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Film: Zanzibar’s Festival shows the way forward

By Alexander Macbeth in Zanzibar
Posted on Monday, 21 September 2009 00:00

Gathering films from around the continent, and focusing especially on

Swahili cinema, the ZIFF festival is a good way to tune into East

African culture

Zanzibar is no stranger to contact. Through the ages, this spice-trading East African island has been colonised by forces and empires ranging from Oman to the UK. Yet in recent years, it is film that has entrenched itself into the local people’s consciousness. This year the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) celebrated its 12th year as East Africa’s chief cultural forum, with no less than 40 nations from four continents represented in its film programme, with 12 directors present, and the screening of the first-ever films dubbed into Swahili.

Themed ‘Enduring Links – Media, People and Environment’, in recognition of the island’s turbulent past, this year’s festival put local children at centre stage, placing the spotlight firmly on the future. Set in the oldest construction in Stone Town, the coral Old Fort in Zanzibar’s labyrinthine capital, the Festival of The Dhow Countries (as it is officially known) has become the focus point for East African filmmakers, established and aspirant, as well as a platform for other African cineastes from across the continent.

This year, 15 African premieres were shown. Indeed, ZIFF is much more than a gathering of film fans in a paradise location. In a town where electricity is rarely constant, the festival also puts on eight nights of live music at The Mambo Club, the Old Fort’s alter ego, where East Africa’s favourite music artists from the hip-hop and traditional music scene come to pay respect to their Wazanzibari fans. The festival also holds workshops in villages on subjects from HIV/AIDS to water management, and it is in these isolated communities, where cinema is most absent, that it perhaps has the greatest role to play in contributing to the education of tomorrow’s citizens.

“The children are the future audience of this festival”, says Martin Mhando, a Tanzanian filmmaker and ZIFF’s CEO. Witnessing incisive vision during question-and-answer sessions after screenings for different schools at the House of Wonders (the island’s ceremonial palace which dates back to the 1880s), it seemed that students as young as eight or nine carried the genes of cinematographers, directors and sound engineers in their dreams. While Swahili films had reached their largest ever numbers in the programme this year, with one, From a Whisper, winning one of the event’s coveted awards, the East African Talent Award, the region still lingers far behind other parts of Africa in its yearly film output. The same goes for training opportunities, infrastructure and distribution channels.

The four corners of africa

In the effort to keep African film alive, Cinétoile – a project launched at FESPACO 2009 in Burkina Faso and which met for the second time at ZIFF – is tackling the conundrum of African films being distributed mainly outside Africa. Financed by the EU and Africalia, Cinétoile has a mandate of determining “how to better distribute African cinema in Africa”, according to Aurélien Bodinaux, a director of the programme. The Belgian-based organisation, in conjunction with eight different film agencies around Africa, will create mobile cinema units to take the films – dubbed into the main languages of each country – to rural sites and screen the five selected African films for free.? (Read more here about Cinétoile)

ZIFF was selected as the local Tanzanian partner and plans to show the films in all corners of Zanzibar, Pemba and the mainland. Cinétoile, in the words of Martin Mhando, aims to bring back Sembène Ousmane’s concept of ‘film as an evening school’. Cinétoile promises to promote local languages and pan-African synchrony of screenings.

At previous ZIFF festivals, films were screened in foreign languages with English subtitles to an audience whose first language is Swahili and amongst whom, especially the older generations, many do not have the literacy or habit required to keep up with the story through subtitles.

Enter the Danish Film Institute (DFI) and John Riber of Media for Development in Dar es Salaam. Financed by DFI, the dubbing of Kirikou and The Sorceress, the West African cartoon charting the adventures of a small African boy with magic powers, was received rapturously at ZIFF 2009 when it was shown in Swahili to a packed audience. The future of the festival was right here, and indeed Samson Komeka, a ten-year-old boy who played the voice of Kirikou but who until six months ago was new to cinema, spending his days as any other child in primary school, mounted the stage to show off his skills to the audience. This young boy, who said he would like to study cinema and is fearless of the process, showed that dubbing can make foreign cinema more tangible and enjoyable to audiences. The evolution of a dubbing industry will give children like Samson an industry in which to develop.

Getting the kids involved

Ziff had a special children’s

Read more

The progress of Swahili productions shone in the House of Wonders side-programme too. African Tales, a series of shorts made in Swahili by Tanzanian directors under the umbrella of Savannah Films and its founder (and ex-ZIFF CEO), Imruh Bakari, won the Jury Award. These community-themed dramas showed how small budgets can achieve strong scripting, good framing and concise stories in the Swahili language. Risasi Kidole, by Kiagho Kilonzo, was a powerful local production about the misconceptions surrounding a girl with HIV/AIDS.

The winner of the East African Talent Award, From a Whisper, showed what a leap Swahili top-end production had made with a slick, nostalgic, epic woven around a terrorist attack. All in all, the 15 Swahili-language films at ZIFF marked a substantial rise from the four in the programme in 2004.

There remains much to build upon. After the screening of his film Mwalimu: The Legacy of J. K. Nyerere, the Dar es Salaam-based director Furaha P. Ole Levilal told me he found it almost impossible to access archive footage in Tanzania, even of the country’s most famous citizen and first President. In the end, he obtained most of it from ITN South Africa.

Completing the circuit?

The festival had a few flaws and some unfortunate fates. While the House of Wonders may have been the first building to have electricity in Africa, it often felt during ZIFF 2009 that the Old Fort next door would be the last. Several nights’ gala screenings were interrupted due to a power-cut or a generator overload, and the technical disorganisation was part of the festival’s charm and frustration – but a big challenge for the future. On the opening night, during the screening of the Durban director Madoda Ngayiyana’s African premiere of My Secret Sky (Izulu Lami), the technical manager interrupted the film to find English subtitles, then played it in only Zulu, but finally vanquished the problem an hour later. The audience waited patiently and, in the end, the film was perhaps the best of the festival. Later in the week, Jerusalema, another South African film, was suddenly cut off 15 minutes from the end and replayed the next morning. The story of a young gangster who rises up in the post-apartheid confusion won the Golden Dhow award for ‘excellence in film language’, the top award at ZIFF.

Danny Glover, this year’s guest of honour, described by the festival director as a ‘freedom fighter’ (and not ‘The Lethal Weapon of African Cinema’), said he felt honoured to be present and to witness the empowerment that the festival gave to the local youth. Gospel Hill, in which Glover plays the apathetic son of a civil rights activist, was screened in attendance of its director, Giancarlo Esposito.

If the festival is to survive and progress, and not be overshadowed by its musical equivalent Sauti Za Busara (each year in February at the same venue), it faces several challenges. A citizen’s entry-fee is $2 per night and many local citizens simply cannot afford this. ZIFF’s challenge will be to deliver the kind of content that will entice more people to pay the fee or find alternative means of funding.

Continuity will be crucial in the coming months too, especially with the Cinétoile project. ZIFF will have a chance to review this year’s festival and look to improve on the technical side for next year. While the dubbing of Kirikou and The Sorceress may have started a revolution in East African cinema, the fruits of its inception will be left to dry out unless greater investment and continuity of projects is co-ordinated through some central body.

ZIFF must also look to play a greater role in Swahili production by establishing networks on the mainland. Samson Komeka and the voices that will follow him will need a business in which to thrive and grow. Cinétoile, ZIFF, Tanzanian Television and the growing network of independent production companies in East Africa can surely make this happen. The social language maps of East Africa have been continuously redrawn over the last century. A thriving Swahili film industry may yet give the Swahili language that extra edge over English in the 21st.

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