A Musical From the Heart of Africa By Belinda van de Graaf

in 8th Zanzibar International Film Festival

by Belinda van de Graaf

As a member of the first FIPRESCI jury at the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), I was surprised to find out that first time fest director Jakub Barua (a filmmaker, writer and musician in his own right) was not only hosting a film festival devoted to East-African film making. Apart from programming 14 feature films, 43 documentaries, 23 short films and animation films and hosting 3 professional film juries, Barua was also the curator of an exhibition of paintings and photographs made by local artists in the newly restored ‘House of Wonders’. And every day musicians, singers and dancers from all parts of East-Africa (and India as well) performed in the Old Fort, the 17th century building in the heart of Zanzibar’s Stone Town (nowadays a UNESCO World Heritage Site). For 10 hectic and dynamic days this was the centre of the 8th Zanzibar International Film Festival.

Every day, at sunset, the amphitheatre in the Old Fort was turned into an outdoor cinema, with the sensation of the ‘vampiristic musketoes’, but also of the stars, and now and then an aircraft flying over to nearby Dar-es-Salaam in mainland Tanzania. In fact, the title “8th Festival of the Dhow Countries” more aptly covered all the arts (film, painting, photography, music and dance) and at the same time showed the festival’s focus on culture from the Dhow region, meaning all countries belonging to the Indian Ocean Basin and in reach of the characteristic ‘dhow’, the wooden sailing vessel with lateen sail that is the festival’s symbol for movement, exchange and dialogue.

As to the 14 feature films in the programme, the dialogue was mainly on an educational level. Vero and Haingo (Vero sy Haingo, 2003), a film from Madagascar, revolved around two young sisters, one working hard and becoming a teacher, the other dropping out of school and becoming a prostitute. More then a work of art this film turned out to be an educational film about the sexual exploitation of children on Madagascar.

The main problems of the East-African countries, like the struggle against aids and child prostitution, were referred to in a lot of the programmed films, but it was mainly done in simple dialogues and theatrical set-ups, like ready-made for television audiences.

Babu’s babies, a 60-minute film from Kenya that was shown in the programme of short films and that was a huge success with the local audience, turned out to be a nice African variation on the French comedy Trois hommes et un couffin (1985), better known for its Hollywood-clone Three Men and a Baby (1987). A man finds a baby, and tries to get rid of it. As it turns out, nobody wants to have the baby, even police officers and special institutions for child care send him away. Babu’s babies , directed by Christine Bala, is a film with some predictable laughs, but it’s very well done as a social comedy, and it turned out to be one of the very few films that tackled a social problem with humour.

The films that escaped most formula’s were to be found in the programme of short films and animation films. Here the future of African cinema could be traced. Especially two filmmakers, from Uganda and Zimbabwe, showed a great sense for original storytelling, not to the rhythm of words, but to the rhythm of sound and music. In doing so, they created their own magical musicals from the heart of Africa.

Calabash (Lamokwang, 2004), a 14 minute film from Uganda, turned out to be a wonderful, poetic celebration of the calabash. In this film, made by Ndaliko Katondolo Petna, we see the calabash being used as a water reservoir, a musical instrument and a carriage for a baby. No words, only sounds. A film that is ready to travel the world, and to speak for itself.

And for me, the highlight of this festival, came from Zimbabwe. In Mother’s Day (Kare kare zvako, 2004), a 30 minute film made by Tsitsi Dangarembga, an old African folk tale is reinterpreted with the use of modern music. Drought has struck. A Mother has to give her four children termites for dinner. She urges Father to look for some real food, but he is lazy and egoistic. He tricks Mother into a kind of self-dig grave, a trap, cuts her into pieces and serves her for dinner. When he starts eating the flesh of the Mother, some jazzy saxophone music starts commenting the scene. Giant termites suddenly appear, they start dancing and singing. In a magical moment the Mother reappears to her children, and to the sounds of some great modern Zimbabwean music this cannibalistic tale, in which the Mother will take revenge, comes to an happy end. Kare kare zvako, which can be translated into ‘Long, long ago.’, uses the macabre and magical elements of popular tradition, together with music, to create an all-singing, all dancing film musical. A cannibal film musical which has been misunderstood already as a tale about Africans as savages. Director Tsitsi Dangarembga who already wrote a novel (Nervous Conditions, 1989) that is regarded as one of the highlights of 20th century African literature, has made a fascinating first fiction film.