Setting Sail Over New Waters By Barbara Lorey
The “ZIFF Festival of the Dhow Countries” is definitely in many aspects a special, if not global experience, even for a frequent-filmfestival-flyer. “Not just a film festival” (from a brochure) but more a multi-arts cultural event it celebrates the spirit of the Dhow countries and its diaspora under this year’s theme: Sails of History: Citizens of the Sea. The extensive festival program includes films, music and the performing arts, exhibitions, conferences, a literary forum and workshops for filmmakers (directed by the the chief-guests, legendary Melvin van Peebles and Krzysztof Zanussi) and actors (with Malick Bowens), for film-professionals, women and children, as well as a special women’s panorama.
The main venue of the festival is fabulous, centered around the 18th century fortress whose amphitheater is turned into a magic open-air cinema and which overlooks the harbour and the Forodhani Gardens. With its bustling food stalls and vendors, it is a popular water-front hang-out for the local population, which is transformed during the festival into a huge free open-air concert space, where thousands of festival guests, tourists and locals mingle in a joyfully swinging crowd. And after the screenings, the Mambo Club, located in the huge yard adjacent to the amphitheater, takes over until late in the night with still more concerts. However, squeezed in between these two concert venues, the films sometimes have a hard time drawing the full attention of the spectators.
The permanent headquarters, located on the first floor of the old fort, a single huge office, is a real beehive, crammed with overflowing desks, 4-year-old computers and a capricious internet connection. Bustling with dozens of staff and volunteers coming and going, the entire office is rocked from time to time by the sounds and rhythms booming from the concert stages.
Right next to the Old Fort rises the magnificent House of Wonders, Zanzibar’s National Museum, built in the late 19 th century by Sultan Bargash, featuring special exhibitions during the festival, while a few steps further on, the Palace Museum, former home to the last Sultan of Zanzibar, hosts the women’s panorama programs.
Zanzibar’s capital, Stone Town, opened its first cinema in 1916, and it was here, in 1973, that the Africa color television appeared for the first time. But like anywhere else, from the beginning of the ‘80’s, new technology opening huge new markets with the widespread distribution of video cassettes, followed by the introduction of cable TV, sealed the fate of Zanzibar’s three cinemas. The first to be closed was the Empire, long since converted into a supermarket, whereas the Majestic was downgraded to being a video parlor, and the Cine Afrique is about to become a shopping mall. It was in this context of shrinking audiences in the late ‘90’s when the idea of ZIFF was born, transforming the amphitheater of the historic old fort into a vibrant open-air cinema – a ‘lone island in the middle of an ocean of filmic despondency’, as Jakub Barua, the ZIFF director put it poetically. What happened however to the 35mm projectors of Zanzibar’s cinemas is unknown; in any case, there are none left on the island, and, ironically enough, all festival films are screened on VHS or DVD. This year, luckily, the festival received at least a brand new projector, a Swedish donation, for the open-air screenings.
Originally dedicated to principally being a showcase for films coming out of the Dhow countries, i.e. from countries all around the Indian Ocean, the ambitions of the festival are now being gradually shifted towards a much larger perspective, aiming to draw global attention to ZIFF as THE international film festival event of all East Africa, and therefore including also in its program films from all over Africa.
As a cultural event and focal point for promoting Dhow culture, ZIFF is no doubt a major attraction for the several hundred thousand people flooding into Zanzibar from all over the world – among them even Paul Wolfowitz popped in for a short moment – and it plays an important role in the promotion of this region and its economic growth. However, as a film festival that aims to hold a major place in the international festival circuit, it certainly still has a long way to go. Even though no one comes with the expectation that ZIFF functions like a festival in, let’s say, Germany, quite a number of problems certainly need to be addressed in order to make the film festival not only a fascinating experience, but also a relevant cinematographic event. The problems are certainly not the fault of its dedicated and competent director, Jakub Barua, who is not only responsible for the film program but also for the music and literature section. – a titanic task for which he is to be commended.
The film program alone with its total of 164 titles (by the way, Zanzibar being a strictly Muslim country, all films have to be submitted beforehand to 7 censors!) is enormous, considering that there are only two screening venues – the amphitheater, used only after sunset, and a bunker-like improvised screening room in the Africa Hotel, showing films from 9am until 11 pm. However, since locals would not cross the invisible frontier of the hotel entrance, as Barua explained, he has to juggle his program, picking for the open-air program mostly “accessible” films and appealing primarily to a local audience, whereas the more “difficult” films are relegated to the Africa House and its more international audience.
Out of the three competition sections with a total of 91 films – feature, documentary and shorts/animation – our jury chose to focus on the feature section. Unfortunately, it turned out that 5 of the 17 entries could not be considered for our prize – 2 films from East Africa had no subtitles, Bosta (Lebanon) and Herbert (India) could not be screened in public for technical reasons, and Carmen (South Africa) never arrived.
As mentioned earlier, the initial concept of focusing on films coming from around the Indian Ocean countries as a specific trans-cultural region being “diluted”, encompassing a broader geographical sphere, the competition section included alongside films from India, Iran, East Africa and West Africa, four films from Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco, which for me, is rather reflected in the cultural context of the Mediterranean world.
Kenya, strongly represented with 5 films in competition, turned out to be rather deceptive. The country’s film industry, which is striving to become “Africa’s Hollywood”, as announced recently by its Minister of Information, seems to be more prolific in TV entertainment than in cinematographic excellence. Project Daddy, a kind of a Kenyan version of “Sex in the City” by well-known Judy Kibinge, is set among Nairobi’s young urban professionals and follows the mating games and ups and downs of a successful young banker in her late twenties in her desperate quest to have a baby before her 30th birthday. In a sideline, the upbeat comedy addresses also a couple of serious issues such as AIDS testing , domestic violence and interracial dating, and is said to be a video-blockbuster in Kenya.
Martin Munyua, a former field mechanic who refashioned himself in the advertising industry (mostly known for his “Fresh Freddy” toothpaste commercial) before becoming a prolific filmmaker, even entered two films in competition. Mizoga (Carcasses), deals with the issues of wildlife poaching and bush meat trade, whereas Money and the Cross, tells the story of a popular pastor working in the slums, who leads a group of angry people to destroy an illicit local brewery. Married to a nagging wife, he falls for the beautiful and ambitious Lorna, who lures him into big existential problems.
Compared to the two previous films, Reke Tumanwo (Enough is Enough) by Kibaara, is at least an original UFO. Claiming to be the first movie ever on the Kenyan freedom fighters waging war on the colonial administration, it tells the story of Njeri, a young woman who runs into the forest to join the Mau Mau Liberation Forces under the legendary General Mathenge to escape further torture and certain death at the hands of evil commander Henderson. Praised by local newspapers as “an indication of an end to a long standing official phobia about production of movies on the country’s armed struggle”, the film seems to have been produced on a shoestring and played by amateur actors, sometimes openly unintentionally hilarious, it has all the ingredients of becoming a cult film.
Tanzania, whose ailing film industry was a hot topic at the East African filmmakers forum at ZIFF, presented Mama (Dear Mother), by Rajab Hammie, an extremely confused and confusing story (written, as we were told, by three scriptwriters) about a boy discovering years later the real murderer of his mother. The fact, that the film didn’t have subtitles and was translated orally during our screening didn’t help.
Having fully experienced the festival in all its complexity, the speech of the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports during the closing ceremony came as quite a surprise, particularly his comment that what is lacking so far is that the festival has yet to produce a film. However, this will change if the plans of the new festival CEO, Martin Mhando, are realized. Mhando notes with concern that though ZIFF has been around nine years, not even one feature film has been made with the support from the biggest film entity in the country. As The Sunday Citizen reports in an article entitled “ZIFF Must Go Beyond Showing Film”, he has definite plans to create a film bank that will enable young filmmakers to make movies using new technology with small budgets aimed at the broad public. These films would be directly sold by the 4500 video shops in Dar es Salaam generating profits that could be reinvested in funding new films. His ultimate goal of the festival is that “when people think of the ZIFF they correlate it with a place where films are being made, and not just seen.” If this materializes, it means that ZIFF’s boat is sailing off into new waters…