Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Who Killed Captain Alex (Uganda, 2010)

Due to the amount of Internet buzz already surrounding Ugandan zero-budget action director Isaac Nabwana (aka Nabwana I.G.G.), I was tempted to avoid writing about him altogether. I eventually caved, though, because it became clear to me that I will likely be writing about Nabwana for many years to come and with growing frequency. With the increasing accessibility of digital technology making it easier than ever for filmmakers of even the most limited means and abilities to produce a professional quality product, it now falls to the poorest of nations to provide the scrappy, seat-of-the-pants style filmmaking that fans of B and pulp cinema thrive upon. Thus has Africa become the last refuge of true cult cinema, with Nabwana's Ramon Studios, located in the Ugandan slum of Wakaliga, enthusiastically leading the charge.

Of course, the nascent film industries of both Nigeria and Ghana have also pumped their share of trashy genre films into the market. But what Nabwana brings to the table is ambition of a level so inverse to his means as to seem heroic. Symptomatic of this is his dedication to the action genre, where conspicuous consumption is the rule of the day. Faced with the need for greater and greater explosions--a circumstance that would send other filmmakers to their backers with cap in hand--Nabwana instead sees an opportunity to explore even further the limits of some very primitive computer graphics software.

Nabwana’s Who Killed Captain Alex, shot in 2010 for a budget of roughly $200, has become something of a flagship for “Wakaliwood” cinema, owing both to its success at home and it becoming a viral sensation upon its release to YouTube this past April. It concerns a Ugandan Special Forces unit—lead by Kakule Wilson as the titular Captain Alex , “Uganda’s best soldier”—who sets up camp in Wakaliga with the goal of eliminating the Tiger Mafia, a paramilitary style drug gang lead by crazy-eyed crime lord Richard (Sserunya Ernest). When a jungle skirmish between the crooks and commandos leads to Alex and his men taking Richard’s brother prisoner, Richard sends his minions forth to kidnap Alex. Before this can be accomplished, however, Alex is mysteriously murdered in his bed, leading to both the gang and the soldiers launching separate investigations into the crime—albeit for very different reasons.

As action movie plots go, the idea of having two opposing sides doing battle while at the same time trying to solve the same crime is a fairly novel one. But the real novelty of Who Killed Captain Alex is in its inclusion of “audio joker” VJ Emmie, who provides loud offscreen commentary throughout the film, like a kind of cinematic hype man (just think of the shouty narrator from the trailer for the Ghanaian movie 2016 and imagine him doing that for an entire film). This ranges from excited exhortations (“Action! Action!”, “Expect the unexpectable!”), to helpful reminders (“you are watching Who Killed Captain Alex”), to pointing out changes of scene, (“Back at the Tiger Mafia base…”), to fart noises, to MST3K-style jokes at the film’s expense.

This last serves a couple of purposes. For one, it deflects mockery of the film by beating potential hecklers to the punchline. But it also gives us some idea of what watching Who Killed Captain Alex with a Ugandan audience might be like—and clues us in to the fact that the intended audience for these films might not take them as seriously as some of us might assume they do. This further serves as snark-repellent--because what fun is there in condescending to a B movie without the assumed existence of a gullible audience who takes it completely in earnest? Indeed, it may be those who regard a film like Captain Alex with a kind of “WTF” incredulity who are the real rubes.

VJ Emmie’s excited commentary often gives expression to national pride, informing us that Captain Alex is “Uganda’s first non-stop action movie” and at times just yelling “UGANDA!”. In a scene where a woman is being tortured by the Tiger Mafia, he jokes that she was “caught watching Nollywood movies” (and, indeed, I’m sure there are some who would choose torture over watching 666 (Beware the End is at Hand).) And, true to his word, there is cause for pride here: The admittedly risible sight of two ColecoVision helicopters doing battle over Kampala becomes indescribably thrilling when watched with the knowledge that Nabwana composed those effect on computers that he built himself from junk components.

Yet before we can be dazzled by such spectacle—and in the name of “non-stop action”—new combatants must be introduced. The first of these is Captain Alex’s brother, described as the “Ugandan Bruce Lee” or “Bruce U”, who comes to Wakaliga and asks to be included in the investigation of his brother’s death. The second is the unit’s new commander, who also proves to be no slouch in the kung fu department. Wakaliga being something of a hub of kung fu enthusiasm in Uganda, both of these men prove to have some legitimate skills—and Nabwana films their fights with a commendable eye toward legibility and visible cause and effect. One could easily think of a few vastly better paid Hollywood action auteurs who could learn from him.

Captain Alex ends with a prolonged pitched battle between both forces that is rife with CG blood spray and explosions. This was reportedly filmed in one two hour shoot that took place on the eve of the film’s release in Uganda. Despite the gory fx, the reckless enthusiasm and barely concealed joy of the participants gives it the feel of a backyard game of "war" played by a bunch of sugar-amped pre-teens. Of course, I mean that as a compliment; the exultant love of filmmaking that is apparent throughout Who Killed Captain Alex is nothing if not infectious. By the time it’s over, we don’t even care that no one has bothered to solve its titular mystery.

Of course, Who Killed Captain Alex bears some similarities to genre films coming out of Nigeria and Ghana—the shot-on-video look, the crude effects, the amateur actors. Yet Nabwana clearly intends for his work to be more than just a tributary into the larger body of African action cinema, as there are also some shrewd differences. The film boasts a brisk running time that contrasts pleasingly with the three hour-plus gab fests of woods Nolly and Golly, while being refreshingly free of those films’ Christian evangelicism. Nabwana also exhibits a wily understanding of social media and internet marketing (not to mention a brand savvy self-awareness resemblant of The Asylum and Troma), and clearly has an eye toward the Western market.

Indeed, I think it can be said that, with Captain Alex, Nabwana is forcing African genre cinema toward the next step in its evolution. From where I’m standing, the transition will be one that is very exciting to behold.

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