if we do, we’re not going to buy real guns. We’ll build a tank!”
I don’t doubt that they will.