SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: On the penultimate day of the
Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), locally born and based filmmaker Shams
Bhanji premiered a feature-length film, designed as a pilot for a proposed television
series. The film, titled Nadya, was the only film shown at ZIFF that
was 100 percent a product of the island of Zanzibar.
Starring local, non-professional acting talent, led by Maria Dominic in the title role,
Nadya tells the story of a young Zanzibari woman avidly pursuing her
studies in order to secure her future. Her parents are not well off and her tuition
fees are in arrears. Her initial manner of tackling the problem is to take up Arabian
dancing for men’s entertainment in night clubs (as salacious as it gets in
conservative Zanzibar society) in order to earn some extra cash. However her
parents soon offer her what appears to them to be the ideal solution: a wealthy
businessman in the community would like to arrange for Nadya to marry his son.
The family’s financial concerns would in turn be provided for and he promises that
Nadya will be allowed to continue her studies. Nadya, convinced that she will have
to give up her dreams and submit to a life of servitude, conspires with her teacher
to arrange her escape… but things do not go as planned.
Bhanji, a Zanzibar-born filmmaker who was raised in Kenya and trained in Denmark
and the UK, says that the original idea for the story was suggested by Dominic
herself. While the specifics of the story may be fictional, they are based on real-life
experiences related to Bhanji by his lead actress and which many young Zanzibari
women are dealing with every day. In traditional Zanzibari society, he says, this is
a hot and sensitive subject and his film would likely be frowned upon by many of
his fellow islanders.
Nadya is one of several films screened at ZIFF 2015 that addressed
themes relating to women’s rights in east Africa and beyond. Others included
Strength of a Woman from Kenya, which won the ZIFF award for Best
East African Film Talent, and the three-minute Mauritian offering Red
Card, which is not so much a narrative film as a very blunt public service
announcement designed to bring to light the proliferation of domestic abuse in that
Bhanji, whose previous film, Zamora, received a number of accolades
at several festivals, including FESPACO in 2013, intends for Nadya to
become a television series, thus making it more likely to be seen by a mass
audience in mainland Tanzania and beyond, and to draw attention to the stories and
storytellers of Zanzibar. Much of the remainder of the series is already plotted out
and is set to take the lead character on a lengthy journey away from her home
territory, developing into an extended coming-of-age story.
The film was screened at ZanCinema, a charming 52-seat movie theatre (one of
very few venues in Zanzibar specifically designed for the purpose of exhibiting
films), somewhat removed from the hub of festival venues in central Stone Town.
Bhanji is planning another screening in Dar es Salaam very soon, as his search to
find a television commission for the story continues.