I recently watched the film Who Killed Captain Alex?, a viral success on YouTube which claims to be “Uganda’s first action-packed movie.” It is a hilarious watch for most audiences due to its extremely low budget and the resulting creative special effects, not to mention the “video joker” VJ Emmie (the voice of a Ugandan, English-language commentary track which comments over the only existing version of the movie for the entire hour).
I have seen plenty of hilariously low-budget films, but what struck me about this one is one of the pre-show slides, which says, “He [producer/writer/director/cinematographer/editor Nabwana I.G.G.] never imagined anyone outside his own village would see this film.”
Firstly, this raises the question: why do we make film, or any art for that matter? To Hollywood producers, the answer would likely be “money.” To many indie filmmakers, it may be “to comment on a topic or theme” with the likely addition of “and share that comment with the world.” Indeed, the budgetary and time requirements of the film medium often urge a filmmaker to desire a wide audience, if not the possibility of profit.
One of the most obvious differences between theatre and film is the relative permanence of each genre. Theatre is arguably the most fleeting widespread art form, with a specific production forever lost unless immortalized through video (which many theatre enthusiasts would claim is an incomplete representation, since the art cannot be experienced live). Film, on the other hand, is arguably one of the most permanent art forms, due to both reproduction of the work and modern digital storage methods. This difference alone is enough to pathologize film and theatre makers.
Still, one may not be terribly off the mark to say that most filmmakers make a film with a very large audience in mind, while theatre makers are often working with a target audience of some sort, whether it be purposeful or consequential. The vast majority of your audience being of a certain race, for instance, may simply be due to location and other factors—or it may be a result of conscious programmatic and marketing choices. Regardless, theatres tend to be cognizant of audience demographics and desires, and make artistic choices with that in mind in some capacity.
Who Killed Captain Alex?, despite being a film, carries the target audience characteristic (and, in a certain sense, the seeming impermanence) of theatre. Nabwana created this film for and with his village, with no desire or intention for widespread distribution. This, in fact, is a wonderful example of community engagement through art, and urges a reviewer to critique this film through a unique lens.
The Context and Framing of Who Killed Captain Alex?:
While, of course, a reviewer could rate Who Killed Captain Alex? alongside critically-acclaimed action films like Kill Bill and Die Hard, readers would understandably consider said review hilariously sarcastic, and would undoubtedly not take such a review seriously. The reason for this is that the viewer, like myself, immediately contextualizes her viewing with the target audience in mind.
There are a few ways in which Nabwana I.G.G. frames his movie for the audience. The opening slides, which explain that the movie was made for the village of Wakaliga in Uganda and that he did not intend it to be seen by anyone else, are underscored by sounds of the village—people chatting, children giggling, the bleating of goats, etc. Shortly thereafter, there is a brief clip of the making of the movie, including a green screen hung to the side of a house.
We immediately see this as a community project and thus enjoy it light-heartedly and, for those with the disposition to watch the entire film, enjoy it as a friend or family member of Nabwana would. It is thus unsurprising to me that Who Killed Captain Alex? has over eight stars on IMDB across over 3000 ratings.
The film and theatre forms approach the communal experience in different yet related ways, and there is one film genre that sometimes bridges the two—cult film. Theatre worships the communal experience, which is often offered as the explanation for the superiority of theatre by those who hold that opinion (along with the specific abilities of the medium that differ from film, of course).
Unlike theatre, film regards the communal experience as separate from or secondary to the art. A film is basically the same if viewed alone in one’s home or in a full movie theatre. The existence of movie theatres points to society’s regard for films as communal art, but one may just as well go to a movie theatre to watch a film due to the technical benefits, such as a large screen and good speakers. Except in some particular cases and specific communities, attending a screening of a film at a theatre is not an interactive experience.
Cult Films and Who Killed Captain Alex?:
The one film phenomenon in which the movie theatre-going experience is dependent on collective viewing is the culture surrounding certain kitsch and unconventional cult films. Such cult films take on many of the characteristics of theatre, and are the most prevalent example of “film-as-theatre.” The Room and The Rocky Horror Picture Show are perhaps the most famous cult films of this sort, and movie theatres across the country screen them at midnight and encourage audiences to participate with the film in a variety of ways.
Rocky Horror screenings often go even further in blurring the line between film and theatre by featuring live cast enactments of the film happening in front of the screen, in addition to audience interaction that often includes props such as umbrellas and rice. The content and permanence of the film are augmented by the immediacy and impermanence of the cast reenactment, as well as the ever-shifting methods of audience participation. The experience of seeing Rocky Horror is distinct depending on the location, the cast, and the audience.
While Who Killed Captain Alex? does not go as far as Rocky Horror, it has certainly become a cult film. The “cult” is the group of individuals with the disposition to watch and enjoy such a film, as I mentioned above. Such individuals choose to suspend their disbelief beyond what is normally expected of an audience, and generally value the communal experience of the film.
Captain Alex, however, has the unique characteristic of neither being accidentally bad (like The Room, Plan 9 from Outer Space, or The Blob), or purposefully strange (like Rocky Horror or Donnie Darko). Instead, Who Killed Captain Alex? was made only for a small and specific audience (Nabwana’s village), and was made for the sake of pure communal entertainment. For example, the bootlegging of action film tropes in Captain Alex is purposefully and unapologetically exaggerated. Nabwana knew that he did not have the technological capabilities to realistically portray a helicopter destroying buildings, but he included it for the sake of the entertainment of his limited audience. He has perfectly curated a cult film without having had the intention to do so.
I cannot go through an essay about Who Killed Captain Alex? without mentioning the “video joker,” VJ Emmie. He comments in English on top of the movie throughout, making bombastic jokes and even promoting the next movies to come from the production company. He is the voice of the cult audience, interrupting the movie to enhance its interactivity.
Nowhere near as informative as a commentary track and nowhere near as pointedly dismissive as Mystery Science Theater 3000, the presence of VJ Emmie parallels the affectionate yelling of audiences at midnight screenings of Rocky Horror. Despite his sarcasm and brashness, he has become (apparently through a technical mishap) a permanent feature of the film itself. Again, we see the film object that is the available version of Captain Alex integrating an element of cult film that further defines it as a communal experience. With the presence of the video joker, you have a companion in your viewing even if you watch the film alone.
While Who Killed Captain Alex? displays all of the characteristics of a beloved cult film, a genre that incorporates theatre-like qualities into the film-viewing experience, it does so under unique circumstances which set it apart from most well-known cult movies. Namely, the small and targeted audience for which Nabwana I.G.G. created this film and it becoming tethered to the remarks of VJ Emmie make the movie-making process, as well as the film-viewing experience, unique. He made the film for his village only; and thus, with the inclusion of that fact in a slide and sequence at the beginning of the current version of the movie, the viewer readily suspends her disbelief to the extent that one would for any popular cult film.
This explains the virality of the film. The slow build and communal affirmation that seems to fuel most cult films is unnecessary in this case. Rather, the fact that Nabwana’s village of Wakaliga (now known as Wakaliwood) has already approved the film for the viewer allows the viewer to join in on a community project instead of curating one for herself.
The cult audience for this film was preexisting, and non-Wakaligan viewers are simply joining in on that audience. The desire of non-Wakaligans to join in this audience relates to the human desire for community, a desire which heavily contributes to stage theatre’s ongoing survival in the wake of the advent and growth of the film industry. Certainly, Who Killed Captain Alex? is not a film to be enjoyed by just anyone; but for those interested in watching a film for the sake of enjoying it with others (whether “others” includes friends, or simply a video joker), you may want to check out Wakaliwood.
Film-as-Theatre and the Cult Film Phenomenon: