Dancing with the Diaspora


Zanzibar International Film Festival : African creative central

The tropical island of Zanzibar teems with excitement and opportunity every July, as locals and visitors enjoy ten days of screening of the best of Pan-African film-making, in a relaxed carnival-like environment of live music, dance, DJ's and performances. But ZIFF is not only about glamour and celebration; it is about motivation, inspiration and empowerment.

8 full days of local and international discussion panels, workshops and a meeting and networking space for young and upcoming filmmakers to compare notes and gather strength from experienced professionals has developed film making on the continent, and in particular the region.

ZIFF promotes film making through a series of awards and prize money. From 490 submissions from 32 countries, 80 films were nominated in

1. The Bongo Flava award for East African film
2. The Golden Dhow award for to filmmakers from the Dhow countries (Indian Ocean Rim and Indian Ocean Islands)
3. The Sembene Ousmane Award for African and Diaspora filmmakers.
4. A new category has been added to the award ceremony: “ The Emerson of Zanzibar Award ,” which recogniz es films about Zanzibar's culture and history. 
5. General category awards

Umar Turaki, a film maker from Nigeria said, “ZIFF is a champion of cinematic underdogs, providing a platform for the celebration of young artists and creating opportunities for mentoring. In this way, ZIFF is helping to lay the foundation for a whole generation of African storytellers to burst forth.”


Email Correspondence with Director Martin Mhando

What is the journey ZIFF has taken for East African film ?

ZIFF's journey in the East African Film culture scene has been a worthy one. Beginning in 1998 ZIFF was born from the ashes of the collapsed film industry in the region. In Tanzania all the 54 cinemas in the country had collapsed between 1992 and 1996. ZIFF was the only way of keeping alive the ambers of cinema culture. The only place on the Island that people could congregate and enjoy a night out in the open skies of Zanzibar was during ZIFF.

Since then ZIFF has seen incredible developments to which we can be very proud.

A Zanzibar institution, ZIFF is also a truly local festival with exhibitions, workshops, and cultural tours that take you to the heart of the community. We promote local talent in film and music, showcasing new and old creative achievements. As ZIFF comes to town, so too do opportunities for recognizing arts and crafts. Visited by over 6000 foreigners each year, the festival is indeed a major tourist and economic event. We calculate that ZIFF brings to the Island over $15million worth of business in the art and culture and tourism sectors.

Musicians vie to perform at ZIFF because it offers a platform where they can be heard beyond the radio or TV screen. This is where they get found and where they learn skills from other older musicians. We also bring international stars such as the Shaggy visit in 2009 when over 3000 people congregated, and the highest grossing of any event in Zanzibar was recorded- Tsh 49million! ($25,000)

ZIFF is also credited with bringing new names to the industry highlighted by 2013 Oscar winner Lupita Nyongo (for Supporting Actor) who had her training in festival management at ZIFF in 2006 and 2007.

Donor fatigue became evident after 10 years and ZIFF decided to move to corporate funding for it financing. This has meant that 90% of ZIFF's income comes from sponsorship giving the organization a comfortable sense of sustainability. It is a journey of huge waves, tides and winds but one that we shall weather as we are the Festival of the Dhow countries with the single sail dhow as our symbol!

Is the explosion of Tanzanian film linked to ZIFF ?

ZIFF is linked to the explosion of film production Tanzania in some ways but not directly. We recognized that the Swahili film market that Bongo movies have focused on are market specific. The movies were satisfying the entertainment needs of the larger market base. We therefore opted to invite the industry to the festival to allow them to attain a level of excellence that would be acceptable to the international community. At the start of the Bongo movies awards at ZIFF we only made their films compete against each other, and in that way say to the Bongo movies industry that they still need to raise their level of quality to be able to compete in the international field. We slowly began to see growth in the number of films accepted to the general competition and this year we have seen at least 8 Tanzanian films (4 Bongo movies) selected in the general competition. This means the level of the films quality in narrative and technical terms has risen. We award talent and technical excellence of Bongo movies at ZIFF and that has made stakeholders in the industry vie for what is a mark of excellence and acceptance that the ZIFF awards bestows on the films and makers. For this we receive very serious acknowledgement of the whole Bongo movies industry and we are happy for that. We can see these films getting better and better.

What is the impact of ZIFF on the economy of Zanzibar?

As I noted earlier ZIFF contributes about $15million to the economy of Zanzibar during the festival. This is calculated through the visa fees, hotel accommodation, sales and purchases of arts and crafts, transport and general economic activities during the festival alone. Indeed ZIFF is a $250,000 festival most of which money is spent in Zanzibar. However ZIFF has also been a training ground for Zanzibari youth and we have noted the number of former local volunteers who have been employed in the hospitality and media industries, and the imprimatur of ZIFF is an accepted mark of quality for the hospitality industry in Zanzibar. Further when you talk to taxi drivers in Stonetown, who await the coming of ZIFF like manna from heaven, you realize how important economically the festival is to the people of Zanzibar. Some of the curio sellers make more sales during ZIFF than at any time of the year- and ZIFF takes place for 9 days only!

Is politics having an effect on the festival … and is there a possibility that the festival may not take place as planned?

Life is politics and yes the festival does get affected by politics. However all political parties realize that ZIFF is important glue to the identity and cultural life of Zanzibar and they do all they can to ensure that ZIFF survives. I do not believe that the festival will be affected in any way by the continuing political stand-off and you can be certain that ZIFF 2016 will be on come July 9 th . Karibu!

How ZIFF accommodates unity in diversity in African story-telling …

At ZIFF we believe in African cinemas and not one African cinema. In our diversity we find common destinies , shared histories and we celebrate what defines us as a group and as flowers of this rich garden of peoples. We also see Africa in all its histories for we know stories told of and about Africa are stories that reflect the living experiences of many diverse peoples of the continent. When we pick The Suit that is directed by Jarryd Coetsee we recognise how that is a central history of the relations between African peoples who were being traumatised by their social conditions and that the effect was displayed in very unexpected places and ways. For Jarryd it is a story that describes his understanding of humanity and a reflection of our shared histories. The Sembene Ousmane Awards that invites Africans in the diaspora to discuss their different living geographies and environments also recognizes that there is a lot of Africa in the world today! Our stories would invariably be many and diverse!

The role of South African film in the Pan African film market 

South Africa will always be the beacon of excellence and pride for many Africans in the continent. With its history as well as its growth it presents a market that is not available elsewhere in the continent. The amount of sales that African filmmakers have made to Emnet or the access to DSTV  with its many "African Magics", all these provide nodes of potential that other Africans in the continent can look up to and emulate. 

Email correspondence with Mandla Dube director of Kalushi: The feature film  that took eight years to realise tells the story of Solomon ‘Kalushi'Mahlangu, an Umkhonto we Sizwe operative executed under the apartheid regime in 1979.  

It has been a long 8 year journey to realize the film but two and half from start of principle photography to post production. The exciting part was working with the actors during rehearsals. We had a acting coach come in from NYC a professor at Columbia Univ, Adrienne Weiss who developed a technique that we used as a short hand language to communicate on set. 

South Africa is in a unique position to galvanize support of the entire continent. We have an opportunity to connect the dots with our counterparts in the Pan African world to give voice to a new African cinema that can compete with all of the best out there. 

Ziff will probably be the conduit festival that the emerging filmmaker like myself will use as a pillar to be heard and South Africa will have to play its role in assisting with both funding and expertise needed. 

And a comment regarding your personal journey and experience of the power of the African story …

Email correspondence with Teboho Edkins director of Coming of Age: Previous winner of the Verona documentary award at ZIFF 2013, Lesotho born Teboho Edkins presents his new documentary ‘Coming of Age,' focussing on the immediate environment in which the teenagers of Lesotho exist.

Making Coming of Age was really interesting for me on various levels. It was the first time I made a film with teenagers and that is something which is much more challenging then I expected. One has to become a bit of child oneself and see the world as they do, simplifying and localising ones gaze which is finally a very beautiful experience. The film purposely ignores the larger world and just focuses on the immediate environments in which the teenagers exists. It becomes very minimal in that way, small moments become big and important, just as it feels like as one grows up.

Filming with my characters was quite a challenge as a director. The kids were shy at first but I then paired them up with a best friend or a sibling and through the supporting actors they suddenly became very natural and engaging, creating incredibly honest scenes that makes the documentary become more and more like a fiction film.  

Finally as an African story, I am very proud of the way my characters live (although poor, a Shepard living on a mountain top- is of course poor), but with a wonderful harmony and sense of wholeness within their communities, family and mountain landscape. This has a lot to do with Lesotho as a country and the identity of the Basotho. Compared to South Africa, Lesotho was never subjected to apartheid and one really sees the difference in how the family structures are very healthy and within the sense of identity and dignity of the Basotho. The teenagers in my film don't have HIV, don't have broken families, the issues they face as African teenagers living in the very remote high mountains are the same as teenagers everywhere, just with a different colouring.

South Africa is interesting in the Pan African Film Industry, as it has quite a complex and paradoxical position. There is a real industry here, there is money moving around, going to the Durban film festival one feels a proper buzz at the market. And that is a really unique and powerful position with in the Pan African Film Industry. But at the same time I find the filmmaking in South Africa often more conservative and less interesting then other African countries. The market clout doesn't' seem to translate into a lot of exciting films being made. Perhaps its because the South African market is itself fragmented, with a localize self sustained Afrikaans film industry for instance. Or the market pressure means that film have less freedom to be creative and are confided by genres. Its is also important to keep in mind though that the South African film industry is much younger then the West or North African so while there is a lot of catching up to do, we have all the advantages and exciting prospects, we just need to be braver.

I would like to briefly mention the importance of film festivals, wither they are big or small, chaotic or well organised, they are absolutely vital. This is where I see films and get inspired.  In countries where there are no independent cinemas,  (I think there are only 2 in South Africa) they are filling or replacing these cinemas.  It is vital that they free of political independence and that their programming is bold. 

Email correspondence with Divsion Mudzingwa: Zimbabwean born Davison Mudzingwa's latest film ‘Lost Tongue,' is a story of a San tribe in the Kalahari who are losing their language.

I regard my upbringing of lack and poverty as a blessing. It opened my eyes about the sordid realities that play out in most parts of Africa. However, there is something about these struggling communities. They embrace a profound sense of humanity and community. We grew up knowing that an my neighbour is my relative, we shared tasks, so as we shared food. This stuck with me forever and forms the basis of how I perceive the African story. I believe in showcasing the African wisdom and philosophy. My storytelling is dominated by African wisdom that solves the problems we have. I believe this is a much more effective way of presenting the African narrative and its power. In every problem, there is a solution.

South African film making plays a vital, integral part in the whole Pan African Industry. It churns out products that, if combined with some amazing works from elsewhere in the continent, it all becomes a full body of work that reflects what Africa is and how it's evolving due to various dynamic elements. Art, film especially, is a visual reflection of what the society is, so the South African story is an important cog in the whole African narrative. Every country has many histories that need to be told. It's not enough to get just one side of the story. We require many perspectives and desist from one dominant history that purports to represent who we are as a people. So, I believe in plurality. The more stories we have, the deeper understanding of our continent. Governments and the corporate should invest in this. We regard other continents as superior because they invested in telling their stories and presenting themselves as great. We let the same people taking the role of depicting us in bad light. In reality, this is not the case, we are smart as they are.

Our current documentary Lost Tongue is an example of that African history is not singular. There is a lot of histories to be told. In Lost Tongue, we have a story of the San tribe people in the Kalahari who are losing their language. The universality of this story is that it resonates with all of us across the continent and the world. The documentary film remind leaves us to reflect where we stand pertaining our own identities, culture and values. It's a universal story that everyone should watch.

Email correspondence with Jarryd Coetsee director of The Suit: Jarryd Coetsee debuts with a film adaptation of the Can Themba play, “The Suit,” a symbol of the impact of oppression on personal relationships.

My first experience of THE SUIT in high school was simultaneously cathartic and transformative. I knew instantaneously that I would one day adapt it into a film. I feel that people engage with our past primarily in an intellectual manner without much of an integrally psychological and emotional connection, which ultimately limits a profound understanding. We pore over the cold, hard facts of history yet brush over the warm, vulnerable bodies, so to speak. Can Themba's story is so potent in communicating a sense of the vast ramifications of the forced removals on a human level.

I was living in the UK a few years ago at a time when oppressive activities like mass surveillance and data mining raised an ongoing public concern for civil liberties and the European migrant crisis surged. I moved to the USA shortly thereafter where issues of institutional racism were causing social unrest. It struck me how these seemingly unrelated problems on different continents are actually deeply interconnected by a vein of oppression, at turns blatant and insidious. Themba's story explores the thematic relevance of the suit as a symbol of the impact of oppression on personal relationships and reveals how oppression is perpetuated in a cyclical way. The urgency of the message to both local and foreign audiences galvanized me into making the film on my return to South Africa where the legacy of three centuries of colonial oppression is very palpable. The National Film and Video Foundation provided unwavering support for me to realise this dream.

Though we are still in the process of developing a national cinema, at least in the Bazinian sense, the role of South African film-makers can be compared in the main currently to traditional izimbongi or griots. Like them, the South African film-maker articulates and reflects communal experiences in the form of allegories. Whether it be gangster films like “Tsotsi” and “Jerusalema” in the vernacular, romance films like “Pad Na Jou Hart” or “Happiness is a Four-Letter Word”, farcical comedies like the Schuster films, high drama like “Skoonheid”, “Dis Ek, Anna” or “Shepherds and Butchers”, or blockbuster science fiction like “District 9” and “Chappie”, they all serve as allegories to express, commiserate, celebrate, expose, praise and criticise aspects of our complex and diverse society.

I think it's important to state that the different film-making voices emerging in South Africa reflect a pan-African subversion and debunking of long-held stereotypes of African countries, particularly the dangerous stereotype of Africa as one big country. Every African country is different, and each has its own enthralling and complex cultures and sub-cultures. After decades of crippling censorship, South African film-makers are busy defining, exploring and sharing those distinctive realities, enriching the nuances and narratives of the multi-faceted peoples of the continent.




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