Adaptability and Didacticism By Li Cheuk-to

in 8th Zanzibar International Film Festival

by Li Cheuk-to

In the Competition section of the 8 th Zanzibar International Film Festival, there were more than 40 documentaries, 20 shorts and 3 animation films. The first FIPRESCI jury at ZIFF decided to limit its choices to feature films only. Among the 15 features in Competition, Atiq Rahimi’s Earth and Ashes (Khakestar-O-Khak, France/Afghanistan) was an obvious stand-out (and it ended up winning the Golden Dhow Award for Best Feature Film). However, it had already won the FIPRESCI Prize at Oslo last October.

The most represented Dhow country in the Competition line-up was India, with 4 films whose production quality easily surpasses that of most African films. But they are all handicapped by an over-reliance on formulae and conventions. Vishwathulasi (directed by Sumathy Raam) is a standard Bollywood musical about the tortuous affair of two lovers. The slightly offbeat romantic comedy Hari Om (directed by Bharatbala Ganapathy) looks more modern with its fluid and dynamic camerawork. A happy-go-lucky auto-rickshaw driver on the run meets a pretty, young Frenchwoman who walks out on her boyfriend and they set off on a journey of self-discovery through the picturesque countryside. It was a crowd pleaser which ultimately boils down to a daydream fantasy for Indian males and a vicarious trip to an exotic India for Western audiences as tourists.

Judging from the 9 African films in the line-up, South Africa seems to be the only African nation that has developed its own film industry with a relatively advanced infrastructure. Both Drum (directed by Zola Maseko) and The Man in a Brown Suit (directed by Sara Blechor) are conventional yet compelling dramas with good technical support from various departments. The influence of Hollywood genre films is definitely there, but the thriller elements, for instance, are well adapted to the South African settings (the early 1950s in Drum and the 21 st century in The Man in the Brown Suit) with an interesting twist from a contemporary perspective.

Telling the story of how young journalist Henry Nxumalo becomes radicalized by the gradual encroachment of apartheid laws, Drum is reminiscent of the hard-boiled detective film noirs from Hollywood in the 1940s with its rich period ambiance of Sophiatown and its nightlife. The support of the white liberal editor of Drum magazine as well as Nxumalo’s German-born photographer and confidante is portrayed as indispensable to his success as a crusading muckraker. Similarly in The Man in the Brown Suit , the blacks and the whites must work together to combat the terror spread by a sniper who claims a random victim – always an innocent black man – every 48 hours in the city of Johannesburg. The elite team of Zero Tolerance is made up of members of different races and genders, including a veteran policemen from the bad old days of Apartheid. The genre conventions of American TV crime drama are appropriated here to make a political statement in the different context of South Africa. Ironically, the skin colours of the hero and the villain are reversed.

The Tunisian film The Wind Dance (La Danse du Vent, directed by Taieb Louhichi) is also competently made, but obviously for an art-house audience, with its subject of a film director lost and stuck in a desert when he searches for locations for his next project. Unfortunately the filmmaker as artist and his reflection on the creative process are both trite and overworked themes for more than four decades now. And The Wind Dance seems oblivious to this fact in its dead seriousness and total lack of humour.

On the other hand, The Governor’s New Clothes (Les Habits Neufs du Gouverneur) as the opening film of the Festival, turned out to be a big disappointment. Directed by veteran filmmaker Mweze Dieudonné Ngangura from the Congo, the film is a musical comedy inspired by the famous fairy tale, The Emperor ‘ s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen. The dialogue is sung and the film is interspersed with choreographed numbers, but the rhythm sags and the satire on the abuse and corruption of power is forced and skin-deep.

There seems to be a prevalent tendency towards didacticism in African cinema, especially in those films from countries with fewer productions. Beatrix Mugishagwe’s Childhood Robbed (Tumaini) from Tanzania centers on two orphans struggling against the bullying of their cousins and the scheming of their aunt and uncle for their mother ‘ s pension. The younger brother is almost tricked into joining a pickpocket gang while the sister barely escapes the fate of becoming a prostitute. The film ends with the repentance of their guardians and a lesson on the danger of one-night stands in catching AIDS.

Patrick Vergeynst’s Vero and Haingo from Madagascar is the story of two sisters – one works hard and becomes a teacher, the other drops out of school and ends up as a prostitute. Finally their parents regret how they have misled their fallen daughter and an off-screen narrator delivers a speech calling for a concerted effort against child prostitution.

Both films are shot in a most primitive way with little regard for style or aesthetics and full of functional dialogue. But they certainly reflect the innumerable social problems plaguing their individual countries, and with their naive happy endings, the simple goodwill of the African people for a better future.