2021 DOC NYC jury winners announced

November 17, 2021

The following is a press release from DOC NYC:

 

DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, revealed the 2021 award winners for its juried U.S. Competition, International Competition, Metropolis, Kaleidoscope, Shorts, Short List: Features, and Short List: Shorts sections. Winners of the inaugural IF/Then Shorts x Redford Center Nature Access Pitch competition were also announced. A complete list below.

The in-person portion of the festival’s hybrid 12th edition continues through November 18 with screenings and panels at New York’s IFC Center and Cinépolis Chelsea, along with a special closing night presentation of The First Wave at The Beacon Theatre. DOC NYC’s online screenings run through November 28, with some 100 features available to stream across the United States, including almost all the award winners. Select winners also have in-theater screenings during the festival’s final two days in person in New York.

Online DOC NYC Live conversations, presented on Facebook Live, will take place on November 22 with the filmmakers from the Short List: Shorts section, and on November 23 with talent behind the films in the festival’s Short List: Features section. For a full schedule of films and events, see www.docnyc.net. Ticket and pass information is below.

For DOC NYC’s competitive sections, five juries selected films from the festival’s new U.S. Competition, International Competition, and Kaleidoscope sections, as well as its long-running Metropolis and Shorts lineups, to recognize for their outstanding achievements in form and content. The Short List: Features program—a selection of nonfiction films that the festival’s programming team considers to be among the year’s strongest contenders for Oscars and other awards—vied for awards in four categories: Directing, Producing, Cinematography, and Editing, with a Directing prize also awarded in the Short List: Shorts section. The Short List awards were voted on by two juries of filmmaker peers.

Winners of the 2021 Grand Jury Prize in the U.S., International, Kaleidoscope, Metropolis, and Shorts competitions will each receive a deliverables package provided by PostWorks New York.

Voting for the festival’s Audience Award continues through November 18; the winner of the award will be announced on November 19.

U.S. Competition: The jury selected from among twelve new American nonfiction films in this section.
Remaining screening: Wednesday, November 17 at 9:40pm at Cinépolis Chelsea.

Grand Jury Prize: Once Upon a Time in Uganda, directed by Cathryne Czubek, co-directed by Hugo Perez, and produced by Gigi Dement, Cathryne Czubek, Matt Porwoll, Hugo Perez, and Kyaligamba Ark Martin.

Alan Hofmanis and Isaac Nabwana in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” (Photo courtesy of Blue Finch Films)

Juror’s statement: “We choose Once Upon a Time in Uganda for illustrating the transformative capacity of film to bridge cultures and change lives. We are inspired by the charming, original method the filmmakers took in documenting the creative joy of Wakaliwood, a community that relies on ingenuity and imagination to overcome the economic obstacles of global audiovisual production; and we appreciate how Once Upon a Time in Uganda demonstrates the connective power of international film festivals in asserting that ‘the audience is our family.'”

Special Mention: Refuge, directed/produced by Erin Berhardt and Din Blankenship.

Jurors’ statement: “We give an honorable mention to Refuge for addressing one of the U.S.’s most urgent problems — the lack of civil dialogue, or any dialogue, between our warring cultural factions.”

Jurors: Jaie Laplante (Executive Director, Miami Film Festival); Amy Nicholson, filmmaker; Valerie Torres (Director of Theatrical Sales and Exhibitor Relations, Shout! Factory)

Films featured in the U.S. Competition section: Anonymous Sister, Be Our Guest, Boycott, Exposure, Grandpa Was an Emperor, Newtok, Objects, Once Upon a Time in Uganda, Refuge, The Slow Hustle, A Tree of Life, United States vs. Reality Winner.

International Competition: The jury selected from among twelve new international productions in this section.

Grand Jury Prize: On the Other Side, directed by Iván Guarnizo, produced by Jorge Caballero.

Beatriz Echeverry in “On the Other Side”

Jurors’ statement: “With its exquisite directorial vision and restraint, On the Other Side deeply affected us, the jury. The film is testament to a courageous, emotional, and deeply personal endeavor by filmmaker Iván Guarnizo, elegantly bypassing the heavy handed tropes of trauma and violence to instead craft a work of art that is poetic and profound. In a world increasingly polarized, where constant battlelines are being drawn, the nuances of this film’s journey and care towards its participants show us the power and hope of redemption, forgiveness, and humanity.”

Special Mention: After the Rain, directed by Jian Fan, produced by Richard Liang, S. Leo Chiang.

Jurors’ statement: “We would also like to recognize After the Rain by Jian Fan, a standout among a strong group of international contenders. The jury appreciated the dedication to the story over a decade and the steady, observational lens of the filmmaking team to craft a deeply intimate and haunting film.”

Jurors: Samara Chadwick (Executive Director, The Flaherty); Aseem Chhabra (Festival Director, New York Indian Film Festival); Bao Nguyen, filmmaker.

Films featured in the International Competition section: After the Rain, Be My Voice, Comala, The Bubble, Come Back Anytime, The Devil’s Drivers, F@ck This Job, The Forgotten Ones, Go Through the Dark, The Mole, On The Other Side, Young Plato.

Kaleidoscope: The jury selected from among seven films in this section, which showcases essayistic and formally adventurous documentaries.

Grand Jury Prize: Nude at Heart, directed by Yoichiro Okutani, produced by Asako Fujioka, Eric Nyari

“Nude at Heart”

Juror’s statement: “The jury awards its top prize to a film of risky and decisive filmmaking, a film that documents with confidence an insular world, and builds an intelligent, purposeful distance between the filmmaker and the characters. This is a film that trusts its own images to lead us into a complex world and community of work and collective support—a film that doesn’t moralize, sexualize, or objectify its subjects, but instead models a careful gaze, offers a subtle entry into a fascinating universe, and gives space and presence to its inhabitants.”

Special Mention: Nothing But the Sun, directed by Arami Ullón, produced by Pascal Trächslin

Juror’s statement: “The jury would also like to award a Special Mention to a film that provides a gateway to a diverse and complex history, and helps to salvage and give a form to a common memory. This is a choral film, one full of speaking that prioritizes the collective, rather than an individual voice, and explores the fragility of media in preserving oral histories, encounters, emotions, and the residue of trauma.”

Jurors: Daniela Alatorre, producer; Cíntia Gill (Festival Director, formerly of Sheffield DocFest, Doc Lisboa), Leo Goldsmith (The New School)

Films featured in the Kaleidoscope section: Cow, Edna, Invisible Demons, Nothing But the Sun, Nude at Heart, The Man Who Paints Water Drops, Three Minutes: A Lengthening.

Metropolis: The jury selected from among seven films in this section, which is dedicated to stories about New Yorkers and New York City.

Grand Jury Prize: Hold Your Fire, directed by Stefan Forbes and produced by Tia Wou, Fab Five Freddy, and Amir Soltani.

“Hold Your Fire”

Jurors’ statement: “The filmmaker elegantly and impactfully uses the past to illuminate the social and political issues that are still critical to consider today. The black and white archival footage comes colorfully to life with masterfully edited sequences and music that pull you into the moment. The interviews highlight their emotionally conflicted responses and challenge us to consider the differing points of view. In this contemporary contemplation of violence and race relations in our culture, we are left to consider the possibility of redemption and hope.”

Special Mention: Charm Circle, directed and produced by Nira Burstein and produced by Betsy Laikin.

Available online through Sunday, November 28.

Jurors’ statement: “The honesty and bravery of the filmmaker are powerfully felt in approaching the subject of family dysfunction in a candid and uncensored way. With strong character development, the narrative patiently/lovingly unfolds with moments of humor and creativity to build compassion for a family’s hopes and dreams as well as a profound sense of loss.”

Jurors: Beth B, filmmaker; Denise Greene (Director of Programs, Black Public Media); Lucila Moctezuma (Program Director, Chicken & Egg Pictures).

Films featured in the Metropolis section: Charm Circle, End of the Line, Hold Your Fire, Mimaroğlu: The Robinson of Manhattan Island, Mr. Saturday Night, The Photograph, The Reverend.

Shorts Competition: All new short films playing at the festival were eligible for the Shorts Grand Jury Prize, with the exception of DOC NYC U showcases and Short List: Shorts selections.

Shorts Grand Jury Prize: NASIR, directed by Nasir Bailey and Jackson Kroopf and produced by Jackson Kroopf.

“NASIR”

Jurors’ statement: “For its lucid and lyrical portrait of an artist as a young man, the 2021 DOC NYC Shorts Grand Jury Prize is presented to Nasir Bailey and Jackson Kroopf’s exquisitely crafted NASIR. The film finds its soulful subject in a state of transition, proudly granting the audience permission to witness his slow, steady, hard-won glow up. Energized by the subject’s effortless charisma and potent musical gifts, the film emerges as a deeply human study of self-actualization and personal evolution. Intimately assembled with an eye for luminous, delicate imagery and direction, the film unfurls with a quiet confidence, flowing elegantly between moments of pathos and poetry—ultimately standing tall as a beacon of transmasculine resilience and joy.”

Special Mention: American Scar, directed and produced by Daniel Lombroso, and produced by Yara Bishara, Melissa Fajardo, Stephania Taladrid.

Jurors’ statement: “American Scar turns a well-mined, seemingly completed Trump-era story into a compelling call-to-action by creatively cataloging the environmental impact of the abandoned US-Mexico border wall. Startling images capture the destruction caused by humanity’s hubris and serve as a harbinger of things to come. The film presents a stark reminder of the devastating impact of human action on the natural world and offers a rousing and immediate call for change.”

The 2021 winning Short film qualifies for consideration in the Documentary Short Subject category of the Annual Academy Awards® without the standard theatrical run (provided the film otherwise complies with the Academy rules).

Jurors: Faridah Gbadamosi (Artistic Director, Outfest); Robin Robinson (festival programmer, True/False); Robert John Torres (festival programmer, Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival).

Short List: Features: DOC NYC’s Short List for Features puts the spotlight on 15 documentaries representing the best of the year.

Directing Award: In the Same Breath, directed by Nanfu Wang

“In The Same Breath” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Jurors’ statement: “Nanfu Wang cracks open the story of the global COVID-19 pandemic using an incredibly personal and political lens to reveal China’s propaganda machine — and America’s. The jury celebrates Wang’s unwavering, skillful and persistent command of the documentary craft that it takes to make such a complex and emotional film.”

Producing Award: Flee, produced by Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen, Charlotte De La Gournerie. 

“Flee” (Image courtesy of Neon)

Jurors’ statement: “Among the many strengths of Flee, the jury recognizes the enormous task of producing the film. Whether securing funding for expensive animation, fostering groundbreaking creativity, or managing an intricate post-production phase, the producing team’s critical role made Flee the vital, touching, artistic achievement it is.”

Editing Award: Ascension, edited by Jessica Kingdon

A livestreamer for Yiwu Siwen Shoe Company in “Ascension” (Photo by Jessica Kingdon)

Jurors’ statement: “Ascension never stops surprising, despite its leisurely pacing and seemingly straightforward construction. The jury applauds Jessica Kingdon’s patient and astute editing that weaves striking imagery of China’s gaping social divides into a poetic reflection on — and quiet critique of — consumption and capitalism.”

Cinematography Award: Faya Dayi, cinematography by Jessica Beshir

“Faya Dayi” (Photo courtesy of Janus Films)

Jurors’ statement: “Jessica Bashir’s cinematography in Faya Dayi is both an aesthetic and spiritual achievement. Bashir has a bare awareness that holds wisdom, her visual translation so elevated it feels as if operating from the subconscious. The cinematography in Faya Dayi reminded the jury how much we can learn from simply watching.”

Special Jury Prize for Cultural Treasures: Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, produced by Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent, David Dinerstein

Sly Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, The Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Jurors’ statement: “For its directorial vision, fantastic editing, and overall funky beats that weave history and culture into the colorful fabric of one summer festival in Harlem, the jury awards a Special Jury Prize for Cultural Treasures to Summer of Soul. If we could, the jury would travel back in time to release this film 50 years ago so it would have informed our collective memory. Instead, we hope this award will encourage audiences to imagine the collective history we should have had.”

Jurors: Nadia Hallgren, filmmaker; Kimberly Reed, filmmaker; Hao Wu, filmmaker.

Short List: Shorts: DOC NYC’s Short List for Shorts highlights 12 documentary shorts that the festival’s programming team considers the year’s leading awards contenders.

Directing Award: Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, directed by rubberband, Topaz Jones, produced by Luigi Rossi

“Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma”

Jurors’ statement: “For its innovative structure and immediacy, we selected Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma as our winner. The playful editing combined rich visuals, moving personal archival material, and thought-provoking interviews to give audiences a full sense of the filmmaker and his community. The storytelling successfully nails both personal experience and political history.”

Special Jury Mention: The Queen of Basketball, directed by Ben Proudfoot, produced by Elizabeth Brooke, Abby Lynn Kang Davis, Gabriel Berk Godoi, Brandon Somerhalder, Sarah Stewart

Jurors’ statement: “We also chose to recognize The Queen of Basketball with a Special Mention. Viewers fall in love with Lusia because the filmmakers deftly convey her deep strength and fragility at the outset. We are immersed in the experience of a pathfinding woman athlete whose remarkable career was cut short by the racial and gender barriers of her time. Bringing the film full circle to the next generation – a little girl shooting hoops in Lusia’s driveway – opens this storytelling to the future.”
Jurors: Mirra Bank, filmmaker; Kirstine Barfod, producer; Alison Klayman, filmmaker.

IF/Then Shorts x The Redford Center Nature Access Pitch: The Redford Center and IF/Then Shorts announced Between Earth and Sky as the winner of the inaugural IF/Then Shorts x The Redford Center Nature Access Pitch event at DOC NYC, celebrating stories that spotlight the benefits of time spent outdoors.

Between Earth and Sky, directed by Andrew Nadkarni and pitched by Nadkarni and producer Swetha Regunathan, will receive a $25,000 production grant and a year of wraparound mentorship from IF/Then Shorts. Also selected as honorable mentions by the jury of the Nature Access Pitch were Fruit of Soil and Makana o ke Mele (Gift of Song), each of which will receive a $5,000 grant and distribution consultation from IF/Then Shorts. Upon their completion, all three films will be featured as part of The Redford Center’s Nature Films Program.

After announcing the winning films live at DOC NYC Festival, Jill Tidman, Executive Director of The Redford Center shared, “This day reminded me that there’s so much vital work taking place that most people don’t know about. Amazing individuals and communities are working to solve the problems of nature access, and their stories are just incredible. I am so inspired and honored to have these new documentaries as part of The Redford Center family of films. We are going to support them, in many ways, to make sure their work is shared with the world. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome of this inaugural Nature Access Pitch, our partnership with IF/Then Shorts, and the platform of DOC NYC.”

TICKETS AND PASSES:

Festival tickets and passes may be purchased at docnyc.net/tickets-and-passes or at venue box offices. Online tickets and passes are available for purchase online only.

In-person Screenings: $19 General Admission/$17 Seniors & Children/$16 IFC Center Members, unless otherwise noted.

All screenings in the Short List: Features, Short List: Shorts, Winner’s Circle and DOC NYC U sections, as well as all Monday-Friday screenings starting before 5:00pm: $12 General Admission/$10 IFC Center members

Online screenings:

$12 General Public/$9 IFC Center Members

Passes and Ticket Packs:

Online Film Pass $250

Grants access to all the films screening on the festival’s virtual platform, November 10-28.

Five-Ticket Package for Online Screenings $45

Ten-Ticket Package for Online Screenings $80

A package of 5 or 10 online tickets at a special discount price.

Sponsors

The festival is made possible by:

Leading Media Partners: New York Magazine; The WNET Group

Major Sponsors: A&E; Apple Original Films; Netflix; WarnerMedia

Supporting Sponsors: discovery+, National Geographic Documentary Films; SHOWTIME® Documentary Films

Signature Sponsors: Amazon Studios; Bloomberg Philanthropies; Cquence; Hulu; National Geographic; NBC News Studios; NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment; Participant; PostWorks; Sony; XTR

Signature Media Partners: IndieWire; The New Republic; WNYC

Event Sponsors: 30 for 30 / ESPN Films; Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas; Consulate General of Canada in New York; Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP; Fox Rothschild LLP; Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz PC; IF/Then Shorts; Impact Partners; JustFilms | Ford Foundation; MTV Documentary Films; Reavis Page Jump LLP; SVA’s MFA Social Documentary Film; The Redford Center; TIME Studios; Wheelhouse Creative

Friends of the Festival: Agile Ticketing; Cinesend; Essentia, Ptex; Shiftboard; Telefilm Canada

DOC NYC is produced and presented by IFC Center, a division of AMC Networks.

Complete DOC NYC program information can be found at: www.docnyc.net

To inquire about sponsor or partnership opportunities for DOC NYC, please contact Raphaela Neihausen, Executive Director, at raphaela@docnyc.net.

Review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Uganda,’ starring Isaac Nabwana and Alan Hofmanis

November 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alan Hofmanis (front row, center) and Isaac Nabwana (front row, far right) in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” (Photo courtesy of Blue Finch Films)

“Once Upon a Time in Uganda”

Directed by Cathryne Czubek; co-directed by Hugo Perez

Some language in Swahili with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” features a mostly African group of people (with some white people) in a chronicle of Ugandan indie filmmaker Isaac Nabwana’s ventures with his Ramon Film Productions and the alliance that Nabwana forms with American filmmaker/actor/publicist Alan Hofmanis.

Culture Clash: Nabwana gets volunteer help from Hofmanis, who moved from New York to live with Nabwana and Nabwana’s family in Uganda, but Hofmanis and Nabwana sometimes disagree on Hofmanis’ role and decision making for Ramon Film Productions.

Culture Audience: “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” will appeal primarily to people interested in how independent filmmaking works in Uganda, and how relationships can be affected when friends do business together.

Harriet Nabwana and Isaac Nabwana in “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” (Photo courtesy of Blue Finch Films)

The title of “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” might have been inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning 2019 film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” because this documentary is ostensibly about Isaac Nabwana, a Ugandan independent filmmaker whose work has been inspired by Tarantino. However, the narrative of the film is from the perspective of Alan Hofmanis, an American filmmaker/actor/publicist. Hofmanis does the voiceover commentary in describing his experiences of getting involved with Nabwana and Ramon Film Productions, the company founded by Nabwana in 2005. It’s a mostly engaging and realistic look at the challenges of independent filmmaking in Uganda, as well as the highs and lows of two friends doing business with each other.

“Once Upon a Time in Uganda” was supposed to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, which was cancelled as an in-person event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the movie had its U.S. premiere at the 2021 edition of DOC NYC in New York City. [UPDATE: “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” won DOC NYC’s inaugural U.S. Competition Grand Jury Prize.] Directed by Cathryne Czubek and co-directed by Hugo Perez, “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” tells a compelling story, but at times it’s too much of a personal showcase/platform for Hofmanis. More of the spotlight should have been on Nabwana, whose films are the reasons why this documentary exists.

Hofmanis explains in the beginning of the documentary that he first discovered Nabwana when someone showed him a trailer for Nabwana’s movie “Who Killed Captain Alex,” a zany action comedy filmed gonzo-style, which is how you could describe Nabwana’s other movies too. Hofmanis says he was so intrigued with “Who Killed Captain Alex” (a movie that went viral on YouTube), he knew he had to go to the rural town of Wakalisa, Uganda (where Nabwana is based), to meet him in person. However, Hofmanis didn’t know Nabwana’s address or phone number and couldn’t find that information. He went to Wakalisa anyway, with the hope of tracking down Nabwana.

The documentary has a somewhat cheesy scripted segment that’s supposed to be a re-enactment of what Hofmanis experienced when he got to Wakalisa. If you believe this part of the movie, Hofmanis was in an outdoor market where he happened to see a man wearing a Ramon Film Productions T-shirt. He ran after the man and asked him if he knew Nabwana. The answer was “yes,” and that’s how Hofmanis was eventually introduced to Nabwana.

In “Once Upon a Time in Uganda,” Nabwana mentions that he’s 44-year-old married father of three children. He’s a brick layer/brick maker for his day job. But his real passion is filmmaking, especially in the action genre. Nabwana cites his earliest influences as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. To hone his filmmaking skills and raise money for his independent films, Nabwana does part-time work filming music videos, TV commercials and wedding videos.

Nabwana began making short films around 2005. He became a one-person creative team, as the writer, director, cinematographer and editor for all of his earliest work. His wife Harriet (who is also in the documentary) says that soon after they got married, he told her that he wanted to be a filmmaker. She’s completely supportive of his goals.

Harriet is also a valuable member of Ramon Film Productions. She handles many production assistant duties on the set, as well as the marketing and packaging of the company’s products. Harriet does all the catering for the cast and crew. (The company doesn’t have the budget to pay cast members, who are all volunteers.) All of this is shown in the documentary.

It’s mentioned several times that Isaac Mabwana and Ramon Film Productions are largely responsible for building a film community in Wakalisa called Wakaliwood. Ramon Film Productions even has its own theme song. Wakalisa is economically deprived, so the Wakaliwood nickname is a source of pride to the people in the community. In the documentary, Hofmanis comments that he likes being involved in African movies that are not about poverty and war. “My argument is that this is a different narrative of Africa,” he says of Ramon Film Productions movies.

But there’s one big problem, which the documentary also shows many times: Ramon Film Productions, although it ends up getting a lot of publicity with Hofmanis’ help, is struggling to make a profit. Isaac describes the audiences for his movies as “peasants. They are the majority.” Not long after Hoffmanis meets Isaac, he offers to help take Ramon Film Productions to the next level of become a world-renowned (and hopefully profitable) independent film studio.

Ramon Film Productions is literally a “mom and pop” business, so what made Hofmanis think he could get involved to the point of moving in with the Nabwana family in Uganda? There’s more to the story of Hofmanis wanting to help as a fan of Isaac’s work. What emerges is a portrait of a well-meaning but somewhat desperate person who ditched his life in New York to try to re-invent himself as a movie wheeler dealer in Uganda. The results were decidedly mixed for Hofmanis.

In the documentary, Hofmanis (who was in his 50s and a bachelor with no children at the time this film was made) describes himself as a movie nerd and a jack of all trades in the film industry. Based for years in New York City, he says that his work experience is being a director, producer, cinematographer and editor of short films, commercials and music videos. Hofmanis also says that he helped program film festivals and has done film publicity. You get the impression that Hofmanis is the cliché of “jack of all trades, master of none.”

If someone does something as extreme such as leaving behind the comforts of a middle-class life in the United States to live in a poverty-stricken area of Africa, it’s usually for personal reasons, not for career advancement. And sure enough, Hofmanis says that when that he decided to sell all of his belongings and gave up his apartment so he could move to Africa, it was around the same time that his fiancée dumped him. He says the day that he bought the wedding ring was the same day that she left him. “It was the perfect storm,” Hofmanis says of the breakup and his decision to move to Uganda.

After this heartbreak and with nothing left to lose, Hofmanis says he decided to pour his energy into helping Isaac. It’s never really explained whose idea it was for Hofmanis to live with the Nabwana family. However, viewers will get the impression (based on what’s said in the documentary) that Hofmanis just showed up to offer his services for free, Isaac accepted the offer, and Isaac let Hofmanis live in his home because he knew that Hofamnis was homeless in Uganda and didn’t know anyone else.

Isaac also seems to be very aware that Hofmanis’ breakup with his ex-fiancée (who’s only identified as Maria) was a big reason for this drastic move: “I don’t know what Maria did to Alan,” Isaac says when he tries to explain why Hofmanis moved to Uganda to do volunteer work for Isaac. The personalities of the two men are quite different from each other: Isaac is laid-back and focused, while Hofmanis is high-energy and neurotic.

Over a period of at least three years that are chronicled in this documentary, Hofmanis lived in a home with no indoor plumbing, unreliable Internet service and electricity that could malfunction at any moment’s notice. It’s mentioned that filmmakers in Uganda often have the problem of computer hard drives that get electrical burn damage because of sudden surges in electricity. Hofmanis spent countless hours promoting Isaac as a filmmaker to anyone who would listen and many people who wouldn’t listen.

Because his diet in Uganda was drastically different from his diet in the U.S., Hofmanis lost weight almost to the point of being emaciated. In the documentary, he occasionally gripes about the discomforts of living in this type of poverty. And there are expected problems in the filmmaking process, such as technical mishaps and running out of money. However, Hofmanis also makes it clear that what he gained—priceless friendships and experiences—far outweighed anything that he considered a “down side.”

The documentary shows how Hofmanis became part of the Ramon Film Productions team, albeit with a role and job title that were never clearly defined. He and Isaac form a genuine friendship, but the vagueness of Hofmanis’ business relationship with Isaac ends up frustrating Hofmanis. It’s hard to feel too sorry for Hofmanis though when he obviously didn’t have the business sense to get a contract about his role in the company.

Hofmanis doesn’t come right out and say it, but it soon becomes very apparent that he was hoping that Isaac would eventually offer him partial ownership of Ramon Film Productions. That offer doesn’t happen. And you can’t really blame Isaac for that decision, because Isaac is the one who founded the company, he created the films, and he got funding for his movies—long before he ever met Hofmanis, who volunteered his services with no contract. If someone professing to be an ardent admirer offered to do all this work for free, most people would not turn down that offer.

Hofmanis is shown being an actor and occasional crew member for the Ramon Film Productions movie “Bad Black,” where he is the only white person in the movie. There’s not much of a plot. He’s shown being hunted by people in combat gear. The action scenes include a lot of martial arts, an area in which Hofmanis admittedly says he is very unskilled, but he learns a little as he goes along. Hofmanis jokes that Isaac’s movies could invent a new “beating up the white guy” genre with Hofmanis as the star.

The documentary shows how Ramon Film Productions has a martial arts training program for children who might want to be in the company’s movies someday. The kids are called Waka Starz. Ramon Film Productions also has video jokers, also known as VJs, who provide running commentary and jokes when the company’s movies are screened to live audiences. (It’s similar to what RiffTrax does in the United States.) The documentary also mentions that most people see Isaac’s movies online or on DVD. The company’s mail-order business includes the sales of DVDs and branded merchandise, but Harriet is seen lamenting that they haven’t been able to turn a profit from these sales.

Through his connections in the media and in the film industry, Hofmanis is able to get major media outlets to give editorial coverage to Ramon Film Productions. CNN, PBS, the Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Vice are among those media outlets. Hofmanis gives the impression that it was his idea to label Isaac as “the Quentin Tarantino of Uganda,” as a hook to get the media interested.

Isaac’s movies are nowhere near as slickly filmed as Tarantino’s movies. Ramon Film Productions movies have comedy that’s juvenile, and the dialogue is bare-bones basic. And due to the very low budgets of Ramon Film Productions movies, the visual effects are cheap-looking and amateurish. However, there’s a love of moviemaking that comes through that is appealing. The comedy is goofy enough to bring some laughs. It’s why Ramon Film Productions has a fan base that Hofmanis thinks deserves to grow on a massive level.

Isaac’s visa/passport issues prevent him from traveling where Hofmanis ends up going to promote Isaac’s work. At various points in the documentary, Hofmanis is seen traveling to Antwerp, Belgium; Seoul, South, Korea; Cannes, France; and Austin, Texas. During these travels, Hofmanis is often present at Ramon Film Productions movie screenings that he arranged to be viewed by the public as limited engagements/specialty screenings at independent cinemas. Over time, Hofmanis begins to think of himself as the spokesperson for Ramon Film Productions.

The documentary shows how Hofmanis met with Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) programmer Peter Kuplowsky to pitch Isaac’s feature film “Crazy World” as a selection for the festival. “Crazy World” ended up screening as part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness program in 2019. The documentary shows whether or not Isaac was able to work out his passport problems to attend the screening.

“Once Upon a Time in Uganda” is so focused on Hofmanis telling his own story and his own perspective, it might be easy to assume that he’s one of the documentary’s producers, but he’s not. Being a film producer means that you need to have money to pay for a film. “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” makes it abundantly clear that Hofmanis’ lack of money (multiple times in the movie, he says that he’s broke) becomes a point where Isaac and Hofmanis start to diverge.

For all the publicity that Hofmanis was able to generate for Ramon Film Productions, it didn’t lead to any offers from major investors. However, one potential investor began talking to Isaac (this investor is not seen in the documentary), and Isaac didn’t include Hofmanis in the discussions, because Isaac is the sole owner of the business. When Hofmanis finds out he wasn’t included in these discussions, he reacts like a lover who’s been cheated on, and he says he feels betrayed.

Hofmanis and Isaac stop communicating with each other for a while, even though Hofmanis still continues to live in the Nabwana family home. His hurt feelings turn into bitterness. And then, Hofmanis jets back to New York to figure out what to do next because he doesn’t know if he can trust Isaac. When Hofmanis sees his parents again, he acts like Isaac is being the difficult one. It’s at this point in the documentary that Hofmanis and his “woe is me” attitude start to get irritating.

Viewers will probably think Hofmanis has a “white savior” complex, because he thought he could swoop in and show a native Ugandan how to become a financially successful filmmaker. When things didn’t work out the way Hofmanis wanted (he didn’t get the credit and glory he thought he deserved), he began acting like a kid with poor sportsmanship who wants to quit the game and go home just because he’s not the center of attention. Apparently, Hofmanis doesn’t understand that volunteering for a full-time, unpaid job in exchange for a free place to stay does not entitle someone to a partnership or equal decision making in the company.

Early on in the documentary, Isaac brings up the issues of race and social class, when he says that in the film industry, “the white man is king” and “the corporate class is skeptical” that Isaac can make a movie because Isaac is “poor.” And so, it’s very likely that even though Isaac and Hofmanis became friends, Isaac was probably using Hofmanis for white privilege, just like Hofamnis was probably using Isaac to feel like a white savior. It’s important to remember that Hofmanis volunteered to do all of this work for Isaac without being paid. Therefore, Isaac shouldn’t be made to look like a disloyal villain for accepting the help and wanting to retain sole ownership of his company.

And really, what did Hofmanis expect? For all of his lofty plans, nothing that Hofmanis did in this documentary helped Ramon Film Productions become profitable. At one point, Harriet started a cake-making business because the family was losing money on the film production company. At no point in the documentary is Hofmanis shown working at any “regular” job in Uganda to help raise money for the company, or even to help the family with household expenses. Maybe he thought that getting a “regular” job in Uganda would be too “beneath” him, since he wanted to be perceived as a hotshot American filmmaker.

That’s not to say that Hofmanis didn’t genuinely want to help, but an objective observer can see that he was somewhat using this relocation to Uganda to escape from a life that was making him unhappy in New York. No one was forcing him to live in poverty and volunteer his services to a struggling film company in Uganda. It was all of his own free will. You also have to question the “business savvy” of an admittedly financially broke person who does all of this full-time business work without a contract.

It would be wrong to assume that “Once Upon a Time in Uganda” is only about gonzo filmmaking in Uganda. The documentary is also a lesson in what can happen when friends work together without a contract and with the naïve assumption that no one will ever get greedy or selfish in making business decisions. If Hofmanis had an ulterior motive to be made a partner in Ramon Film Productions (and it sure looks like that was his ulterior motive), Isaac made the right decision to not give up any stakes in the company to someone who came along as a volunteer. And in that respect, Isaac Nabwana has a lot more business intelligence than maybe some people think he has.

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