GFF2022: Once Upon a Time in Uganda Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There is countless moments in Once Upon a Time in Uganda that perfectly communicate the earnest power of cinema felt in the lowly Ugandan slum where Africa’s most prolific filmmaker crafts his work but the one still engraved into my mind and a moment I’ll never forget is Issac Nabwana showing a group of children a reel of Spiderman 3 projected onto a decrepit brick wall with a flimsy homemade flashlight shoddily thrown together with a lightbulb, 2 batteries and foil while the most genuine look of awe is stretched across the children’s faces. A look of innocent curiosity only outmatched by Issacs own expression of unbridled wonder.

I’ve been following the small African film studio Ramon film productions through word of mouth for a while now however it was only recently that I sat down and watched their most known piece; the audaciously wild and charming ‘Who killed captain Alex’ which I immediately fell in love with. The love and passion Issac and crew put into their miniscule budget passion projects is nothing short of intoxicating and above all inspiring due their financial limitations. The productions of the Nigerian slums are irresistibly charming and the idea of a full documentary shining a light on the diamond from the rough nature of their existence was immediately grabbing to me. The thing once upon a time in Uganda really communicates is the sheer miracle of Wakaliwoods productions; Dollies and camera mounts made of welded poles, props forged of discarded junk – recycled scrap and abject paraphernalia weaved into every facet of the technical process in order to achieve one filmmakers dream of making the action films he grew up watching. The prevalence of lowly scraps cobbled together into technical equipment an almost grim visual image and literal metaphor for the entire state of affairs Issac faces without the financial support of his home country’s media industries. Knowing the full story behind the films only sheds more light on their miraculous existence. The usual setbacks plaguing other filmmakers are absent for Issacs team who instead have to deal with dilemmas more resembling biblical retribution than everyday hinderenses. Termites devouring dozens of scripts, limited hard drive space forcing an ever progressing and unstoppable filmmaker’s ambition to erase his previous work to continue innovating. And perhaps the most shocking of all. The lack of respect their productions have in their country. Issac’s struggle not only to make films with the resources he has but also to make a name for himself is an inspiring story about the unstoppable determination an artist with a dream possesses. The passion the entire crew exudes is irresistible and beyond charming, their efforts resulting in some of my personal favourite films of all time.

But how does Once upon a time in Uganda hold up as a singular product?

The film is supported by the underlying personalities and some strong filmmaking. Documented by Ramon film productions own collaborator Alan Hofmanis the colourful people in the Ugandan slum are portrayed to us with an earnest sense of community and being. Each of them is unified by their love for the process of filmmaking regardless of their living conditions. Everyone in the unsuspecting Ugandan slum gravitates around Isaac with palpable respect fully captured in the crisp documentary frame. The story unfolds like a classic underdog story full of downfall, hardship that’s only out done by the grand highs Issacs effort eventually lead him. The perfect sendoff being the culmination of his work, his story. A standing ovation at Toronto international film festival. A perfectly captured moment that brought the package of Once upon in Uganda and its incredible story together.

It’s very easy to break down and criticise Ramon Film productions films but why would you. To me they represent the ideas that make cinema so incredible. A group of people coming together as a community to make what they want to make no matter what the world throws at them. Not out of financial incentive but for the passion of storytelling and the passion of cinema. Political unrest, a lack of resources and their only tangible impact being felt miles to the West are all minor footnotes in comparison to their grander ambition. 

Once upon a time in Uganda lives up to its own grandised title. After following the saga of hardship and determination it seems fitting to frame Issacs filmic journey as a rags to riches fairy tale. However unlike it’s disney counterparts Once upon a time in uganda is real, it’s still happening. The real life cinema fairy tale that was finally told in all it’s miraculous glory.

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