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.

Control: a character study on isolation, mental breakdown and psychological assault

Carroll Brown, “Control” (2019)

Filmed on a tiny budget, this science fiction horror short is an intense character study detailing the effects of long isolation in space on a scientist suffering perhaps from guilt and survivor guilt in particular. Elizabeth (Jaimi Paige) has just jettisoned the corpse of her colleague into space from her outpost on Callisto, a Jupiterian moon. She has only Mission Control for company – and that operates (supposedly) on a two-hour time delay. Not long after Elizabeth has sent her partner’s body into space through the airlock, she believes she can hear strange thumping sounds near that airlock. For most of the film, viewers believe she is hallucinating and Elizabeth, in her rapidly escalating hysteria, partly believes she is indeed hallucinating – but some of her conversations with Mission Control and a possible twist at the end of the film suggest that Mission Control may be manipulating her emotions and resilience in a sinister psychological experiment.

In a very bare setting, Paige does excellent work in what is virtually a solo outing as a frightened figure on her own on the verge of a mental breakdown in a haunted-house scenario. Voice actor C Thomas Howell as the spokesperson for Mission Control helps drive the plot with necessary dialogue that hints that Mission Control isn’t just a bureaucratic space agency, that it may have a secret agenda of its own that Elizabeth and her partner are unaware of. This becomes apparent in the later part of the film when Mission Control appears to humour Elizabeth and to reflect her emotions and fears back to her. The film becomes most interesting when the light turns off and Elizabeth begins to scream – at which point it ends, leaving viewers to imagine far worse than what would perhaps have happened had the film continued, in which case the film would have had to reveal its hand and show that Elizabeth is indeed going mad or that Mission Control (or possibly even a malign alien force on Callistio or Jupiter or elsewhere) is indeed exploiting her emotions.

The plot and its themes cannot sustain more than a 15-minute film but the time is enough for Paige to demonstrate her ability and skill as an actor to flesh out and carry a bare-bones story about facing one’s worst fears while under psychological assault.

Corrections: a tale of obsession, extreme control, psychological projection and denial

Nicholas Tucker, “Corrections” (2017)

A tale of obsession and extreme control in a future dystopian society, this short film is completely character and dialogue-driven, revolving around a parole officer and a sociopathic inmate who is immune to reform. In the near future, a prison uses simulations to rehabilitate and evaluate prisoners on their moral resolve in private, intimate scenarios for reduced sentences, early parole and possible early release. One prisoner, Alice Luna (Sarah Phillips), seems clearly uninterested in reforming herself and conforming to prison directives, and seems keen only on seducing her parole officer, Cyrus Williams (Luke Pennington). Most of the film focuses on the various simulation scenarios that Williams sets up for Luna but she is intent on following her dreams which turn out to be quite sinister and involve domination and control.

There is a late twist in the plot which completely overthrows the narrative and raises the issue of how a system of surveillance and complete control – one in which prisoners are coerced into total conformity and prevented from developing their own ethical values, however ideal or not these may be – can be subverted by other malevolent actors and institutions for their own purposes. This raises an issue of how societies of control and surveillance encourage the development of humans who remain eternal infants all their lives and who end up vulnerable to other systems of control and brainwashing.

Phillips’ acting is superb in this very taut and quite intense little thriller. Her large-eyed, baby-faced looks are very effective in conveying a very bland, matter-of-fact expression behind which strange and uncomfortable thoughts may be lurking. At the end of the film, Phillips presents a completely different appearance as a bland bureaucrat, so much so she might have been someone else playing the part. Pennington is no less admirable in the way he plays his role and his weary features as he presses on with a recalcitrant problem child are sure to make quite an impression on viewers. The film’s cinematography is excellent, especially in an apparent dream sequence, and the general look and feel of the film is very minimal and sparse.

Perhaps the twist at the end might subvert most viewers’ perceptions of what the film’s themes are but the notion of obsession is backed up by what becomes obvious as psychological projection and denial in the narrative that has led up to the twist. A larger theme that our society projects its obsessions and hatreds (and also admiration, even hero-worship) onto psychopathic / sociopathic individuals, and makes them the scapegoats for behaviours and actions we both abhor and nurse in secret, is present. At the same time that we try to force individuals to adhere to external codes of morality, which in themselves may be dubious, we undermine those codes ourselves in our cultures and our actions, especially in our actions towards outsiders and people in distant lands. We proclaim that we believe in peace and sustainability but at the same time invade other nations if they insist on following their own paths of political and economic development, and continue to dump waste on Third World nations and pursue domination of them to force them to yield their natural resources to us.

The Time Agent: a time travel story of loneliness and alienation

Jude Chun, “The Time Agent” (2016)

In its own unassuming way, “The Time Agent” is a deconstruction of a once common style of narrative in genres as different as the Western, hard-boiled pulp crime fiction or genteel English crime / mystery thrillers: a lone avenger character, self-sufficient and sure of him/herself, comes along and finds a community in trouble, solves the problem and leaves a grateful community to continue to the next neighbourhood in trouble. The consequences of this avenger character’s actions are never known but have to be assumed to be positive. An unnamed South Korean man (Gwui-oong Choi) known only as the Time Agent travels back in time in his machine to subtly undermine, change and break up the relationships of couples who are parents of future mass murderers. Once the mission is complete, the Time Agent must wait in self-imposed seclusion – any interactions he has with people in the time of his mission must be minimised to the utmost to avoid unduly influencing the future – until the time machine starts revving up again, signalling a new mission to get rid of another relationship. For this Time Agent, the time between his recent successful mission and the next one is rather long – one would think there is a backlog of work for him to do for the next 10 years – and he unwittingly violates his code of employment when he sees a teenage girl, Yeesul (Young-hee Jeon), about to jump off the bridge over the Han River (in Seoul) to her death and stops her. He invites the girl to stay with him for a week to minimise the consequences of his impulsive action while she decides if she still wants to commit suicide; for his part, as time goes by, he starts falling in love with her and becomes conscious of the isolation and alienation his work imposes on him.

The film’s style is minimal with sparse dialogue and an emphasis on strong and restrained acting that brings out the emotional pain of isolated existences in a fragmented society. Viewers become aware of the emotional consequences of time travel and its potential to inflict dramatic long-term changes on people and society through an apparent minor change in one’s actions. Yes, breaking up a couple’s marriage so that they do not bring into the world a future psychopathic killer may be a laudable goal for some but it also means that two people, their families and others around them might suffer unnecessary pain that in itself could also have long-term social consequences.

The film’s bare-bones presentation and its plot revolving around two lost souls (one of them literally – does the Time Agent remember which future he actually comes from?) are sure to have a deep emotional impact on viewers. At times it can be unbearable to watch, especially when the girl finally makes her decision. The Time Agent discovers that for all the choices he makes that affect other people’s lives and the direction of their futures and their societies’ futures, he ultimately has no influence on his own future.

Nano: hard-boiled pulp fiction ho-hum plot with an unusual premise

Mike Manning, “Nano” (2017)

This short film has the look and feel of a proof-of-concept work itching to be made into a full-length feature film or a television series: it has a very Hollywood look and sheen and it is clearly plot-driven. The plot revolves around a hard-bitten detective living on his own who hires a hooker to come to his apartment for some rough sex: how much more pulp-fiction hard-bitten can that plot be? The difference between “Nano” and other conventional hardboiled detective stories is its underlying science fiction premise: in the near future, the human genome will be augmented with nano-technologies that will link all humans from the time they are born with various government databases and networks. In the short, a new database version of the Nano technology is released and this Nano 2.0 version will become mandatory for all humans to have in their DNA. Among other things, this new version will enable police departments in the US to mediate potential criminal violence by accessing protagonists’ DNA through the database and inducing sudden paralysis in them; this will not only prevent violent crime but also gives governments the ability to direct people’s actions. As a result, people have less personal control and autonomy in their lives.

While the hologram TV news program pits a young, presumably “liberal” female reporter in favour of Nano 2.0 against a middle-aged male commentator with “conservative” values arguing against the loss of personal freedom and free will, the detective and the hooker eye each other suspiciously and have a terse and tense conversation before they get down to business. Unbeknownst to the detective, the prostitute is actually part of a hacker activist group opposed to Nano 2.0 and the potential loss of human freedoms: before arriving at his apartment, she has knocked over the real hooker going there and robbed her of her DNA profile and incorporated it into her own through a portable nano-technological hook-up gadget with the result that the hacktivist’s hair turns blonde from the real prostitute’s phenotype expression.

Once in the detective’s apartment, the hacktivist plays out the prostitute’s role until such time as she paralyzes the fellow temporarily so she can hack into the Nano 2.0 database and download his genome into a card before he wakes up. The downloading isn’t fast enough, he wakes up, there’s a fight, she manages to get away – but not before he is able to access and download her genome from a government database and send that information to his superiors. Thus, while she escapes with her accomplice, the police are able to induce paralysis in her and the accomplice is forced to abandon her and take off with the detective’s information.

For me, the most interesting part of the film (apart from the premise which it depends on) is the TV news conversation that runs in the background in the detective’s apartment: the argument between the young female reporter and the middle-aged interviewee satirises the current US culture wars involving identity politics, and perceived political allegiances and their associated ideologies and belief systems. Those protesting increased government surveillance and invasion of human minds, bodies and even genetics for the purpose of control are made out not only to be narrow-minded and bigoted, but even (in an ironic and twisted way) authoritarian. The reporter also constantly interrupts the interviewee in an exchange that remarks bitingly on the state of news media, that they assume a role in which they represent and interpret for government and the elite agendas that government now represents – in short, the news media have become the propaganda and public relations arm of government – and everyone must genuflect before a virtual secular priesthood of the police state.

Aside from this development which is part of the film’s context, the plot is fairly ordinary with its emphasis on physical seduction and violence, and little in the way of decent dialogue. The acting is adequate enough to demonstrate that in the future, the most valuable possession is a person’s genetic identity. The film ends on an open note, by which time few viewers are likely to care much about the paralysed hacktivist or the unlikable detective out for revenge.

The Replacement: an inquiry into the nature-versus-nurture dilemma

Sean Miller, “The Replacement” (2018)

What starts out as an investigation of the consequences of cloning in this sci-fi comedy short turns out almost to be a philosophical inquiry into the vexed question of how much nature or nurture influences a person’s destiny, the choices he or she is able to make, and how acquiring power and control can also influence personality and future choices, with all the consequences that arise. (The film’s original premise was actually more ordinary: it was intended to show what uncomfortable consequences could accrue if biological and other scientific breakthroughs and advances resulted in actual technological changes faster than society’s ethics and laws can keep up with them.) Despite a rather weak plot, the film leaves viewers pondering how much of a nation’s politics and ultimately its history, culture and society are shaped by the personalities of its past leaders and their backgrounds. In the not-so-distant future, lowly janitor Abe Stagsen (Mike McNamara) subscribes to an organisation that makes clones of his cells in the belief that ultimately his clones can help get him out of his low-paying job; instead his clones pursue their own ambitions and one of them ends up being elected President of the United States. Irate, Abe cancels his subscription and vows to get even with President Abe to demonstrate that the original Abe still matters. In his quest to find President Abe, the real Abe discovers that he’s not the only person angry at his clone; other people are out to hunt down all the Abe clones and his own life is in danger.

Structured as a vehicle for McNamara to show off his acting chops, which he does admirably, the film ends up having a sketchy plot which ends with Abe joining an underground movement. Viewers are left high and dry with this open-ended and uncertain coda. The film glosses over the discrepancies in the time the clones take or need to grow up before one or a few of them actually meet a still youthful orignal Abe as adults. Instead the film shoves poor old Abe into one rushed and not well thought-out scenario after another, with many improbable escapes: in one scene, he narrowly escapes being machine-gunned into Swiss cheese when in the nick of time, a bunch of police centurions leap into the scene and machine-gun his would-be executors willy-nilly while miraculously sparing him even though he is in the thick of it all.

Still, that Miller manages to pack a 12-minute film with so many interesting questions on the ethics and consequences of cloning for society is no mean feat. The film really needs a proper full-length movie treatment or a television series that can investigate the moral and ethical issues in some depth.

Nine Minutes: choosing how to die as your oxygen gives out

Ernie Gilbert, “Nine Minutes” (2017)

What if you suddenly discovered that you only had nine minutes left to live? How would you spend that time? This dilemma is made very real for future astronaut Lillian (Constance Wu), on a mission for United Earth Space Agency exploring a newly discovered planet and collecting soil samples: while her craft attempts take-off back to the mothership, an engine misfires and the astronaut is forced to eject before the craft explodes in mid-air. With her AI guide (voiced by Reggie Watt) keeping her company and warning her that her spacesuit’s oxygen levels are low, Lillian recovers from her sudden ejection and manages to recover the samples and make sure their containers have not been broken. She locates her damaged craft but is unable to obtain more oxygen from the tanks. With her oxygen running low and even her AI guide having to shut down, Lillian reviews her life, how she has always invested her energies and passions into her work while neglecting her significant relationships, and tries to come to terms with the choices she has made so that her last few moments are not lived in vain.

The film has a clean, cool yet elegiac look and feel, and the desert setting and cinematography concentrate all the viewer’s attention on Lillian as she becomes increasingly disoriented from low levels of oxygen in her suit and her dialogue with her AI guide becomes distracted and fragmented. One senses that she may be regretting choices she has made in the past in her drive to become an astronaut. Who is she apologising to at the moment of her death? The tantalising climax leaves her speech unfinished and it is anyone’s guess who or what the object of her apology is.

The film gives no backstory to Lillian, how she might have fought her way up through the ranks of the UESA to become a leader of an expedition to the new planet, and so viewers may not feel much sympathy for her in her efforts to preserve the samples rather than try to save herself. What is the nature of her expedition and what are the samples being tested and used for? Is the UESA merely the workhorse agency for corporate mining clients or terraforming companies wishing to exploit the resources of the planet for profit? Is Lillian a fool for wanting to preserve the samples, giving up her life as a result? Is she even aware that she will soon become a corporate statistic?

Wu gives a good performance as the doomed astronaut trying to maintain her sanity and a clear head while her oxygen is giving out, her mind is becoming foggy and her speech degenerates into babble. The cinematography is good too in gradually zooming from a focus on scenery onto a focus on Wu’s face, circling around the woman as she sits in the desert looking ahead. There is not much one can say about Watt’s voice-over apart from that it is clear and does not reveal much emotion – which perhaps increases Lillian’s sense of isolation and thus her determination to make her last moments count for something.

It is often paradoxically when humans are stuck in situations where they appear to have no choice at all in determining their destiny that they may choose to rise above those situations and determine to live and die with meaning. The film becomes much more than a film about self-sacrifice for a cause that may not deserve such heroism.

Animal: in a ruined world, hope, tradition and openness to new consciousness can overcome despair

Jules Janaud and Fabrice le Nezet, “Animal” (2017)

In the not too distant future, in a post-industrial world, communities living on the margins of society will find new ways of accommodating and blending cyber-technologies with traditional folk customs that pass on knowledge and a sense of identity and belonging. An elderly man, Jawak (Issaka Sawadogo), lives a reclusive life in one such impoverished community, somewhere on the outskirts of Paris or Dakar (Senegal), caring for his pet, Noodle: it is a mutant cephalopod born in an environment where various toxic chemicals, some radioactive, have been dumped for a long time. The wildlife has changed in order to cope with the high levels of radiation. Half a century ago, as a child Jawak entered a radioactive zone with two friends, one of them Marcel; while exploring and looking for something, Jawak suffered an accident for which Marcel was in part responsible. Since then permanently disabled (and presumable unable to find work where he needed to be able to walk and move normally), Jawak has nursed a long-simmering resentment against Marcel (Bass Dhem) who has done much better in life.

An opportunity to settle an old score arises when Jawak and Marcel agree to match their cephalopod animals, Noodle and Bouma respectively, in a fight at which bets will be placed and money will change hands. For this, Jawak prepares Noodle carefully: he dresses the creature in warrior regalia and feeds it special food which includes his own blood as advised by a traditional healer to get rid of the anger and resentment he still feels from his childhood.

For much of the film, the action is slow and leisurely, the preparation for the fight being as much a ritual in itself as the fight is: Jawak goes to great lengths to buy the special food and feed Noodle, and to make special armour which he also paints carefully. At the match itself, Jawak in semi-traditional dress dances a ritual dance signalling the beginning of battle; Marcel on the other hand, natty in his Western suit, brings out his well-fed animal with little ceremony. This part of the film shows up the huge disparity in Jawak and Marcel’s circumstances and their attitudes to tradition and modernism: Jawak has always been poor and stayed close to his west African culture and traditions while Marcel has enjoyed a fully Westernised lifestyle with little regard for his ancestors’ backgrounds and culture.

While the film seems slow and appears not to say a great deal initially, after a second watch this viewer perceives how tradition and secret knowledge can enrich and benefit an individual and even effect a transformation that will resonate through that individual’s life for a long time. Jawak’s use of tradition to achieve several goals is skilfully and minimally demonstrated in the straightforward plot: he has his revenge on Marcel and at the same time is able to relieve his feelings of resentment, and presumably can go forward in his life. The climactic moment occurs when Noodle, appearing badly bitten and beaten by Bouma, suddenly responds to the spirit messages and nourishment infused into it and begins chasing the bigger mutant.

The acting is very good and the narrative and cinematography work together well to create and escalate tension and anticipation while at the same time working in a theme of culture and tradition providing a basis for hope, sacrifice, transformation and resurrection against astronomical physical odds. In the end, it is the state of mind and one’s openness to a new consciousness and reality that wins against brute physical force.

Plurality: a film of techno-dystopia in New York

Dennis Liu, “Plurality” (2012)

A competent little short that looks very much like a proof-of-concept work for a longer feature film, “Plurality” plays like a conventional Hollywood action thriller flick, which is really to its detriment as the film is premised on a very interesting and currently relevant socio-political concern. In 2023, New York City brings in a new database known as The Grid, into which everyone’s identity and personal details have been scanned and which can be accessed by biometric data. This enables people to unlock and open doors, apply for bank accounts and passports, and pay for items using just fingerprint or other personal biometric identifiers. As a result, crime in NYC falls dramatically – it becomes impossible for people to steal things – but a new worry has befallen the security forces who monitor The Grid: a new phenomenon in which two people, looking exactly alike and using the same biometric details, are appearing in the city. Such “twinning” is becoming more prevalent. Two young blonde women, both named Alana Winston (Samantha Strelitz), have been spotted in different parts of the city, and Inspector Jacob Foucault (Jeffrey Nissani) is sent out to apprehend one of them, the other having already been taken into custody.

A major part of the film is taken up with the chase leaving little time to investigate the film’s major concerns with how NYC’s use of The Grid to spy on people as well as provide them with convenience raises issues of how much humans are prepared to sacrifice privacy and to expose themselves to corporate pressure to conform through the kinds of choices presented to them on The Grid, for convenience and ease. Issues such as identity – how can a person presume to have his/her own identity and individuality distinct from what is on The Grid? if a person’s data were to be erased from The Grid, what psychological impact would such erasure have on a person’s sense of self? – receive no coverage “Plurality”. (Perhaps in a feature film this problem would receive a hearing.)

With so much emphasis on chasing people around NYC, the film has no time for character development so viewers have little sympathy for what happens to Alana Winston once she is caught and interrogated. Foucault is just a yes-man officer doing his job efficiently. The film has a very polished and smooth feel with much emphasis on hologram special effects but it does not come across as anything out of the Hollywood action thriller ordinary.

The film definitely could be improved with less emphasis on the chase and more perhaps on exploring the nature of The Grid so that viewers can see for themselves the contradictions of a system that promises security and convenience but ends up delivering neither. Viewers would then ask themselves what kind of government or corporation would force such a system onto NYC; if they were to investigate further, they might be horrified to discover that The Grid might be digital kin to a massive Ponzi scheme.

Future Boyfriend: a sweet sci-fi romantic comedy offering a second chance of life

Ben Rock, “Future Boyfriend” (2016)

Adapted from a play written by A Vincent Ularich for a science fiction theatre festival, of which its full-length romantic comedy movie potential was quickly appreciated by the audience, “Future Boyfriend” takes place in a single setting – its two main characters sit opposite each other at a table in a cosy Italian restaurant – and is driven entirely by the characters’ dialogue. Stuart and Kayley (played by Ron Morehouse and Emily respectively who also played those characters in the play) are on their third date together, and Stuart decides to tell Kayley, since they are now going steady, about his past – or rather, his future. He has come from 60 years in the future in which he first met Kayley as an elderly woman in the nursing home where he works as a care assistant. He even demonstrates to his stunned date the proof with a hologram presentation in which images of the aged Kayley celebrating her 90th birthday with Stuart appear. Apparently Kayley has ended up in the nursing home as her career dreams have failed and she never married and had any children. The horrified young Kayley decides she’s had enough of seeing her bleak future and flees the restaurant … and a very distraught Stuart.

The film succeeds through the work and energy the actors put into their characters: Morehouse particularly emphasises the details of Stuart’s earnest devotion to Kayley, cutting up the food and even feeding the young Kayley though the dementia will not appear for another 60 years. Bell does great work playing Kayley through all the emotions the character must demonstrate in 14 minutes. Unfortunately the single setting and short duration of the film do not allow for Kayley having second and third thoughts about her relationship with Stuart, with the result that any maturation she undergoes and the decision she makes about that relationship appear unusually quick and shallow. A movie treatment of “Future Boyfriend” would draw out the character development of both Stuart and Kayley, as Stuart would have to see the young Kayley for what she is now and not as the elderly patient she will be in the future, and Kayley would have the luxury of time to consider whether or not she should continue to see a rather dorky if earnest young man with an unusual past … or future.

Some may see a rather conservative message that presumes women are much better off in a relationship than living alone, with all the presumably dire health consequences that might result. A more positive message viewers might come away with is that the future isn’t necessarily set in stone, and even though Stuart has come from a future world in which Kayley has been unlucky in love and career, there is now the possibility that with him now by her side, that future can be directed onto a different and happier path. Who wouldn’t want a second chance at life?