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Tanzania: Director Amil Shivji puts Tanzanian cinema on the global map with ‘Tug of War’

By Wilfred Okiche
Posted on Friday, 7 January 2022 11:53

Photo still from movie 'Tug of War'

It is a long way from the coast of Zanzibar to the bustling metropolis of Toronto, but in September 2021, 'Vuta N’Kuvute' (Tug of War) - the second feature length fiction film by director Amil Shivji - achieved the fine distinction of becoming the first Tanzanian film to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

A period romance set against the backdrop of colonial-era Zanzibar in the 1950s, a time when the air was thick with the possibility of a political revolution, Vuta N’Kuvute (Tug of War) is an adaptation of the award-winning novel with the same title, written by Shafi Adam Shafi – one of the leading lights of Swahili literature.

When I picked up Vuta N’Kuvute, I could not put it down. The way that Shafi writes is cinematic and the language so beautiful that I could just see all the images playing out on the big screen…

Shivji’s film was well received in Toronto before showcasing in Ouagadougou, where it won the Oumarou Ganda Prize in the Outlook section at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival (Fespaco).

Tug of War is an epic and visually lush romance with a pair of star-crossed lovers at its poetic centre. Alive with the heat of young love and the danger of political engagement, Shivji’s film draws parallels with contemporary events, as the characters seek forbidden freedoms in the period leading up to the January 1964 revolution.

On the shores of the centuries-old trade port in the Indian Ocean’s ‘Spice Islands’ – then under British protectorate control, Denge (Gudrun Columbus Mwanyika) – a young Mswahili revolutionary crosses paths with Yasmin (Ikhlas Gafur Vora), a rebellious Indian-Zanzibari woman fleeing an arranged marriage. Their romance blossoms against the backdrop of a political uprising in the final years of British colonial rule.

This period was erased from our history books. We were never behind the camera during colonial periods so were never able to create our perspectives and record them. With colonial archives, everything is framed from the point of the oppressor.

Shivji, 31, first came across Shafi’s novel like most other Tanzanians, through a required reading in high school. It wasn’t until years later, however, while struggling with a screenplay, that a friend advised him to look back at some of the Swahili literary giants.

Shivji says: “I went back to the work of Adam Shafi, who is still alive and has written some of the most phenomenal Swahili novels. When I picked up Vuta N’Kuvute, I could not put it down. The way that Shafi writes is cinematic and the language so beautiful that I could just see all the images playing out on the big screen very easily.”

In reality, adapting the novel for the film was easier said than done, as there was no precedent for this kind of collaboration. The bulk of Tanzanian films are Nollywood-inspired low-budget ‘bongo films’, mass-released in DVD format. A big-screen adaptation of a Swahili novel, particularly one set in Zanzibar, was a novel idea, as most films are produced in Dar es Salaam.

After completing his debut feature T-Junction in 2017, Shivji travelled to York University, Toronto for his Master’s degree. He developed the script as part of his thesis before moving to Zanzibar – where his grandparents are from – for two years, to research.

It is there that he met with locals and secured direct access to the history. Shivji says: “This period was erased from our history books. We were never behind the camera during colonial periods so were never able to create our perspectives and record them. With colonial archives, everything is framed from the point of the oppressor.”

A professor at York, John Greyson introduced Shivji to Steve Markovitz, the veteran South African producer behind major titles like Rafiki and Viva Riva!. Much like his previous films, Markovitz was attracted to the political dimension subsumed within the love story and his influence was key to getting the project off the ground.

“Zanzibar has no film infrastructure, so it was a long road of planning and relationship building to prepare for the shoot. The crew were from Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Kenya, South Africa, Holland and France. The editing process was interrupted by Covid-19 for many months, but we found solutions to working remotely,” he tells The Africa Report via email.

To preserve the authenticity, it was important to Shivji that Tug of War be expressed in Kiswahili, the language of the people. Early meetings with at least one potential big-time distributor looking to spruce up the English quotient were aborted. “The only way I would have done that was to increase the role of the colonial officers and that was not something I had any interest in,” Shivji says.

Tug of War tells an untold part of East African history… The film says something about today – the necessity for young people to challenge exploitative power structures that exist in society…

Kiswahili, one of the two official languages in Tanzania – the other is English – represents the most common indigenous form of expression. Historically, a diverse group of people (Arab, African, Indian, Portuguese and English) were subsumed under the Swahili identity.

The language represents the culture, a way of life and the glue that has kept the country unified following the traumatic years of colonialism. Markovitz says: “Tug of War tells an untold part of East African history. I hope audiences can be charmed and seduced by the film resulting in a deeper interest in Zanzibar history. The film says something about today – the necessity for young people to challenge exploitative power structures that exist in society today.”

Film to screen

Even though the novel had all the elements of a great narrative, Shivji was looking to make his own interpretation of the material. His first draft of the screenplay was a direct translation from novel to screenplay. According to him, this was necessary in order to take Shafi’s voice out of the equation.

Shivji then reworked the material, excising outdated tropes. Nowhere was this more prominent than with the character of Yasmin, the female lead. “In the novel, she is this very naïve and passive character for long amounts of time and only gets radicalised by Denge. I did not want a character like that. My Yasmin, you can sense this spirit of rebelliousness already in her even before meeting Denge,” Shivji says. “I felt it would be a huge disservice to the growth of political movements over time to present a past without accounting for gender representation and the role of women in the struggles.”

In what could be described as something of a homecoming, Tug of War premieres in Zanzibar on 11 December and Shivji is hopeful that the film will be received warmly by the people for whom it is made. He also has his eyes on history and aspires to have the film represent a shift in Tanzanian cinema. “We need to see originality in our films. If there is a place to be inspired from, it is our literature. My biggest hope is to revitalise this love for Swahili literature and be able to tell stories that we believe in,” he says.

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