The Goddess of Fortune: how the passage of time and random events change people and relationships

Ferzan Özpetek, “The Goddess of Fortune / La Dea Fortuna” (2019)

On the surface, this very visually stunning and colourful film appears to be a heart-warming comedy that with some adjustments could be remade by Hollywood. Delve a bit deeper into its narrative and its characters, and the film reveals a great deal about the nature of families, both conventional and unconventional, the passage of time and what it can do to people in love, and the necessity of change and random events in shaking up old patterns and routines, and revealing their weaknesses – and the pain and emotion that emerge as a result. Arturo (Stefano Accorsi) and Alessandro (Edoardo Leo) have been a couple for 15 years despite their different backgrounds, Arturo being a translator who once aspired to be a writer and academic but failed at both, and Alessandro being a plumber who brings in most of their income. The two are part of a happy little community, all living in the same neighbourhood, of various misfits including a married couple, one of whom suffers memory loss and must be reminded of who he is each day, a transgender woman and an African refugee. Arturo and Alessandro’s relationship seems to have hit the rocks for some reason, the two no longer feel the passion they used to have for each other, and they’re starting to get on each other’s nerves. All of a sudden, out of the blue, an old mutual friend, Annamaria (Jasmine Trinca), turns up at a party with her two children Martina (Sara Ciocca) and Sandro (Edoardo Brandi) in tow. She asks Arturo and Alessandro to mind the kids while she stays in hospital for a few days for tests.

As might be expected, the presence of the two children upturns Arturo and Alessandro’s routine and the two men have difficulty adjusting to their roles as foster parents, even though the arrangement is temporary. The neighbours believe that the children will help the two men get on better but in fact the children inadvertently drive the men’s relationship to boiling point. Alessandro discovers Arturo has been having an affair with a painter behind his back. Annamaria is forced to stay in hospital for longer than she had been led to believe. Her health goes from bad to worse and the two men, now unable to stand each other’s company, contact Annamaria’s next of kin – her mother Elena (Barbara Alberti), in Palermo – to see if she can take care of the children. Elena agrees and the men take the kids on a ferry trip to Sicily to meet their grandmother who turns out to be a harsh conservative Catholic matriarch of a noble family in decline.

The plot is not outstanding but what makes it work is the energy and enthusiasm the lead actors throw into their characters. Arturo and Alessandro become much more than two gay men having mid-life crises in their personal and professional lives; they become two very real individuals with particular faults and quirks that they must confront and come to terms with if they are to revive their relationship and continue living together, and at the same time care for Annamaria’s children. Accorsi and Leo give what may well be the performances of their careers in fleshing out these characters and giving them complex emotional lives; Leo in particular does outstanding work in portraying a gruff working-class plumber whose outward toughness belies a sensitive emotional nature. Trinca doesn’t have a lot to do as Annamaria and most of what audiences learn about her come very late in the film when the character has disappeared from the scene. The child actors do what they can but their characters aren’t quite bratty enough to give their foster parents the headaches needed to push their relationship into open conflict so there is something of a forced quality to the plot.

Özpetek’s direction emphasises the use of close-ups to capture emotion and character in his actors’ faces, and makes excellent use of the film’s settings in Rome and Palermo. Rome is portrayed as a vibrant, sunny and colourful place, where people of all backgrounds and proclivities can come together and form impromptu families and communities. Palermo looks rather sleepy and provincial, and the scenes set in Elena’s dilapidated mansion seem to feature Mafia character stereotypes. Here the film takes a dark comedy turn as Arturo and Alessandro discover rather more about Annamaria’s family and what made her run away from home and become a flighty single mum than they would have liked. At this point the film ratchets up to another level and becomes more sombre Gothic drama than comedy as the two men try to save Annamaria’s children from falling into the same fate that befell Annamaria and her long-lost brother.

The film’s resolution is actually rather less happy and secure than it at first appears, and one can imagine after the credits start coming up that the two men and the children will still have to work out how they can all live together without driving one another completely nuts. At least Arturo and Alessandro come to realise that they must put their self-interests aside if they are to make their relationship work and be able to care for the children.

While the plot tends to be rather patchy and has the look of several skits sewn together with a few seams and loose ends showing, the film’s characters and themes hold them together. A strong theme is acceptance of the random curve-balls that life throws at people and helps to make them and their connections with one another stronger – if they recognise the opportunity presented. The film makes constant reference to the Goddess of Fortune who throws such curve-balls at Arturo and Alessandro. The challenge for them both is how they use chance occurrences in their lives as opportunities for growth – provided they recognise them as such in time.

Nullarbor: laconic little road movie on the need to work together

Alister Lockhart, Patrick Sarell, “Nullarbor” (2011)

Across the longest stretch of straight road through the flat desert that is the Nullarbor Plain in southern Australia is raced this animated riff on the classic Aesopian fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”. A brash young man (we’ll call him Bernie) driving through the Outback in his souped-up convertible nearly has an accident with a semi-trailer while distracted by an elderly motorist (we’ll call him Waddy) in his decrepit old motor vehicle. Blaming his near-disaster on Waddy, Bernie seeks to outrace the old codger but ends up encountering one obstacle after another, including one memorable one where his convertible is prevented from crossing a railway line and the endless line of train carriages with the word “HA” painted on their sides passing over the line appears to be laughing at him. Eventually catching up with Waddy, Bernie and the older fellow agree through their facial expressions and gesticulations to a race across the featureless desert. The race though has unexpected consequences for both men and they end up humbled by the harsh physical environment of the desert and the sea.

Old age is pitted against youth, and the slow and steady approach is held up against the speedy (and also hasty) in this very likable animated character study. Ultimately Waddy is not any wiser than Bernie when it comes to taking care of his car or pushing it beyond what it can handle. The two men eventually come to a compromise and an understanding (that likely results in a real and long-lasting friendship) when confronted by the immensity of the Australian landscape and the results of their foolish rivalry.

The film’s humour relies a great deal on slapstick and exaggeration, and there is some crude and even violent humour at Bernie’s expense, but all the humour adds individual flavour to the men’s characters and advance or underline the plot in some way. The problems Bernie encounters illustrate how out of depth he is in the Outback. Sooner or later we know he will need the old man’s help. While Waddy has a more laid-back personality and he and his car have seen and experienced much in this part of Australia, even he cannot always rely on experience and familiarity with the environment and this leads to an oversight on his part that results in his car’s unexpected demise. The destruction however leads to an understanding between the two men and from then on they start to work together to get out of their common predicament. Nature always bats last.

The animation is spare and emphasises the isolation and vastness of the Australian desert and its brilliant colours as day changes into night. The laconic tone of the film – there is no dialogue and the characters communicate with body language – is distinctive and highlights its Australian character. The stereotype of Australian masculinity and men’s behaviour comes under the spotlight in this very concise little film.

Retouch: a character study about struggle and sudden unexpected freedom

Kaveh Mazaheri, “Retouch” (2017)

A stunning character study of a married woman, submissive to her bullying husband, who is unexpectedly given a new lease of life when he suddenly dies in an accident at home, “Retouch” examines what she actually does with her newfound freedom – and what she does turns out to be rather ordinary, though in real life many of us would do the same. Much put upon by her badgering husband, Maryam (Sonia Sarjani) patiently juggles his demands and petulance with raising their toddler daughter and going to work at a publication agency. One day though, while working with a barbell, the object slips and pins hubby Siavash (Mohammed Ziksari) to his exercise bench on his throat, effectively cutting off his air. Maryam tries to help get the thing off Siavash but he dies agonisingly. Maryam has no choice but to watch him die.

After that, viewers see from the expressions flitting over her face that while Maryam knows what she ought to do, she also seems to realise that she could just flee the situation, taking the baby with her. So she goes to work as usual, popping the child in at the childcare centre, and gets stuck into her work of retouching pictures of female celebrities for Iranian magazines by digitally dabbing black over their decolletages, shoulders and arms so they look appropriately modest. As the day passes, Maryam takes calls from people wanting to know why Siyavash isn’t answering the phone – and she even makes calls and text messages to him herself! Eventually she is persuaded by work colleagues to go home early and see what Siavash is up to. Maryam picks up her baby and pops into the apartment, half-expecting Siavash to be up and about.

The denouement descends into bizarre comedy as Maryam rehearses what she will say to the neighbours and eventually the ambulance officers when they arrive. Whatever Maryam does though, seems completely credible thanks to the superb portrayal by Sonia Sarjani who fully inhabits the character. Her acting is minimal, reflecting the character’s shy and submissive behaviour, even with female colleagues while having lunch together, yet the expression on her face – the camera does many close-up shots of Sarjani’s face – quickly changes from shock and upset to something resembling quiet satisfaction that at last a major burden has been removed, to guilt and shame at having such feelings. Right up to the end, Maryam constantly seems to be rehearsing her feelings, thoughts and actions, so that even when she repeats coming into the apartment and seeing Siavash dead, the repetitions appear entirely credible. The implication seems to be that Maryam appears something of an empty vessel, with no genuine feelings to call her own, because all throughout her life she has had to suppress her real individuality and character and adopt behaviours expected of her as her own – to be constantly “retouching” herself and her life so everything about her agrees with social expectations.

The style of the film is quietly minimal and naturalistic, throwing the spotlight on its lead character Maryam. This approach and the surrounds – director Mazaheri filmed the apartment scenes in Sarjani’s own apartment – set down a situation and environment most Iranians can identify with, all the more to unsettle them when they see Maryam behave “irrationally” when confronted by the sight of her dying husband. Such a confrontation between what a character actually does and what she is supposed to do clashes with a hitherto downtrodden woman’s beliefs about herself and her place in the world, creating a cognitive dissonance within the individual – so it should be no surprise that Maryam acts strangely for so much of the film.

At once minimal and naturalistic, yet bizarre, awkward and funny at times as well, this film is well worth watching for its depiction of an individual who has had to struggle all her life under heavy burdens – and faces a struggle of a very different kind when suddenly those burdens are lifted.

Fill Your Heart with French Fries: dark comedy about grief, social media celebrity and exploitation

Tamar Glezerman, “Fill Your Heart with French Fries” (2016)

Based on an actual incident in China, in which a woman jilted by her boyfriend ended up staying a week at her local KFC outlet, this comedy short is at once sad, sometimes bitter, a little bit too cute and biting in its social commentary. It seems at once profound in its examination of the nature of grief, particularly in exploring how dealing with grief needs time, a sympathetic ear and even rational examination to come to acceptance and only then can the grieving person face life and move on. At the same time the film appears a little shallow in how it addresses the way society itself deals (or not) with grief and other significant and complicated emotions, and its playing time of 20 minutes ends up wearing quite thin.

Emma (Lindsay Burdge) is rejected by her girlfriend Amy at a FryBaby’s outlet; too depressed to do anything and in obvious shock, the young woman lingers at the table for several days and nights. An employee, Samantha (Auri Jackson), takes pity on Emma and offers her free food while fellow employee Craig (Scott Friend) takes photos of Emma and uploads them to social media platforms where her plight captures the attention of hundreds, if not thousands, of viewers. Before long, Emma becomes the cynosure of all eyes at the FryBaby’s outlet and on social media. Two women surreptitiously film her. An evangelist takes advantage of Emma’s downbeat state to try to preach the gospel. An acquaintance tells Emma to go home, look after herself and “move on”. A salesman makes a proposition to sponsor her if she will promote an eccentric anti-romance product. In the end, a police officer (Tom O’Keefe) shows some sympathy and compassion for Emma’s feelings and a little boy (Finn Douglas) unwittingly shows her how to get out of her depressed fug.

Burdge does good work in conveying Emma’s grief without overacting and the general tone of the film is respectful in its handling of the grieving process. It is not quite so good in dealing with the parade of people who impinge on Emma’s grief and mourning, and the social issues that arise with each and every intruder are toyed with briefly and in a shallow way. Evangelical religion and the way in which it preys on vulnerable people get short shrift, as do commercial exploitation and social media voyeurism. Only the police officer breaks a stereotype about the nature of law enforcement by refusing to arrest Emma for loitering or trespass. The film reaches a surreal level once the small boy starts addressing Emma. While Emma is eventually able to come to a resolution and resolve her problem, the way in which this process is initiated seems unreal and too tidy.

The world in which Emma’s dilemma plays out seems rather bleak, which adds to the bitter atmosphere of the film, and when she finally leaves the fast food outlet, she steps into an environment that seems even more sterile and uncaring, with dog poo left on the pavement and snow that the local authorities should have removed still on the street.

Little character development occurs and viewers are not privy to Emma’s feelings and emotions beyond what is conveyed on her face, leaving the protagonist blank and flat at the end of the film. Nevertheless there is potential for a full-length movie out of this film: a definite character study could be done and each new encounter the protagonist has while in the fast food outlet could be the basis of a sub-plot or an examination of an aspect of modern life.

Men in Black II: some good ideas go to waste in a cheap sequel

Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men in Black II” (2002)

Five years after the events of the original “Men in Black”, at the end of which Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) retired from the Men in Black agency – the secret intelligence unit that monitors the activities of exterrestrial beings living and working on Planet Earth – his former MiB protege Agent J (Will Smith) is called upon to investigate the mysterious death of an alien at his (the alien’s, that is) pizza restaurant. There, Agent J interviews Laura (Rosario Dawson) who tells him her employer was killed by two aliens, Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), a shape-shifting monster in the form of a lingerie model, and Charlie and Scrad, Serleena’s two-headed assistant (Johnny Knoxville), who are hunting for the Light of Zartha which Serleena needs for her own nefarious purposes. Agent J is attracted to Laura and decides not to neuralyse her.

As he investigates the crime, Agent J discovers nearly all leads go back to his mentor so he brings the former Agent K back to MiB headquarters for re-neuralysation. Before Agent K’s neuralysation is completed, Serleena and her minions attack the building and seriously trash it so Agent K’s memories must be restored clandestinely. Having regained his identity and memories, Agent K remembers that he partially neuralysed himself to erase what he knows of the Light of Zartha but left some clues to follow in case he needed to find out again.

Putting Laura under protection with various aliens, Agents J and K recover a video containing a fictional dramatisation of how, long ago, Queen Lauranna of Zartha entrusted the MiB agency to guard the Light from her enemy Serleena. Agent K could not save the Queen from the murderous Serleena so he neuralysed himself in order to forget his grief and at the same time forget what the Light of Zartha was and where it was held. The agents return to the place where they placed Laura but discover she has been abducted by Serleena.

While Smith and Jones work very well together – indeed, the movie limps along until Agent K recovers his memories (although the speed at which they come back is unconvincing and much potential fun is lost along the way) – and do what they can to maintain the old zing and energy from the previous film, the plot is flat and the entire film has a cheap and cheesy tone. Gags such as the talking-dog gag quickly wear thin and even scenes featuring Jeff the giant monster living in the NYC subway are not very scary. While Laura plays a significant part in the film, the romance angle between her and Agent J is very brief and superficial, and the heartbreak climax in which Laura discovers her true heritage and must go to Zartha does not give the film the emotional edge it could have had.

The message that once someone becomes an MiB agent, s/he is always an MiB agent, and the corollary that MiB agents can never be normal people with normal lives and normal relationships, but are permanently wedded to their employer, is present but unfortunately the script does not make more of it than it does. Similar could be said for characters like Laura, Serleena and Charlie and Scrad: what are their motivations, why exactly is Serleena interested in the Light of Zartha, and what do Charlie and Scrad hope to get out of working with Serleena? There are many interesting ideas in this film that could have made it much more entertaining, a little bit on the scary side, and perhaps even a bit thoughtful. What a pity that these ideas were not allowed to help write what could have been a good script.

Batman & Robin: so one-dimensional, it should be called “Flatman & Ribbon”

Joel Schumacher, “Batman & Robin” (1997)

Some folks probably call this film “Flatman & Ribbon” for the fact that the Dynamic Duo (played respectively by George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell) get well and truly steamrolled by a lousy stereotypical script in which two villains become a megalomaniacal tag-team with no motive other than to literally remake the world to their desires and hog screen time with their over-acting, silly puns and outlandish costumes. A big part of the blame must go to director Schumacher for steering the Good Ship Gotham Universe too close to the camp live-action television show that starred Adam West as the Dark Knight. The cast of actors which include Arnold Schwarzenegger as chief villain Mr Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson / Batgirl does what it can but the movie is far too crowded with them all and most of their characters end up so one-dimensional they may as well be paper cut-outs. “Flatman and Ribbon” indeed.

At least the script tries to inject an emotional element in a sub-plot about the importance of family and family loyalties by having Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough) fall ill with the same mysterious ailment that befell the wife of Mr Freeze who desperately needs money for research on a cure for the illness which puts her in a permanent coma. Mr Freeze embarks on a life of crime stealing diamonds that power his suit to keep his metabolism at subzero temperatures due to a laboratory accident. With Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze, the villain’s desperate quest to revive his wife takes centre stage but Alfred’s illness is always in the background to remind Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson of the importance of being partners and working together, and to rope in Alfred’s niece Barbara Wilson who comes to Wayne Manor to look after her uncle. The scenes with Alfred are very touching and feature some good acting from Clooney who otherwise provides a sunny and not so tortured interpretation of Bruce Wayne / Batman throughout the film.

While on his mission to steal more diamonds including one from an observatory that Wayne Enterprises sponsors, Mr Freeze meets Poison Ivy, herself created from a chemical laboratory mash-up, who gets him out of jail and tries to wangle her way into his cold-hearted affections by pulling the plug on his wife. Together the two plot to freeze Gotham City and then the entire world with the assistance of Poison Ivy’s subordinate Bane, a huge monstrosity created with a drug called Venom. Fortunately the Dynamic Duo and Batgirl foil the Dastardly Duo’s plans and put them back into prison, but not before an endless and tiresome series of explosions, enough car crashes to turn all of Gotham City’s scrapyard merchants into millionaires, lots of dead bodies and other collateral damage, and too many implausible dramatic situations that would be impossible for even the most well-prepared superheroes to survive – or at least not risk shoulder dislocations or arms ripping off – all culminating in very sudden climatic change in negative Centigrade temperatures for Gotham City.

Little touches such as a conversation between Bruce Wayne and Alfred about being able to control the chaos around oneself – always an ongoing issue with Batman and those like him who view the world as essentially needing constant repair lest it fall back into even more evil and corruption – and Batman himself offering Mr Freeze a chance to redeem himself at least make some parts of an otherwise tired and bloated film franchise in need of new ideas bearable. Little surprise then that this flatlining film did not do so well at the box office and the film franchise ended with it.

Men in Black: a sci-fi comedy sending up intel agencies and immigration issues

Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men in Black” (1997)

Very loosely based on the original comic series of the same name, in which a secret organisation called The Men In Black polices the activities of extraterrestrial aliens on Earth and keeps these hidden from the rest of humanity, this film turns the original source material into parody and satire poking fun at bureaucracy and secret intelligence agencies, and posits the notion that even underground organisations investigating conspiracy-theory / tinfoil-hat topics need new blood, new ideas and a fresh way of thinking to survive. MIB Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) needs a new partner after his old one retires when a mission proves too sticky for them both. Coincidentally a new potential replacement presents himself when New York City police officer James Edwards (Will Smith) pursues a suspect into a museum. Impressed with the cop, Agent K interviews him and encourages him to apply for a vacancy with the MIB agency. After undergoing various tests, in which he supplies original and wacky solutions, Edwards is accepted into the agency, his old identity and former civilian life are expunged from New York City records, and he becomes Agent J.

While all this is happening, an alien searching for an energy device called the Galaxy, cunningly hidden in a cat’s collar jewel, kills a farmer called Edgar (Vincent d’Onofrio) and takes on Edgar’s form, though it is very ill-fitting. The Edgar alien kills two other aliens disguised as humans and their murders are reported in The National Enquirer (a newspaper specialising in conspiracy theories and UFO sightings). Agents K and J read about the murders and Agent K guesses the Edgar alien is a “bug” (ie cockroach alien). The two agents consult an alien informant disguised as a pug dog and follow other information to find the Edgar alien having kidnapped a morgue coroner (Linda Fiorentino) and in possession of the Galaxy.

The plot is simple and straightforward to follow, though once Edwards becomes J, it no longer becomes interesting and the eccentric zany quality fades out. What the narrative ends up becoming is a standard crime caper with two agents who are mirror opposites in almost every way – Agent K is very much an organisation man while Agent J retains his individuality and quick-thinking, quick-talking flair even after his fingerprints have been burnt off and his old name has been forgotten. Jones and Smith work well together as a comedy team, and their chemistry together and mix of deadpan humour and wit hold the film together. D’Onofrio, Fiorentino and Rip Torn also hold their own well though Fiorentino is underused.

The central theme of the film could be summed up as “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, to use that old cliched proverb, as plenty in the film, including characters, plot twists and various other elements, have the element of surprise. Humans living unremarkable lives turn out to be aliens in disguise, an old car suddenly displays advanced technology, and a tiny gun packs an almighty punch and a huge recoil. The concept of individuality is examined, even if in a simplistic way: a man may lose his name and past but is his individuality, his sense of self, erased as well? Or will it be just a matter of time before Agent J becomes as much an MIB organisation man as Agent K? Will the real conflict be between Agent J in trying to maintain his individual style and way of thinking, and perhaps change the organisation, on the one hand and on the other the MIB agency itself in moulding Agent J into yet another faceless MIB agent and staying the same, at the risk of becoming stale and bureaucratic?

The film also has something pithy to say about the perennial issue faced by Western countries regarding immigration and how law and order institutions deal with illegal migrants. The lesson to be learned is that most migrants, even illegal ones, desire to lead normal lives and keep their heads down.

Bad Black: car chases, kung fu, vengeance, the plight of orphans in poverty and social injustice all rolled into one film

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Bad Black” (2016)

Despite the tiny budget – even less than its predecessor, “Who Killed Captain Alex?”, apparently being about US$85 – this film proves to be very well made with a complex story of two parallel sub-plots referring to social issues of importance to Ugandans (and, well, the rest of the world, come to think of it). Given that the cast consists of local people in director Nabwana’s impoverished community Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, the acting is very good and the child actors who appear are especially natural and very appealing. The cinematography is quite good as well, though with the camera being handheld and having to follow running people, it can be quite ragged. The film was developed as an acting vehicle for Nabwana’s US sponsor Alan Ssali Hofmanis who plays himself as a foreign medical professional helping families in Wakaliga.

The main sub-plot revolves around a girl called Bad Black (Gloria Nalwanga) who comes into the world under dramatic circumstances: her father Swaaz robs a bank to try to help his wife Flavia in labour and leads police on a wild car chase before defiantly going up in flames while machine-gunning everyone who tries to stop him. (Along the way Swaaz kills Captain Alex so we finally discover what happens to the police officer from the earlier film.) His sidekick manages to get the money to hospital but apparently not before Flavia dies. Flavia’s daughter is adopted by a family but when that family falls on hard times, the adoptive grandfather Hirigi turfs the girl out. The child falls in with a child gang led by a Fagin-like figure. Eventually the girl earns her nickname, Bad Black, by getting rid of that Svengali figure and becoming the leader of the gang. Years later, Bad Black plots vengeance against Hirigi for disowning her; for his part, Hirigi falls in love with her, marries her and hands over most of what he possesses to her. But Bad Black hasn’t quite finished with him yet.

Dr Ssali runs a makeshift clinic in the Wakaliga slum dispensing medication when Bad Black manages to get his business card, breaks into his home and steals his valuables, including some precious family dog-tags. Dr Ssali’s assistant, a nine-year-old boy called Wesley Snipes (!). teaches the doctor how to fight and defend himself with kung fu so he can get his dog-tags back. His training done, Dr Ssali hunts down Bad Black and her gang, at the same time that the police are hunting down Bad Black and Company as well to bust a drug-running scheme. Among Bad Black’s followers is Kenny, Hirigi’s son whom Dad (now a rich businessman) has recently disowned for making a ghetto woman pregnant.

Much of the story is very cleverly told so that what appears at times to be social commentary about daily life in Wakaliga, how hard it is for poor people to live from day to day, turns out to be part of quite an intricate plot. We do not learn of Swaaz’s connection to Bad Black until very late in the film after all the car chases, kung fu fighting, shooting, killing and the prison break-out have been done. Nabwana injects slapstick and sometimes very witty commentary into scenes that in other films would be treated very seriously. The importance of family, the consequences that occur when families are forcibly broken up and people make bad decisions, the heartbreak and tragedies suffered by children forced to grow up on the street and to join gangs, the trouble caused when people seek vengeance at any cost, the abuse of poor people by the selfish rich, the possibility of redemption – and, in the case of Dr Ssali, being true to your nature and not suppressing it – these are all themes that drive this film. Even the crazy car chases, the fighting, the machine-gun action and the constant obsession with Hollywood action-thriller actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude van Damme and others tell viewers something about life and the culture, how uncertain one’s path in life can be, of urban slum neighbourhoods in Kampala. Most of all, the black humour that exists as a survival mechanism and a way of bonding with others equally suffering from poverty and social injustice is part and parcel of the film thanks to narrator / voice joker VJ Emmie who not only interprets for the actors and describes the actions but also gets fully involved in the plot and cracks jokes, puns and witticisms (“This doctor needs borders!”) along the way.

The plot might not make complete sense and much of it is bat-shit bizarre with hilarious characters and many situations that Western viewers will feel should be treated seriously, based as they are in a context of official corruption and social injustice yet are pumped by Nabwana for their black comedy potential. Women crowded together in a shit-hole prison? – no problem, they are populated with outrageous characters like the Big Mama prisoner known as Supa Zilla. But no matter how silly and implausible the various plot-lines turn out to be with their laughable plot twists, “Bad Black” has charm, self-deprecating humour, the most hilarious special effects and Nabwana’s enthusiasm and passion for making films in and about his community that infects everyone who comes into contact with him and his work – and that includes those who watch his films.

Elite commandos, Tiger Mafia gangsters and Ugandan Shaolin Temple monks go head to head in “Who Killed Captain Alex?”

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Who Killed Captain Alex?” (2010)

Reputedly made on a budget of US$200 (though American-born Ugandan producer Alan Ssali Hofmanis admits the budget was actually US$85), this action-packed comedy of Uganda’s finest military commandos taking on the country’s most dangerous criminal organisation is a riveting work of amateur improvised film-making under conditions of poverty in a corrupt and authoritarian state. Captain Alex (William Kakule), one of the finest officers in the Uganda People’s Defence Force, sets out to destroy the evil Richard (Ernest Sseruyna) and his Tiger Mafia, which controls the slum neighbourhoods of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. After losing most of his commandos in a near-botched stealth operation on a group of Tiger Mafia drug couriers, Captain Alex manages to capture Richard’s brother and bring him to the police. On seeing the bad news on Ramon TV, the major TV channel in Wakaliga (a poor suburb on the outskirts of Kampala), Richard swears vengeance on Captain Alex and sends out a female spy to the military headquarters to seduce the officer and lure him to Richard. Alas and alack, Captain Alex ends up very dead in his tent – but no-one knows who killed him.

Alex’s brother Bruce U (Charles Bukenya), a Ugandan Shaolin monk, arrives in town, having heard of Alex’s death, swearing vengeance on Alex’s murderers. Bruce U has a few adventures in which he must do battle with the local Kampala kung fu squad and is nearly seduced by Ritah (Prossy Nakyambadde), one of Richard’s numerous and expendable wives. In the meantime, Richard is determined to find out who killed Captain Alex and hires Puffs (G Puffs), a mercenary from Russia, to steal a military helicopter and bomb Kampala for revenge. The Uganda People’s Defence Force also swear to avenge Captain Alex’s death by capturing Richard, though this means having to work out an ambush plan which clearly taxes their brains. They manage to work out where in Uganda Richard is likely to be hiding and start to encroach on him and his minions. Bruce U is captured by Richard’s men who bring him to their boss, who then forces Bruce U to fight Puffs’ assassins. Just as Bruce U succumbs to one flying kick, the commandos arrive and proceed to bomb the warehouse where Richard and his people are hiding. At the same time, Puffs’ destruction of Kampala creates breaking news on Ramon TV and forces the Ugandan government to declare martial law in Kampala.

When the dust eventually settles and the remaining commandos and mafiosi have to count the huge numbers of casualties, viewers are still no closer to discovering just who killed Captain Alex. At least the exuberant and histrionic acting, the crazed machine-gun shooting and the resulting mayhem, the kung fu fighting, and most of all the hilarious dialogue and narration by VJ Emmie (“What da fuck?!”) maintain the cheerfully frenetic pace in this devil-may-care, self-referential work. With respect to VJ Emmie’s voice-over narration and commentary, filled with jokes and openly exuberant as Emmie becomes absorbed in the plot and the action, there are very many highlights but the funniest of all must be the conversation over a woman early on in the bar-room scene: 1st man says, “Are you crazy? That is my wife! Get off my wife!” – to which 2nd man replies, “I thought [she] was a goat!” Another gem, this one from Emmie: “… All Ugandans know kung fu! …” One joke clearly meant for Ugandans involves a woman who is tortured because she insists on watching Nigerian movies.

Surprisingly for such a cheaply made and shot film with meagre resources, the plot is very involved and quite sophisticated in its own way, even though many details of the plot are full of holes, with a mystery that remains unsolved despite the body count and the destruction, and the ending remains open as the Ugandan government puts Kampala under lock-down while Puffs flies off in his stolen chopper into the sunset. The cinematography can be astonishingly good, especially in Bruce U’s training and fight scenes. The action is brisk and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, expecting the … well, the unexpectable!

Part of the film’s charm is that the cast is drawn from local people in director IGG Nabwanza’s home community in Wakaliga, and all the props used in the film are local as well. The action takes place in and around Wakaliga. The special effects are really very good when one considers they were done on computers that Nabwanza himself put together out of salvaged scrap. The film is highly self-referential, as VJ Emmie constantly reminds the target Ugandan audience what it is they are watching, and this continual self-referral builds up the notion of an all-embracing universe called Wakaliwood, in which supa-killa elite commandos and supa-crazy Tiger Mafia killers fight as much for the fun of fighting as they do for control and dominance.

Attack on Nyege Nyege Island: mini action thriller short featuring killer King Kong kung-fu kicks

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island” (2016)

The tiny but already globally famous Ugandan film industry (known as Ugawood, taking after the manner of Bollywood and Nollywood which represent the popular film industries of India and Nigeria respectively) already boasts its very own Quentin Tarantino cult figure in the person of one Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana, also known as Nabwana IGG, who since 2009 has been making comedy action thriller flicks on literal shoe-string budgets as low as US$200 (!!!) with cheap special effects which he knocks up on his computer, which he built himself out of scrap material in his impoverished neighbourhood Wakaliga, a suburb in Kampala, and featuring voice-over narration from so-called “voice jokers” who dub or translate the dialogue into English for audiences and who often add their own interpretations and jokes into the narration for hilarious effect. Beginning with his most famous film “Who killed Captain Alex?”, Nabwana’s films take place in a particular universe, of course familiar to us and yet an odd place where it seems blaxploitation and martial arts flicks common in the 1970s never went out of fashion, drug lords commanding mafia gangs and big bosses running worldwide trafficking rackets not only still exist but still wear the most god-awful flamboyant fashions, and fighters are as likely to send one another to overflowing morgues with well-aimed kung fu kicks as with AK-47s that they just can’t seem to control.

In case this all sounds too much for readers, Nabwana kindly provides a taster of his distinctive world with a 12-minute short “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island”, a film he improvised and made in two days during the Nyege Nyege Festival. The musicians and the audience at the festival, and the community who hosted it, make up the film’s entire cast. All you need to know is that the festival is gatecrashed by commandos from the fearsome Tiger Mafia gang – whose big boss wears an odd mask of three CD-ROM discs over his forehead and eyes – who proceed to shoot up everyone in sight in their quest to kidnap somebody called Anna whom their boss seems inordinately fond of. In desperation two girls in the Nyege Nyege community summon the spirit guardian, a human-sized King Kong figure who proceeds to knock out and knock off the Tiger Mafia gangsters with Killer Kung Fu fighting.

The acting is probably better than might be expected in a cheerfully cheap film such as this, and the special effects are actually on par with the famously legendary cheap special effects of the old original Doctor Who television series that ran from 1963 to 1989. Needless to say, the plot is almost non-existent and just when it almost runs out of juice, the film ends on a cliff-hanger that can only be resolved at the next Nyege Nyege Festival. The voice joker is as much an essential part of the action as he introduces characters and does not so much explain or narrate as push the story along with exhortations and hurrahs.

The remarkable thing is that this and other films by Nabwanza’s film production company Ramon Productions (named after his grandmothers) exist at all, with their breezy self-deprecating humour and fearless gung-ho DIY spirit, in the slums of Kampala.