Wakaliwood goes worldwide on our last day of TIFF

The Ugandan film studio travels to Canada for the first time – and new films from Cory Finley, Takashi Miike and Joey Klein.

Crazy World

I’ve written about Wakaliwood, the movie studio based out of a slum in Uganda, before, and so have many others; the simple fact that TIFF was programming one of their films isn’t exactly surprising in itself. The works of director Nabwena IGG already have a significant reputation around the world, and their go-for-broke action style make them a perfect fit for Midnight Madness. What was most surprising about this screening of their latest film Crazy World was that, for the very first time in his life, Nabwena IGG would see his film in a movie theatre. Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky pulled some strings and got the director and VJ Emmie (short for video joker, these stand-up comedians / translators / toasting deejays narrate the film — a practice which began as a way to convey information to Ugandan viewers who didn’t speak the language of the film but has become an integral part of the experience) in town to present the film.

It was quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it didn’t disappoint. Crazy World is about a diminutive gangster named Mr. Big who believes that sacrificing children will help him in business. He holds Wakaliga in an iron grip, even killing #1 commando Dauda Bisaso’s wife, causing him to go “crazy” and live in a pile of garbage. When a man seeks help to recover his children from Mr. Big, he turns to the supposedly crazy Dauda for help.

We’re not exactly seeking originality and subtlety from Wakaliwood productions; they’re short, chaotic and silly, made with absolutely no money by people with a love for filmmaking that far outshines their actual knowledge. But Crazy World is a significant step up from Who Killed Captain Alex?, the only other feature-length Wakaliwood production I’ve seen. The action scenes are more dynamic, the editing and camera movements more fluid and the acting more committed. Regardless, the experience is greatly enhanced by the presence of Emmie in the room. (Standout interjections include “Empty gun? More trouble.” and repeatedly yelling “What will happen? Let’s watch the movie!” to a crowd currently watching a movie.) It’s an interactive, joyful communal experience like no other and, while it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to replicate it any time soon without going to Uganda, a highly-recommended one.

Crazy World is, as you may have guessed, not currently slated for release.

First Love

It’s difficult to call Takashi Miike’s First Love a return to form since wide-ranging genre exercises and insane productivity are two of his defining characteristics as a filmmaker, but First Love is at the very least a return to the kind of movies we expect from Takashi Miike after quite a few years in the weeds trying just about everything. First Love is a violent, darkly-comedic yakuza story with an overt comic-book sensibility that makes up for what it lacks in originality with an energy and singularity of purpose in the fucking-up of shit at all costs.

Leo (Masakota Kubota) is a young boxer with few prospects in life who learns that he has a debilitating brain tumour that almost certainly spells the end of his career. Through a complicated series of events, he winds up meeting Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a call-girl being held against her will by a Yakuza couple (Shota Sometani and Becky). Through an even more complicated series of subsequent events, they wind up caught in the crossfire between two warring gangs, both of whom want to get their hands on a duffel bag full of cocaine and both of whom are taking the elimination of members at the hands of the opposing gang very personally.

First Love is a starcrossed-lovers-on-the-lam movie in the purest ’90s tradition, completely with breakbeat-heavy score and questionable taste in jokes (it features, amongst other things, a woman sticking her hands down her pants and presenting her fingers to “lure” an enemy with her scent). What feels trite and familiar in someone else’s hands feels considerably more exciting when Miike is doing it, however, and First Love pulsates with the energy of Miike’s early films. Where so many filmmakers of his ilk have started to rest on their laurels (or, even more horrifyingly, began making reactionary old man films), Miike proves that going back to basics can pay off — once in a while.

First Love does not currently have a release date.

Bad Education

I loved Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds so much that it was one of those Catch-22 situations where nearly any follow-up would feel a little disappointing. That having been said, I was very surprised that Finley went from a caustic black comedy to a movie about a school fraud scandal starring Hugh Jackman — surely this is the territory of the Jason Reitmans of this world? Bad Education certainly has its roots in that kind of facile, middle-brow satire that so readily pollutes the post-festival season, but there’s something prickly and slightly left-of-center to Bad Education that separates (if not quite elevates) it beyond the realm of the familiar.

Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is a former English teacher who has ascended to a cushy position as superintendent of schools in the district of Roslyn on Long Island. Tassone says he loves his job because he gets to make a difference, but it seems clear from the get-go that he also enjoys wielding power, influence and the weird kind of mid-level privilege that comes, I suppose, with holding students’ futures in your hands. His assistant Pam Gluckin (Alison Janney) benefits from the same kind of position of power — but when the number crunchers discover that the renovations on her home were paid with a school credit card, it becomes clear that there’s something rotten in the district of Roslyn.

Bad Education plays like a dark comedy even if it isn’t really going for that vibe entirely; it’s a movie about people who aren’t truly bad, but do bad things in the name of some kind of self-defined merit. It’s less about angrily uncovering a conspiracy (see The Laundromat, also at the festival, or the last couple of Adam McKay films) and more about trying to understand how self-justification can lead you so far down that path. (It’s also essentially about the destructive effects of denial — Tassone is a closeted homosexual with two parallel lives, which he remains in denail about throughout the film.) It’s fairly interesting thanks to an attention to detail that can only be chalked up to screenwriter Mike Makowsky, who was a student in Rosyln at the time of the scandal, but it’s also a little too polite and restrained for its own good. 

Bad Education does not yet have a release date.

Castle in the Ground 

It’s practically impossible to make a anti-drug movie that doesn’t glorify the drug use at least a little bit; people get addicted to drugs because they make them feel good, and it’s very hard to convey that feeling good can be bad without also convey how good feeling good feels. (Are you with me?) The heroin-movie cliché is always that of the womb, of the completely closed-off sense of security it provides; it always goes to shit, of course, but it’s hard not to fall into that trap. 

The one remarkable thing about Joey Klein’s oppressive opioid-crisis drama Castle in the Ground is that it never once tries to make being addicted to oxys look like a barrel of fun. From the very first time Henry (Alex Wolff) crushes up his mother’s (Neve Campbell) pills and eats them, he just seems to be barely surviving. The growth spurt of Henry’s addiction is given a boost by the arrival of Ana (Imogen Poots), a heroin addict who’s only recently gotten on the wagon and moves into the apartment facing Henry’s. Henry feels a need to help Ana with her life even though he’s barely got a grip on his, and together they bring each other down into the lower depths.

Montreal-born director Joey Klein clearly has a personal connection to the material; when he introduced the film, he said it was “set in Sudbury in 2012 for a very specific reason.” But the inherent flaw of essentially all addiction dramas is that they’re all about the same journey, and no matter how personal it might be to the people making it, once it’s done it’s just another movie about someone else’s addiction. I realize it may sound like I’m missing the point here — opioid addiction is a true epidemic that was started by doctors and pharmaceutical companies rather than in back streets and crash pads. Klein’s film, however, mostly takes place in the latter. It’s a well-made, sensitive and well-acted film, but it told me absolutely nothing new. Maybe that’s the lesson.

Castle in the Ground does not yet have a release date.