ZIFF Integrating the Region through Art and Culture

From its humble beginnings in 1998, the ZIFF Festival of the Dhow Countries has grown in leaps and bounds to be a grand and momentous event for culture and the arts in the region. The centerpiece of the Festival is an international program of film screenings, workshops and the film industry events. It has continued to showcase films that would not have been accessed by the local and regional public.

These films have in their own small way contributed to a new emergence of cinema, artistic excellence and the cultural discourse. This year’s theme was Tafakari Mikondo, Hisi Upepo — Exploring the Currents, Feeling the Winds. There were over 100 films and over 30 musical performances, exhibitions and workshops.

The films that were screened comprised of feature films, shorts, documentaries and animation. The films were drawn from various countries that included Iran, Angola, South Africa, Tanzania, Austria, The Netherlands, Ethiopia, Ghana, Bangladesh, India, Japan, United Kingdom, France, USA and others.

The films tackled a wide range of thematic concerns with a specific inclusion of environmental films that highlighted the concerns of the Indian Ocean region. “With the blurring of national identities, it has become important to document the state of being in which we as human beings — particularly human beings whose images and voices often find themselves relegated to the margins of mainstream society — find ourselves in this day and time,” the films and films workshops committee pointed out in their introductory remarks in this year’s event.

They added, “The selection of films this year reflects this, whether the subject is life in the city, the isolated community or a journey of self-discovery.”

Apart from this, the theme of history and its significance on our contemporary society and experience was also highlighted. This was especially exemplified with the recognition of ten years of the new South Africa and in celebration of the links between Tanzania and South Africa. Some of the films and documentaries screened were Soldiers of the Rock (2003) directed by Norman Maake, The Wooden Camera (2003) directed by Mtshavheni wa Lurili, Freedom is a Personal Journey (2004) directed by Akiedah Mohamed, King of Tears (2004) directed by Teddy Mattera, and Forgiveness (2004) directed Lan Gabriel and others.

Recalling historical links was not only celebrated through the political relations. It was also a tribute to Lionel Ngakane, a South African filmmaker and actor best known as the founder member of both the Pan African Film Festival (FESPACO) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and the Federation Panafricaine des Cineastes — the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI), the international lobby group promoting independent film productions in Africa.

His career in film started when he became assistant to renowned producer and director Zoltan Korda for the film Cry The Beloved Country (1951), in which Ngakane played a role alongside Sidney Poitier.

He also attended the first ZIFF event and his ideas and opinions about the role of ZIFF in the East African region helped to focus the eclectic mood that gave birth to this East African event in Zanzibar. This year, the organizers hosted the launch of several film programs aimed at enhancing the region’s competitiveness, to tell their stories through films and unite the region and they could be setting the pace where politics and the politicians seem to be floundering.

The most significant education and capacity building programs that were launched at this year were those aimed at sharpening the competitive edge of the region’s artists include Maisha: the East African Filmmakers Laboratory by acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair best remembered for her movies like Mississippi Masala, the sensuous Kamastura, Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay and others.

Maisha, a filmmakers’ laboratory will be dedicated to developing and supporting visionary screenwriters and directors from East Africa and South Asia. It will provide emerging filmmakers with professional training and production resources to help them hone their storytelling skills and articulate their visions.

“Through Maisha, I aspire to bring a diverse selection of East African and South Asian stories to both local and global audiences,” said Mira during the launch. “Maisha is motivated by the belief that a film which explores the truths and idiosyncrasies of the specifically local often has the power to cross over and become significantly universal.”

Mira, the visionary behind the project envisioned the lab as a resource for East African filmmakers, to address the dearth of local productions and to encourage the formation of a local film industry. The vision expanded to South Asia and the Diaspora communities. Maisha was developed and shepherded at Mira’s company in New York, Mirabai Films. Each lab is designed to give promising filmmakers a venue in which to develop their skills and projects under the intensive guidance of respected filmmakers and other industry professionals, selected with the help of her Maisha Advisory Committee.

At the moment, the Advisory Committee is made up of eminent professionals like Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Raoul Peck, Sabrina Dhawan, Bingham Ray, Karen Cooper, Mahmood Mamdani, a distinguished scholar and Mira. More information about the project can be accessed on their website www.MAISHAfilmlab.com.

Apart from Maisha, other programs for the development of the region’s artistic prowess include the East African Film Academy and UNESCO’s initiative for cartoon production.

The Academy wants to help put our stories on the market and they are already talking about adopting the Dogme regime with African rules to try and replicate the Danish film miracle.

The UNESCO initiative dubbed Africa Animated! will produce animation films or series with African aesthetics and narrative that speak the children’s cultural language, “edutains” and addresses issues relevant to their realities and environment. The initiative started with a series of regional training and production workshops that were held in Zanzibar and then they move to Nairobi. These regional training and production workshops will in future be turned into a regional center for animation training and production to address the absence of a formal training institution in this field.

Like in the past, this year’s festival was rich with films, music, literature and the performing arts drawn from the Gulf States, Africa, several Indian Ocean islands and the Indian sub-continent that had a heavy representation this year. In fact the Festival was opened with Maqbool, a modern day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that is set against the backdrop of Bombay’s underworld. Vishal Bhardwaj, who began his career in the Indian film industry as a music composer, directed the film.

The experience of the Indian cinema was part of the larger debate in the festival and it was brought into focus by other films such as Maargam / The Path directed by Rajiv Vijay Raghavan, which also scooped the Golden Dhow as the Best Feature film in this year’s competition. Others include Let’s Talk directed by Ram Madhvan, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay all directed by Mira Nair, The New Beginning directed by Sundhakar Reddy among others. There were films from Iran and other parts for the world that contributed immensely to the Festival’s principles of dialogue between cultures and histories.

Other film industry events included several workshops and launch of significant bodies related to the industry. The Tanzania Independent Producers Association was launched at the beginning of the Festival. There were capacity building workshops that tackled creative documentary, film editing, writing soap operas, animation, the Dogme movement, film composition, films by women, film training and education in South Africa since 1994 and others.

The competition for the Dhow awards was stiff and it captured the mood and spirit of the Festival. All regions were represented and there were remarkable entries by Kenya director and producers. However, Kenyan films performed dismally. The Golden Dhow for the Best Feature Film went to Maargam / The Path and Sofreh Irani / Iranian Spread took the second place. Senter/ Centre from South Africa scooped the Golden Dhow in the Short Film category. The Silver Dhow went to Mozart: The Music of the Violin also from SA. Conakry Kas from Guinea/France and Final Solution from India scooped the first and second positions respectively in the Documentary Film category. The top prize for the ZIFF East African Production Award went to Stephen Nyeko of Uganda. His movie Full Energy impressed the jury that was quite critical of some entries and they said as much in their report. “The jury saw many films not worthy of any form of consideration by such a festival even allowing sometimes for technical competence, which was often betrayed by poor mastery of the subject matter by the authors of the film and an inability to communicate,” noted the jury. The second place in this category went to Eric Kabera’s moving film Gardiens de la Memoire / Keeper of Memory that revisited the Rwanda genocide.

The excitement was not limited to the films alone. There were delightful musical performances every afternoon in the Forodhani Gardens next to the ocean and late evening shows at the Mambo Club in the Old Fort. The music and performing arts program was headed by Amal Murkus, a top musician from Palestine who has uses her music to preach peace. Amal and her group that comprises of a Palestinian and an Israeli, have developed a style that strikes a beautiful balance between folk, classical and popular Arabic/Middle East songs. Her music mixes classical Arab poetry with modern arrangements and it is quite soulful. Her two performances confirmed my belief that good music is good music no matter the language it is sung in.

The Nubian Tambours from Egypt were sensational. The group, which was formed in 1990 with the aim of preserving the knowledge and practice of traditional music from the ancient Nubian heritage that share common roots with ceremonies that date back to the ancient Pharaonic era. The Tambours were awesome in their music played traditional and contemporary instruments like the rebeck- an instrument found in almost all the communities from Egypt to Mozambique and beyond, pipe, cello and ngoma. The dances were magnificent.

By Kimani Wa Wanjiru

Copyright © 2002-2003 African Film Festival, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Women and Cinema at ZIFF

As the fledgling African film industry tries to find its footing, women are emerging as some of its most ardent supporters and stakeholders across the continent. In film, women have found a forum where they can express their problems, desires, dreams, aspirations and influence people to change their attitudes, using an entertaining and informative approach. The following article highlights women filmmakers at the 2001 Zanzibar International Film Festival of the Dhow Countries.

Close Up On Bintou by Burkinabe director, Fanta Regina Nacro, has an immense power to keep you glued to the screen. Its well-crafted story is not only entertaining but informative as well. The film portrays the self-elevation, against all odds, of a downtrodden housewife, Bintou, whose only wish is to earn enough money to educate her daughter. The film highlights her frustration with her situation and her husband’s derision at her decision to enter into business, both of which propel her towards triumph. It is a moving film that captures the plight of many women in Africa, and does so in a way that neither paints women as pure victims nor men as categorical tyrants. During the last edition of FESPACO, Africa’s biennial premier film festival held earlier this year in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the film was awarded a Special Jury Prize.

Over 30 films highlighting women issues were screened during the festival and the response was impressive. The festival provided a real and dynamic space for women to display their artistic work and to raise and discuss their concerns and issues and they turned up in big numbers. Besides screening of films made by women, there were workshops and discussions that sought to establish the visibility of women in cinema, media and the arts. The Zanzibar Film Festival short feature films competition had a total of ten films and Bintou’s tale was the clear forerunner. However, Bintou’s closest challenger was expected to come from five other short films dubbed Mama Africa series and produced by M-Net of South Africa, Zimmedia of Zimbabwe, WinStar and ITVS from the United States of America. Mama Africa, a series that was quite popular during the festival, collects for the first time, the beauty, humor, fury, frustration and the spirituality of African womanhood around the continent. Each story is radically different, vibrating with the beat of different countries and cultures of the directors involved in the production of these films.

From the rich Arabic tradition of Tunisia, Mama Africa heads south through an arid Sahelian village, across the basketball courts of Nigeria, via the open spaces of Zimbabwe, to the violent urban sprawl of South Africa. Although diverse in approach, the whole collection is united by a common thread of understanding of what it means to be a woman in Africa. Mama Africa presents an understanding of this world told in motion picture by six remarkable African women filmmakers. The films in the series are One Evening in July from Tunisia directed by Raja Amani, Riches from Zimbabwe directed by Ingrid Sinclair, Close Up on Bintou from Burkina Faso directed by Fanta Regina Nacro, Hang Time from Nigeria that was directed by Ngozi Onwurah, Uno’s World from Namibia directed by Bridget Pickering and Raya from South Africa that was directed by Zulfa Otto-Sallies.

All these films are a veritable testament to the new wave expression of African women filmmakers and their subject matter are a great contribution towards attitude change. Women are depicted as strong characters in all these films, which is a shift from what had been the norm. “Women were previously depicted as weak characters in the storylines but this is gradually changing as more take up the challenge found in motion picture,” observed Gaston Kabore, an acclaimed Burkinabe film director/ producer/writer, who was the chief guest during the Zanzibar Festival. “Many women film makers have attempted to reverse the previously held notions of a weaker and subservient woman,” noted Letebele Masemola-Jones, the program’s production director with African Broadcasting Network. “Characters, especially those in movies written by women, are portrayed in positive light. Films are not only meant to entertain but inform and for women filmmakers this latter purpose is very important.”

While some women filmmakers have made films that were inspired by real life events, others have been made from great literary works of art written by women and fiction informed by the social, economic, religious and political activities. A Female Cabby in Siddi Bel-Abbes from Algeria is a remarkable social commentary that touches on the lives of many women in the continent. In the story, Soumicha, a mother of three children, has to earn a living after the death of her husband who had been the solo breadwinner. She becomes the only woman taxi driver in the city of Siddi Bel-Abbes. As the story develops, we see her working conditions in a job normally reserved for men, in a city where violence rages. Soumicha takes us around the city, introduces us to the many contradictory aspects of this society and acquaints us in the course of her travels with other women who, like herself, are struggling for more freedom.

Riches, one of the movies in Mama Africa series, was inspired by the writer Bessie Head. It follows the flight of a coloured teacher, Molly McBride and her son Peter, from apartheid South Africa to an isolated school in Zimbabwe. She finds life tough and the villagers hostile and conservative. Molly’s clash with the hypocritical headmaster leaves her jobless and in despair, but a simple gesture of friendship from one of the poorest members of the community inspires her to fight back and claim her place within her new society.

Women’s issues take precedent in works by women filmmakers, but they have not shied away from tackling other thematic concerns. “Women filmmakers are sensitive to certain things around us that gain prominence when articulated using this methodology,” noted Kabore. “This kind of sensitivity is necessary in our industry that is growing and trying to find its own identity. We need to bring our own sensitivity to our own stories and women have shown that they have that capability.” The industry is struggling and there are many obstacles that compound film production in Africa. “The question of insufficient funds is a perennial one for African filmmakers and it is more pronounced where women filmmakers are concerned,” added Kabore. “Most have ended up doing projects that are sponsored by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and international bodies where they don’t have a lot of control in the films.”

The forerunners in the industry have helped set up local and international bodies to help solve the problem of funding. The International Women in Film, Women of the Sun, Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe and others, have been set up to support women filmmakers to raise funds and encourage more women to join the industry at various levels. They also help in the networking, lobbying and organizing forums that will assist women’s participation in the art of telling their own stories. Other organizations like the National Film & Video Fund of South Africa help filmmakers from marginalized groups realize their dreams. These organizations have helped make films that would otherwise never have been made, but industry experts feel that more needs to be done by our various governments to help women filmmakers realize their true potential. However, if the quality and quantity of films made by women being showcased at ZIFF is any indication, things look bright for the future of women’s storytelling on celluloid.

By Kimani Wa Wanjiru


Copyright © 2002-2003 African Film Festival, Inc. All rights reserved.

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