This is a slightly extended version of a paper that I gave last week (on Wednesday 8 March) at the University of Reading. It was part of a symposium called Reconsidering Movie Special Effects: Aesthetics, Reception, and Remediation, organised by Lisa Purse (University of Reading) and Lisa Bode (University of Queenland). My thanks to them for inviting me to give the paper…
While there have been various high profile and big budget special effects movies coming out of Africa in the recent past – with Neill Blomkamp being a chief player in this move with films like District 9 (South Africa/USA/New Zealand/Canada, 2009) and CHAPPiE (USA/South Africa, 2015) – digital special effects have also been on the rise in other, lower budget African productions.
Indeed, in this paper I shall discuss the role that digital special effects play in Who Killed Captain Alex? (Nabwana I.G.G., Uganda, 2010), a film made for the princely sum of US$200, and which comes from Wakaliwood, the piecemeal film industry run by Nabwana in Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, Uganda.
I shall argue that the film’s raw aesthetic – but perhaps especially its lo-fi digital special effects – follow what Achille Mbembe, after Mikhail Bakhtin, might classify as an attempt to embrace ‘obscenity and the grotesque’ in a bid to ‘undermine officialdom by showing how arbitrary and vulnerable is officialese and by turning it all into an object of ridicule’ (Mbembe 2001: 103-104). Except that here, rather than officialdom and officialese being the language of the ruling classes in Cameroon, the object of Mbembe’s study, here officialdom and officialese are mainstream cinema and mainstream film aesthetics.
As we shall see, the adoption of lo-fi digital special effects in Who Killed Captain Alex? can be understood politically, then, as an attempt to give expression to a Ugandan sense of disempowerment in postcolonial Africa – not because the film aspires to be ‘cinematic’ by adopting digital special effects in the first place, but because the film is deliberately ‘imperfect’ or ‘non-cinematic.’
In this way, Who Killed Captain Alex? allows us to bridge the gap between the ‘perfection’ of contemporary mainstream digital special effect blockbusters and the impoverished if still digital lives of contemporary Ugandans.
Who Killed Captain Alex? tells the story of a crack commando, the titular Captain Alex (William Kakule), who is seeking to shut down the criminal Tiger Mafia organisation, which controls Kampala and which has at its head a man called Richard (Ernest Sserunya, who also did the props for the film).
During an early skirmish between Alex’s commandos and a group of Richard’s mercenaries, Richard’s brother, Martin (Farooq Kakouza), is captured and taken into custody. Bent on revenge, Richard dispatches his right-hand man, Puffs (Puffs G.), to kill Alex – except that Alex has already been killed by the time Puffs and his men get there, meaning that Puffs can only take hostage two of Alex’s soldiers.
Alex’s unnamed brother (Charlse Bukenya), a kung fu master, turns up to try to find his brother’s killer, while the soldiers themselves bring in a famous commando, Rock (Dauda Bisaso), to help them defeat Richard and the Tiger Mafia.
All hell breaks loose as Richard sends one of his henchmen to steal a police helicopter and to bomb Kampala, as Alex’s brother arrives at the Tiger Mafia camp and starts fighting with some of Puffs’ newly-acquired mercenaries. The commandos also attack – both on foot and by assault helicopter – and a bloody battle ensues until Richard is shot and taken into custody.
A news report featuring archive footage repurposed for Nabwana’s film tells us that order is restored in Kampala thanks to the imposition of martial law, but… we still never discover who killed Captain Alex.
If the plot of the film sounds a bit silly – a kind of African mash-up of 1980s hard bodied American action films and kung fu movies from Hong Kong in the 1970s – then the style of the film is what we might term ‘raw’ at best. The sound is all recorded on location, meaning that many lines of dialogue are inaudible, while the film has blotchy digital images that generally are captured handheld and seemingly often on the fly – with a spot just right of centre near the top of the frame clearly staining the camera lens, and thus the images captured, for much of the film.
In an early scene where Alex’s men relax in a local bar after setting up camp in Wakaliga, it seems clear that those performing the soldiers are improvising, not least through the awkwardness of their movements. Indeed, the acting is on the whole ‘atrocious,’ and the physical performances of Alex’s brother – who is not bad at martial arts at all – are clearly of far more importance to director Nabwana that any emotional connection that we might develop with the film’s characters.
That said, Who Killed Captain Alex? does have an array of interesting stylistic features, including some canny editing in order to make stunts seem more impressive than perhaps they were (a mercenary leaps into the air; cut to Alex’s brother with some feet striking his head; cut back to the mercenary landing on the ground), some innovative cross-cutting between the different strands of the action (Alex’s brother, the commandos, the helicopter attack on Kampala), and slow motion, freeze frames and other techniques that demonstrate some engagement with film form above and beyond ‘straight’ storytelling.
However, perhaps most noteworthy and celebrated about Who Killed Captain Alex? is the film’s use of super low-budget digital special effects, especially enormous spurts of blood as soldiers and criminals are shot, wafts of smoke, bursts of flame from the muzzles of various of the (wooden prop) guns that the characters fire, and the helicopters that destroy Kampala, the Tiger Mafia camp and the surrounding jungle.
I shall return to these effects shortly, but there is one other technique that I ought in some detail to discuss, namely the inclusion in the film of its own commentary.
Who Killed Captain Alex? is violent and certainly open to critique from the perspective of gender. There are women soldiers in the film, but on the whole the female characters are untrustworthy, including Vicky (Ssekweyama Babirye), who is a soldier in Richard’s pay, and one of Richard’s multiple unnamed wives, who betrays Richard by helping Alex’s brother to break into his camp. While these are serious charges to level against Captain Alex, it nonetheless aspires to be something of a knockabout film, as is perhaps made most clear by the mainly English-language commentary that we hear throughout the film from VJ Emmie Bbatte.
Where normally we might think of a VJ as a video jockey (an audiovisual equivalent of a disc jockey), in the context of Ugandan cinema, a VJ is a ‘video joker.’ Since cinema theatres are rare in Uganda, most people go to watch movies in video halls. Indeed, where Lizabeth Paulat says that there were only three dedicated cinemas in Kampala in 2013 (see Paulat 2013), The Economist reports that there were 374 video halls in Kampala alone in 2012 (M.H. 2012) – a ratio of 1:124 (which is not to mention video libraries, of which there are supposedly over 650 in Kampala). It is very common practice in video halls for a VJ not only to explain and to interpret what is happening in the film, but also to comment upon the action – often ironically and amusingly.
As two interviewees explain in the report in The Economist: ‘most people don’t want to concentrate and follow the movie, so the translator interprets the movie, making it easier for them to follow… [and] I watch translated movies because of the dramatic expressions the guys add in their descriptions, making them fun to watch’ (M.H. 2012).
In other words, the practice suggests that viewers do not necessarily pay that much attention to the films. As a result, film-viewing in Kampala shares similarities with the ‘cinema of interruptions’ of Bollywood, in that people come and go during the course of a movie (see Gopalan 2002). What is more, it also resembles early silent cinema, which equally made use of narrators (commonly referred to in Japan as benshi) in order to make sense of events on screen for the audience.
This echo of early silent cinema that is found in contemporary Kampala perhaps also opens up space for us to think about special effects cinema – and perhaps cinema as a whole – as a form of spectacle as much if not more than it is a form of narrative.
But more importantly for present purposes, the version of the film that exists on the ‘official’ Wakaliwood YouTube channel includes commentary provided by VJ Emmie, meaning that his words are not so much an unofficial layer added post hoc to the film during a screening, but they have become an important part of the film itself.
There are several issues to pick apart here.
Firstly, for Who Killed Captain Alex? to include its own voice over commentary in the film is a self-reflexive step that suggests that, far from being ‘primitive’ (a term that occasionally is applied to early silent cinema), Captain Alex is as ‘post-modern’ in its self-reflexivity as anything that Hollywood (as per Deadpool, Tim Miller, USA, 2016) or someone like Michael Winterbottom (think A Cock and Bull Story, UK, 2005) would dare to produce.
Secondly, that the voice over from VJ Emmie is so parodic means that the text of the film itself is destabilised. For example, when Alex conducts a press conference early on in the film, Emmie suggests that all of the female reporters love him, only for Emmie to slip into being the voice of Alex’s consciousness, declaring ‘I like men.’ Equally, when Alex’s brother later encounters Richard’s wife, VJ Emmie says, as if he were also a voice inside the brother’s head, ‘I’ve never seen a woman.’ Although possibly problematic in its reference to homosexuality, the commentary – now an official part of the film – undermines the otherwise masculinist narrative that is being put forward. That is, the film undermines its own authority as it goes along.
To be clear, Emmie’s explanations are sometimes very helpful. When Alex’s brother turns up at a warehouse, fights three men, and then has a conversation with another man about how he wants revenge, it is only really thanks to Emmie that we know that we are at the dojo of Alex’s brother’s kung fu master (Ivan Ssebanja) – even though Emmie cannot help but also undermine the master’s authority by calling him ‘fat.’
On the whole, though, Emmie’s comments are intended as amusing and self-conscious. For example, when the wife of Richard who is now helping Alex’s brother remembers how she came to marry Richard, the film flashes back via black and white images to a sequence in which another woman, presumably another of Richard’s wives, throws water over her, having offered her the ultimatum of marrying Richard or dying. ‘She was caught watching Nigerian movies,’ Emmie comments as we see the wife being ‘tortured.’ ‘This is Uganda,’ Emmie continues. ‘We watch Wakaliwood.’ At other moments, Emmie also plugs subsequent Nabwana productions, such as Bad Black (Nabwana I.G.G., Uganda, 2016), while enthusiastically preparing the audience for action as we near combat sequences: ‘Movie movie movie… One hell of a movie!’
While creating some ironic distance from the action that we are seeing (as well as guiding us through narrative lacunae), Emmie’s commentary also possesses a political dimension. When we meet Alex’s brother, Emmie describes him as the ‘Ugandan Bruce Lee,’ and even names this otherwise unnamed character ‘Bruce U.’ This appeal to Bruce Lee would suggest that Who Killed Captain Alex? is endeavouring to embody the same principles of anti-imperialism that have been read into that actor’s star image (see, for example, Prashad 2003).
In other words, the violence of the film is related to a postcolonial desire to be taken seriously on the world stage, to throw off colonial/imperial oppression and not just to be recognised but in some respects also to enact some sort of revenge – even if the master of Alex’s brother says that revenge is not the aim of martial arts. That is, the reference to Bruce Lee would suggest a desire to be or to become cinematic.
As far as Charlse Bukenya’s martial arts prowess is concerned, Who Killed Captain Alex? is utterly cinematic: he is skilled and graceful. However, on another level, the film fails entirely to be cinema.
This is not simply a case of Captain Alex not screening in cinemas, but rather in video halls, where the ‘video joker’ makes clear how from a ‘western’ perspective a film like Captain Alex might be considered a ‘joke’ (which is not to mention how audience members will not be concentrating on the film very much, thereby consistently ‘interrupting’ the film, as suggested earlier).
Nor is it strictly related to the fact that director Isaac Nabwana has ‘never set foot inside a movie theatre’ – instead watching films himself on television and/or ‘seeing’ films based upon oral accounts of what happens in them (see Park 2016).
Rather, we can see Captain Alex as failing to be cinema as a result of its sheer cheapness, as made clear by the film’s clunky and blocky digital special effects, which are more reminiscent not of movies but of video games.
The issue of Captain Alex not being cinema, or, put more positively, being non-cinema, relates to the status of Uganda on the world stage. For, if there are only three cinemas in Kampala, then Uganda itself is a nation that rarely if ever achieves recognition in cinema, a lack of recognition that mirrors the lack of recognition for Uganda in a geopolitical sense.
Uganda is not a nation where cinema thrives. But what does thrive in Uganda is non-cinema, with Nabwana’s non-cinema nonetheless being explicitly tied to the nation when Emmie declares the brilliance of Wakaliwood and when he shouts ‘Uganda!’ during the action scenes.
‘Tell everyone that Uganda is crazy,’ Emmie implores at the end of the film, with sanity thus being linked to cinematic prowess, and Captain Alex and Uganda more generally thus being vaunted precisely for not being sane, or cinematic, but for being crazy or non-cinematic.
In other words, Uganda on the whole lies beyond the purview of cinema; as a nation created by colonial powers, we might understand that cinema is the preserve of the nations of the First and Second Worlds, but not the Third World. Being a Third World film, Who Killed Captain Alex? can thus be read via the tradition of ‘imperfect cinema’ established by the late Julio García Espinosa, who proclaimed that
[i]mperfect cinema is no longer interested in quality or technique. It can be created equally well with a Mitchell or with an 8mm camera, in a studio or in a guerrilla camp in the middle of the jungle. Imperfect cinema is no longer interested in predetermined taste, and much less in ‘good taste.’ It is not quality which it seeks in an artist’s work. The only thing it is interested in is how an artist responds to the following question: What are you doing in order to overcome the barrier of the ‘cultured’ elite audience which up to now has conditioned the form of your work? (García Espinosa 1979)
Nabwana’s film may seem to be an old-fashioned action movie, but it is also a film that gives expression to the way in which not just a Ugandan but also a global ‘“cultured” elite’ has erected a barrier whereby Ugandan cinema (and by extension Uganda itself) does not really exist, not least because it does not exist (or only rarely exists) on cinema screens both in Uganda and in the rest of the world.
When García Espinosa writes that imperfect cinema should ‘above all show the process which generates the problems,’ he may not necessarily be talking about a film that exposes corruption or which explores the history of Idi Amin, Milton Obotwe or Yoweri Museveni, who since 1986 has been leading Uganda.
Rather, Nabwana and Emmie show how cinema is what Jonathan Beller (2006) might describe as the embodiment of capital, and that cinema itself is thus a process that generates problems, by generating the distinction between the included visible, who are thus cinematic, and the excluded invisible, who are thus non-cinematic.
That is, Who Killed Captain Alex? demonstrates little to no interest in exposing specifically Ugandan problems or Ugandan history, not least because ‘[m]ost Ugandans (including every RFP actor except one) grew up long after the violence of Idi Amin and the civil war’ (McPheeters 2015).
Nonetheless, it does expose how cinema and colonialism both functioned as tools for a capitalism that has created Uganda as such and yet which has also rendered Uganda incapable of being the equal of the First and Second World, incapable of being cinematic – even if Nabwana’s film clearly conveys a defiant appetite for cinema.
Who Killed Captain Alex? may thus fit García Espinosa’s paradigm of imperfect cinema, but it is not exactly an example of Third Cinema in the classic sense defined by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino.
For, the film does not eschew the entertainment of First (North American) Cinema and the artistry of Second (European) Cinema in a bid to create a new, political ‘Third’ cinema that gives expression to postcolonial political realities and which seeks to overthrow imperial oppression (see Solanas and Getino 1976).
Rather, Captain Alex embraces action cinema and attempts to provide a film that is spectacular. It is in the knowing disparity between the imperfect special effects of this film and the special effects extravaganzas provided by Hollywood, however, that the film’s power lies: Uganda aspires to a spectacular, cinematic existence, but it simply cannot afford one.
In this way, it is not that Captain Alex is worse than a Hollywood film; in some senses it is every bit the equal of a Hollywood film, if not significantly more impressive given the resources and budget with which Nabwana and colleagues are working (this is not intended as a case of presenting a condescending appreciation for the film, thereby repeating a neo-colonial claim to power over the Third World text).
Instead, with Captain Alex being the equal of a Hollywood blockbuster, we can understand that all films are equal. If all films are equal, then what distinguishes films is not quality (a measure that has been destabilised thanks to thinking ‘philosophically’ about Nabwana’s film) so much as the amount of money that they have, with the amount of money that they have determining in some respects the amount of money that they can make. In cinema as in life under globalised neoliberal capital, the rich live in a different world from the poor.
To refer back to Mbembe, Captain Alex suggests an obscene and grotesque assault upon the ‘official’ language of cinema, where the cost of an image is conflated with how ‘official’ it is perceived to be. That is, the ‘official’ language of cinema is the language of capital: cinema is legitimated by money, not by cinema itself. By undermining this process through its proud display of cheap special effects, Who Killed Captain Alex? points to wider economic imbalances, as also conveyed by the existence of Captain Alex (and Uganda more generally) outside of cinemas, even if Captain Alex is cinematic (albeit cheap).
The lack of resolution in the film here comes to the fore. Never finding out who killed Captain Alex might function as a mirror of the Hollywood franchise film that equally must never be fully resolved for the purposes of creating sequels and spin-offs. But in some senses it also presents a mystery regarding the injustices of global economic disparities: what is the reason for Uganda not to be recognised as a legitimate nation with a legitimate cinema?
Captain Alex, as the hope for establishing order and justice in Wakaliga, is killed – but we do not know by whom. Not only might this constitute an unresolved mystery suggesting the chaotic nature of the universe as per the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, for example, but it also points to the impossibility of Uganda to achieve economic equality and to receive justice for its colonial exploitation – as instead the film demonstrates a chaotic world of male-dominated violence (undercut by Emmie’s commentary), and in which martial law is the only way of restoring domestic order.
If Who Killed Captain Alex? does not, in its bid to entertain, fit the classical paradigm of Third Cinema, it also does not fit the definition of a powerful and entertaining First Cinema that Solanas and Getino suggested conveyed bourgeois values to a passive audience.
Emmie’s commentary would suggest an active audience that is encouraged to engage with the political dimension of the film’s digital aesthetics, rather than for the film’s digital aesthetics seducing its audiences into forgetting about politics.
If the film is not an example of First Cinema, it is also not quite an example of ‘supercinema,’ which I have defined elsewhere as being a digitally-enabled cinema that seeks philosophically to democratise space, time and identity (see Brown 2013).
For, Captain Alex is defined as much by its self-conscious failure to achieve big budget special effects as it is by any success in rivalling a Hollywood film production. And yet, if Captain Alex is as much a manifestation of digital special effects cinema as a Hollywood spectacle, then perhaps Who Killed Captain Alex? functions as a film, and Wakaliwood as a space, where supercinema meets non-cinema.
That is, the potential of digital cinema to open us up to new ways of thinking as a result of how it can depict space, time and identity, comes up against the realities of a world – also digital – in which disparities of wealth, mobility and visibility, as well as political injustice, continue to be part of the fabric of everyday life.
Supercinema may elevate us beyond the cinematic divisions and boundaries that are typical of the society of the spectacle; non-cinema, meanwhile, validates the obscene and the grotesque, it validates difference, in a bid for us democratically to understand that, even if Isaac Nabwana cannot afford high end special effects, all films and thus all humans (and perhaps even non-humans) are not necessarily the same (they are different), but they are also equal.
Beller, Jonathan (2006) The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England.
Brown, William (2013) Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age, Oxford: Berghahn.
Brown, William (Forthcoming) Non-Cinema: Global Digital Filmmaking and the Multitude, London: Bloomsbury.
García Espinosa, Julio (1979) ‘For an imperfect cinema’ (trans. Julianne Burton), Jump Cut, 20, pp. 24-26.
Gopalan, Lalitha (2002) Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema, London: British Film Institute.
Mbembe, Achille (2001) On the Postcolony (trans. A.M Berrett, Janet Roitman, Murray Last and Steven Rendall), Berkeley: University of California Press.
M.H. (2012) ‘Coming to you live,’ The Economist, 2 November.
McPheeters, Sam (2015) ‘A Ugandan Filmmaker’s Quest to Conquer the Planet with Low-Budget Action Movies,’ Vice, 3 March.
Park, Gene (2016) ‘How a Ugandan director is making great action movies on $200 budgets,’ The Washington Post, 28 September.
Paulat, Lizabeth (2013) ‘Going to the Movies in Kampala,’ Living in Kampala, 3 September.
Prashad, Vijay (2003) ‘Bruce Lee and the Anti-imperialism of Kung Fu: A Polycultural Adventure,’ positions: east asia cultures critique, 11:1, pp. 51-90.
Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Getino (1976) ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ (trans. Julianne Burton), in Movies and Methods: An Anthology (ed. Bill Nichols), Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 44-64.