A New Digital Revolution? By Paulo Portugal

in 10th Zanzibar International Film Festival

by Paulo Portugal

As ZIFF celebrates its 10th anniversary, we notice an ambition for the festival to become not only a Swahili celebration but certainly one of the main cultural events in the region. Profiting from the touristic attraction of Zanzibar, ZIFF surfs on the charm of the East African coast and clearly hopes to take its place among the most important film festivals of the southern hemisphere, not just those on the African map or the Dhow area. The government, for a long time seemingly disinterested in the festival, has finally come on board to help make this dream come through. However, there’s still some work to be done.

There is an emergence of films from the region dealing with sensitive questions — AIDS, women’s issues, tradition, ethics, love and also politics — although some of these pictures show naivety and lack of film language maturity. There were also some technical problems with the DVD projections — the only projection medium supported by the festival — but the most surprising episode was the censoring of several scenes deemed erotic, shadowed from the eyes of the many children in the audience with a hand put carefully in front of the projector. The crowd took the intervention with good spirits, responding with a noisy, playful reaction.

Nevertheless, it was clear that the emerging filmmaking talent of Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia, India and elsewhere seem determined to incorporate their own social themes into their filmmaking and, more importantly, adopt their own style of production. This is where more affordable technologies, such as video and DVD, contribute towards a kind of a digital revolution. In this area, ZIFF could play an important role.

Martin Mhando, ZIFF’s director, is very clear when it comes to promoting African film production. That’s why he describes his own as the “antithesis of the Western-style glitzy film festival”, therefore providing “no red carpets, no star treatment, and no limousines!” However, it’s a very successful festival with packed venues. “For me,” he defends, “it’s very important that we tune ourselves to the national market.” And the market for local production can be exceptionally lucrative, according to Mhando. “We’re talking about 600% profit in a film!” he stresses confidently. This figure is easily explained by the fact that a cheap film could cost only 25,000 dollars (obviously shot on video or DVD), “and have an investment return on the first day with 6 thousand DVDs at the cost of 6 dollars per unit. The rest is only profit,” he mused.

When questioned with the doubtful quality of some films as well as their artistic limitations, Mr. Mhando counters with an even more ambitious speech. “Digital is going to be accepted; it’s going to work and, in many ways, digital technology represents the freedom of Africa from the shackles of total dependence on Europe ‘s money to make films.” With that being said, is it possible that quantity rather than quality currently defines the African market? And what about in the Dhow area specifically? It’s hard to know, but with the public response we’ve seen in ZIFF is hard to look in any other direction than the low budget digital option, even if it’s just a means to an end. It’s true that Zanzibar closed all its cinemas, but it is still struggling to revive the golden years of the 30s to 50s, when there was, in Martin Mhando’s memory, “a thriving film culture”. That’s why he’s using “the brand of Zanzibar to brand ZIFF, but also to be a link with the mainland”.

Probably the best cause for optimism was the response to Malooned, a light comedy by Kenyan Bob Nyanja, about a young couple locked during one weekend in the “loo” of a building. Shot on video at a quick pace and without the best knowledge of editing and film language, this little film caught the attention of the public that packed the open air amphitheatre of the Old Fort. Of course, even if on the surface the film seems little more than a good idea for a short film, it evolves into a feature that deals with unexpectedly deep social concerns. The result? The film immediately caught the attention of a French company who bought the rights. Apparently, this kind of light production, easily staged and shot, is getting a great deal of attention from local producers who see them as a profitable investment. Whether it’s a new trend in the Dhow area remains, again, something yet to be seen.

With all this in perspective it was hard not to think about the discussion that 60 directors had this year in Cannes over the presentation of the film Chacun son cinéma. To the press and his colleagues, David Cronenberg contended that “the form of the cinema as we know it is already a thing of the past” and suggested the use of all types of film format available to express each cinematic vision, as he did in his three-minute segment in which we even get mobile phone shots.

So, can we say that we’re going to have a new digital revolution? According to Mr. Mhando, it could very well happen, but only if creativity dominates. That’s where video, DVD, internet and even mobile phone footage could give cinema an intriguing future. It’s still too early to have clear perspective. One thing’s for sure, there’s something new happening in the Dhow area.