SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: One day after the 2015 edition of the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) wrapped up, Screen Africa caught up with festival director, Professor Martin Mhando, who provided an overview of the festival’s major themes and highlights.
The first thing that Prof. Mhando mentions is that future editions of ZIFF would feature fewer films in their programmes. The high number of films programmed this year created several scheduling challenges and made it difficult to fit in repeat screenings of selected films. That said, he feels that, on the whole, people seemed to respond favourably to the programming, from the opening night, which featured Ava DuVernay’s historical drama Selma, to the various panel discussions that were taking place alongside the screenings. He pinpointed the following highlights:
Difficult Dialogue: a public forum on pan-Africanism
Feeling that the time was right for a reassessment of the pan-African ideal, in light of ongoing government corruption across the continent, xenophobia in South Africa and refugee migrations across and out of Africa, the ZIFF programmers decided to facilitate a workshop on the subject with a group of young Africans. Led by Tonni Brodber of UN Women, the three-day workshop featured intensive discussions and forums, as well as the collaborative creation of a collage and dance performance that highlighted pan-Africanism. A public forum opened the discussion to all who had an interest in the subject.
Mhando says: “The South High Commissioner to Tanzania spoke very powerfully on the historical importance of pan-Africanism. Tonni Brodber stressed the point that pan-Africanism is a journey – you can’t expect it to stay the same all the time. If, as some people say, pan-Africanism is dead, then we need to go back and see what happened to it so that we can revive it for this era. There was a very strong argument put forward that young people no longer believe in pan-Africanism, they have been let down by their leaders, they have little hope for the future, so they don’t really understand the purpose of pan-Africanism anymore. We know that it is important to have a collective voice in Africa, but that collective voice needs a reason, a rallying point. What could that be in the current era? It was very good to have these questions put forward and the discussion was very robust. At the public forum there was an hour and half of conversation around this, which I felt was really one of the highlights of the festival.”
Sembene Ousmane competition
ZIFF also ran a short film competition in which 17 films were in the running for a special award named in honour of the great Senegalese filmmaker Sembene Ousmane. “The jurors were very happy with the quality of films,” says Mhando. “To have a selection of African short films with such a wide variety of styles and subject matter was very important to them and they came to me afterwards and said that this is something that needs to be maintained.”
Mhando has felt for many years that one of the weaknesses of the festival programme is the quality of work coming from the host nation, Tanzania. Much of the work that is produced by the industry, largely based in Dar es Salaam, is inspired by the Nollywood model, made with low budgets and production values and underdeveloped scripts. They have been branded ‘bongo’ by audience and industry alike. Mhando is heartened to note that the productions are showing signs of improvement.
“This year we have included more Tanzanian films than in previous years and three of those won over international films in their categories. That shows that there is some development in the Tanzanian industry. We are now seeing films that are more multilayered, more streamlined.
“Zuku hosts a workshop for bongo filmmakers every year and one of the things that came out very strongly from the workshops was, you can’t just put on a doctor’s coat and call yourself a doctor. You have to study. Why do we think that we can just pick up a camera and call ourselves filmmakers? This is something we say to filmmakers in Africa time and time again. It’s time for us to really train our filmmakers and open up the space for them to understand that they can really do so much better than they have been.”
Increase in female filmmakers
“It is very gratifying to see that more and more women filmmakers are having their work featured at ZIFF. We saw this year that more than 50 per cent of the programmed films were made by women – and they were very strong films. You see a major difference in the way subjects are treated and you realise that this is the other half of the story that we have been missing all this time.”
Mhando cites the example of Simshar, a Maltese film, directed Rebecca Cremona, which won the overall runner-up award, the Silver Dhow, at the end of the festival. “You can see that this is a filmmaker who has thought through the issue of African migration into Europe and brings such deep humanity to the story. She looks into the whole argument about migrants crossing the Mediterranean and cuts through all the politics and diplomatic debate and shows that it is simply about being human. How would you feel if your family was shipwrecked and drowning? What would you do? Treat others as you would have them treat you. That is the message of all religions known to humanity.
This filmmaker manages to say it in such a powerful way. This to me is the strength that women bring to filmmaking. We are increasingly hearing these voices that we haven’t heard enough of before, and they are enriching our cinematic culture.”
Mhando also remarks that the subject matter of many of the films, whether made by women or not, dealt with problems faced by women, specifically in the east African region. More and more, filmmakers in the region are forcing their society to engage meaningfully in dialogue about longstanding gender issues.
The debate continues to rage in Africa about western filmmakers who come to the continent and ‘tell our stories’. Some of the higher profile films at ZIFF push this discussion into the spotlight. The Golden Dhow winner, Wazi? FM, and the closing film I Shot Bi Kidude, each dealing with very different aspects of east Africa’s culture and history, were both made by European filmmakers. So what does Prof. Mhando have to add to that discussion?
“To me, that’s not even an issue. It’s about individual expression. Nobody else can tell your story. How can they?
“That is the beauty of cinema. People go into the darkened room to engage in a communal experience, with the story they are being shown and with the human beings sitting around them. This is what film is all about. And when you are sitting in a location like this, in one of the most beautiful places in the world, it doesn’t get much better than that.”