In the cinema-hall, or kibanda for local Kampala action-movie goers, cinema (sinema in Kiswahili) is really about an assassin who goes around murdering people, punctuated by explosions, and the kind of machine-gun muscle of 1980s American action films such as Rambo, Die Hard, and Commando. Myriad of film-goers, particularly in Kampala, are enamored with an animal-like maleness, a character that some critics have called the tough-guy or bad-guy. Looking particularly at films such as the 1984 Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which have become hallmarks of Kampala’s kibanda cinema halls, it is hard to deny the weight of so-called bad-guy movies. It is then only natural to question why we go to the movies; to watch bibanda; or why are we so enamored by violent bad-guy movies?
It would appear that a psychology of movie-going transcends the genre of bad-guy movies, relating directly to the therapeutic experience of freedom, to quote Franz Fanon. That author makes a captivating argument about the struggle for freedom being a kind of psychological relief. Without focussing on the contents (or malcontents) of action-cinema, the questions of why do we go to the movies and why do we watch violent action movies could be directly connected to the general political movements of freedom struggles across the continent. And therefore, when Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo interrupts the cinematic experience of Les Saignantes (2005) by posing a question on the screen, “How can you watch a film like that and do nothing after?” it informs movie-goers that cinema is in fact not an entirely fantastical experience; his remark becomes a cautionary comment to that escapist movie-goer to gain awareness of the role of cinema in enabling their freedom.
In 2010, the action-film Who Killed Captain Alex? was released in Uganda, distributed to local video libraries and screened in kibandas across town. Here, movie-goers watched the three hour plot unfold after the killing of Captain Alex. His brother then attempts a quasi-military coup on live television, sending a government intelligence officer after him. This film makes elaborate reference to American assassin films such as Commando: its video-effects fighter helicopter blows up the main cathedral in Rubaga and Workers’ House, the tallest building in Uganda; as well as to Korean action films: an extended choreographed fight scene including tae-kwon-do movements designed like an ensemble episode with street fighters, complete with sound effects for punches and kicks. In this sense movie-goers make no distinction between the antagonist assassin Captain Alex’s brother and the assassins of American and Korean action movies.
Who Killed Captain Alex? is not designed as a love story but as a series of violent episodes in the hunt for Captain Alex’s assassin. Unlike the cold war novels that have shaped action cinema, Captain Alex has little use for soft-core adult scenes. In fact, the most sentimental moment in the film is when the assassin’s girlfriend is brought back to life by a native-doctor: our female protagonist is surrounded by spiritual fumes, and has a bullet wound in her chest. This scene is not the best for onscreen romance, it is perhaps an ode to Nigerian horror cinema.
About an hour into the film, as Omubanda, the assassin character, sits in his living room before a television set, he finds out about his brother’s murder in a TV news report from Wakaliga – named for the location of Ramona films – the production house which made the film. His reaction is to curse loudly and smash the television set with a metal pole he has been ludging around: we notice it isn’t a real TV news segment but rather a hologram digitally projected onto the screen.
The drama of Captain Alex seemingly simultaneously explodes on television in another scene where a government intelligence officer is also watching the same television news bulletin. Captain Alex’s brother appears on the screen yelling angrily, “Ani yasse muganda wange! Ngambye, ani yasse muganda wange!” (Who killed my brother? I said who killed my brother!). The maniac antagonist proceeds to shoot the audio and video technicians, as well as one live reporter. We wonder how another reporter in the television scene manages to round off the report, visibly shaken by the gunshots. Yet it is these dramatic caricature scenes that attempt to connect to reality through violence; these absurd moments that replace reality with absurdity that bring to mind classic American action cinema. I assume by this time, he has left his house where he was watching TV to go to where, the broadcasting house?
In the 1984 American film Commando, an assassin (omubanda in Luganda) is called to a special mission to kill the president of a Latin American country. Throughout the movie we watch the assassin show superman strength, including when he aborts the mission by tearing his way into the luggage cabin before escaping through a door underneath the plane, holding onto the wheels and jumping into a swamp as the plane flies overheard. One wonders how much make up, and how many takes, it took for the assassin, acted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, to pull off the scene without breaking a sweat on his brow. Yet these are the kinds of scenes that kibanda movie-goers live and die for.
If moviegoers are perverts and cinema is a desire machine, what makes cinema perverted and what constitutes desire? One thing is for sure: moviegoers are attracted to the gratuitous killing that functions as a therapeutic violence of the cinema. In this sense desire becomes quite complex. In Commando, the gratuitous killing of armed rebel officers and their fugitive rebel leader on an unnamed island off the coast of America is a mysterious desire related to American politics and the Caribbean. With Captain Alex, there is a clear desire to destroy the machine of public television. In the several repeated attacks that occur on, about, and against the media, the three hour film explores a therapeutic violence connected to the psychological freedom of the general public from the tyranny of oppressive national media.
In Chimurenga magazine, Paula Akugizibwe makes the connection between action cinema and the 2011 Uganda election posters spread widely during election rallies, displayed in car windows, and paraded on the streets. She paints two portraits of the dominant electoral candidates Kizza Besigye and Yoweri Museveni as Rambo’s and Matrix’s. ‘See him in action – cocking a massive gun once, twice, thrice, resting it on his shoulder as he gazes thoughtfully into the distance … “Freedom Fighter.”‘ In Akugizibwe’s reading of election posters, freedom is equated with violent action. While moviegoers desire certain forms of therapeutic violence such as Captain Alex’s attack on national media, more immediate forms of violence seem unlikely subject matter for action cinema.
In the Bekolo sense of disrupting the cinematic experience in realtime, I wonder about other yet to be fictionalized forms of violence, and how they could become a subject within the desire machine of cinema. How does one make an action film about Uganda’s occupation of Somaliland as part of ANISOM? What does an action-packed film about the Al-Shabaab terrorist look like? How does one make a bloody action film about the regional M24 military coalition’s occupation of Eastern Congo? Which filmmaker is ready to turn the 2013 Westgate mall terror attack into sprawling action-packed cinema?
It is quite clear that fun and satire can be made of things in the past, but not those things in the present. Time seems to be a ruling factor in the consumption of action-cinema, constantly shaping how movie-goers relate to violence; constantly deciding which moments movie-goers can laugh at, and which moments they cannot laugh at. It is therefore unusual for audiences enwrapped in political violence to watch films about their present circumstances in the dark humor of action cinema for entertainment. As a result, it seems that action-films on political violence come years, or decades, after the event has occurred.
Action cinema mirrors Fanon’s therapeutic processes towards freedom in its use of violence in a similarly therapeutic process towards remembering, and yet remaking, horrific narratives about political violence into satirical and vulgar episodes. Yet given that the East African political and social landscape cannot be said to be completely decolonized, nor that the larger body of political militant groups have declared peace and unity in the region, a potent question can be asked: how can one make action cinema about a violence so present that it surpasses cinema’s therapeutic means of violence? In the end, what kind of relief exists after the dramatic telling of reality’s violent horrors?