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The Action Scene : Wakaliwood and an Aesthetic of Communal Process

Isaac Nabwana’s micro-budget actioners may lack Hollywood polish, but they express a striking communal spirit and cultural specificity.
Jonah Jeng
The studio logo sequence for Wakaliwood—a film studio based in Wakaliga, a slum of Uganda’s capital of Kampala—opens with armed assailants landing by helicopter in the middle of New York City, unloading machine guns in broad daylight and blowing up a deli. On paper, the scene seems pulled from a ’90s Hollywood blockbuster, but, on screen, it looks quite different.
For one thing, the Big Apple background is static and nondescript, suggesting stock photos pulled straight off the internet. For another, the helicopter in the opening shot is a manifestly DIY visual effects creation, complete with blocky frame and textureless, uniformly lit surface (the very next shot shows what appears to be a completely different helicopter, presented as being the same one). As the shooters alight in the street, their bodies are clearly not to scale vis-à-vis the rest of the image, and image elements have different levels of resolution; both details announce the fact that the shot had been digitally composited. The image then fades to reveal a man suspended via rope some three feet off the ground, wielding one of the “guns” we had seen (upon closer inspection, this weapon appears to be made up of a couple of metal pipes welded together). Behind him is a green sheet pinned to a brick wall—a makeshift green screen—and before him are his colleagues that are also his family and friends, standing on a patch of dirt that functions as their backlot, erected right in the middle of their neighborhood.
This logo sequence, which opens all three of director and Wakaliwood founder Isaac Nabwana’s films that have received distribution in the U.S. (Who Killed Captain Alex [2010], Crazy World [2014], and Bad Black [2016]), captures the ethos of Nabwana’s films well. Born from a love of action cinema and paying homage to the oeuvres of stars like Bruce Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Nabwana’s pictures lack (to put it mildly) the “polish” of the films they reference. Hollywood, even into the age of blockbusters in which ostentatious special effects are designed to draw attention to themselves at the expense of total narrative absorption, still tends to value a sense of diegetic coherence and immersiveness. So the reasoning goes, even when the subject matter being represented is sensational and/or fantastical, digital effects and “live-action,” photographic elements ought to be seamlessly composited, in such a way where all features in a shot look like they’re inhabiting the same physical space. This seamlessness reinforces the sense of a self-contained, self-sufficient narrative world unfolding by itself and for itself, a world into which we the viewers can then “enter.”
Above: Bad Black
Nabwana’s films are not like this. As evidenced by not just the logo sequence but many of the films’ action scenes (e.g., the above scene from Bad Black, or 00:15:02 – 00:19:05 in Who Killed Captain Alex), the seams between composited image elements remain glaringly apparent, and, moreover, many of these individual elements themselves have clearly been digitally rendered. Put plainly, the film’s aesthetic evinces what might be called “bad” CGI, which is on some level attributable to the films’ virtually nonexistent budgets (Who Killed Captain Alex was purportedly made with just $200). What “badness” entails in this case is precisely a failure to meet the standards of Hollywood photorealism, to create a convincing, diegetic onscreen world in which viewers can be immersed and through which they can temporarily forget they’re watching a movie.
It’s difficult to dispute the aesthetic “shortcomings” of Nabwana’s films vis-à-vis Hollywood. What can be disputed is whether these “shortcomings” are, in fact, “bad.” Certainly, a sense of narrative absorption is all but absent from Nabwana’s films. So apparent are the “seams”—not just the dodgy digital compositing but also the exaggerated "chop-socky" sound effects, the gleefully “wooden” acting, the zippy undercranking of the fights, and so on—that the movies feel more like documentaries of their own production than vehicles for the enjoyment of enclosed narrative worlds. But therein lies the films’ value: what Nabwana’s movies might “lose” in narrative immersiveness, they gain in manifesting a sense of process, of a community working together to assemble a loving homage to not only their genre icons but also the lived spaces and daily textures of their neighborhood. The process, production, and community-oriented spirit of Nabwana’s films are explicitly signaled in the back half of Wakaliwood’s logo sequence: the “behind-the-scenes” footage of cast and crew making a film literally in their own backyard. It’s a version of the Hong-Kong-style end-credits stunt-reel, but here declared upfront as being part of the studio’s core ethos. 
Captain Alex is the movie,” pronounces the eponymous film’s voiceover narration at one point. “Production in action.” That phrase, “production in action,” captures the spirit of Wakaliwood well: the films as indexing the act of their own making, nowhere more so than in the effects-heavy action scenes in which the seams show most conspicuously. But this narrational moment is striking also for the voiceover itself, which belongs to VJ Emmie, a “video joker” of the sort who would attend local screenings and deliver running, comedic commentary for live audiences. Although the Blu-ray release of Who Killed Captain Alex can be viewed without this accompanying narration, the online copy that is most widely available stateside contains the voiceover and is, in my opinion, the better for it. What this voiceover achieves is a closer approximation of Wakaliga’s local viewing culture, simulating a model of spectatorship different from the one that has been institutionalized in the West for the better part of the twentieth century. Rather than the kind of hushed, concentrated viewing propounded by theaters’ no talking, no cell phones policy and which conveniently aligns with Hollywood’s dominant model of absorptive narrative cinema, the video joker commentary points to a rowdier, more openly participatory and communal kind of cinema experience.
In many ways, VJ Emmie’s commentary track harks back to American and European cinema’s early days in which films were narrative-lite attractions exhibited at fairgrounds and vaudeville halls—i.e., spaces teeming with sights, sounds, and smells that had not yet been “cleaned up” and tamed by a single, normative model of film spectatorship. That said, one thing that is crucial about Nabwana’s films is their regional specificity, their non-generalizable character. Much of the films' dark comedy emerges from VJ Emmie’s tongue-in-cheek jabs at local histories of poverty and violence, including but not limited to the Ugandan Civil War, which Nabwana lived through as a child. In Bad Black, a body convulsing beneath a hail of bullets is nicknamed the “Ugandan dance,” and the squalid living conditions are (half-)jokingly characterized as being defining features of the country. There is pain in Nabwana’s films, capturing a historical reality of suffering and trauma that Bad Black, especially, channels in moments in which what began a parodic action cartoon suddenly yields to the more vexed and visceral realm of exploitation cinema. 
And yet, never are Nabwana’s films “about” this suffering in the manner that many Western-produced films about African countries have historically been. Poverty and violence are irrefutable facts of daily life, but, as Nabwana himself mentioned in an interview, his films are comedic in tone. In place of the totalizing, reductive, miserabilist portraits of the continent that routinely appear in films presented for Western eyes, we have exuberant celebrations of a people and a place, emerging from the desire of a community to see themselves represented and their culture expressed. The films register the reality of suffering insofar as this suffering was and is a reality: a part of the community’s history and lived experience, and hence on some level an inextricable part of their identity. But the films don’t treat this fact as alpha and omega, but, rather, as simply one element in a larger creative canvas, one possible story rather than the story. Given this ethos, the films' “bad,” “imperfect,” seam-filled style feels fitting. Rather than purporting to be a transparent window onto a cultural milieu, presented for the ethnographic gaze of foreign audiences, this style functions as an artifact and trace of a nascent film culture’s own joyous self-production.
The Action Scene is a column exploring the construction of action set pieces, but it also considers “scene” in the sense of field or area: “action” as a genre and mode that spans different cultures and historical periods. By examining these two levels in tandem—one oriented toward aesthetic expression, the other toward broader contexts and concepts—this series aims to deepen appreciation for and spark discussion about action cinema.

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