It is perhaps not incorrect to say that the goal of any film festival should be to highlight the most interesting and fascinating works of world cinema, especially those which are unfairly underseen. Such is the case with Bad Black, one of the newest films from the immensely prolific Nabwana IGG, the auteur of the Ugandan film unit lovingly referred to as Wakaliwood. Nabwana IGG first came to prominence in 2010, when the trailer for his film Who Killed Captain Alex? went viral on YouTube for its insane and seemingly amateurish action and special effects. Bad Black, as far I can tell, is the only Wakaliwood film that has actually shown in theaters in the United States, premiering at Fantastic Fest last year.
The aim of Wakaliwood films hews closely to the action comedy, as does the overall arc of the narrative, but the means of achieving this are entirely different. Nabwana IGG’s aesthetic is proudly low-grade, immersing the viewer the slums of Kampala, Uganda as seen through blurry digital video and overflowing with quick cuts and rapid-fire action scenes interspersed with the most archetypal, blatant narratives.
In this case, the narrative proceeds according to two strands: the first concerns the eponymous young woman who becomes the feared leader of a street gang and seeks vengeance on a rich man, and the second depicts the transformation of an American doctor into a commando. As might be expected, the narrative beats come with more than a hint of expectation, but thankfully this is backgrounded in favor of training montages and transparent character interactions that become hilarious in their purposeful obviousness.
Over all of this is perhaps the key difference that sets apart Wakaliwood: the video joker (VJ). The VJ functions as a running commentary that, more often than not, pokes fun at the various plot machinations and pop culture at large. Prone to spouting the characters’ names each time they appear onscreen, cultural references – at one point the VJ simply compares one of the heroes to a whole host of American action stars including, hilariously, Bill Murray – and loud whoops of excitement, the VJ enhances the viewing experience to a great magnitude. I found myself wondering if I would have been nearly as entertained without the VJ, but the question is almost moot in a way; it is a vital, integral aspect, one that goes hand in hand with the obvious green-screen and the Photoshopped bullet holes.
One final wrinkle in Bad Black is, rather unexpectedly, a certain regional mutability. The version shown here at SIFF begins with a special introduction tailored to Seattle audiences (which ends with the destruction of SIFF headquarters) and scatters a few references to the city throughout. These moments, unsurprisingly, went over rather well in the late-night audience I saw the movie with, and it points to the intentions of the Wakaliwood studio as a whole. I don’t necessarily find great art in this like many of the more exploitation film-minded viewers that have rallied around this work, but I would argue that Nabwana IGG doesn’t either. Bad Black is shamelessly crowd-pleasing and entertaining to a fault, and it all ultimately works with shambolic ease.