ZIFF 2015 at a glance


SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: One day after the 2015 edition of
the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) wrapped up, Screen Africa caught up
with festival director, Professor Martin Mhando, who provided an overview of the
festival’s major themes and highlights.

The first thing that Prof. Mhando mentions is that future editions of ZIFF would
feature fewer films in their programmes. The high number of films programmed
this year created several scheduling challenges and made it difficult to fit in repeat
screenings of selected films. That said, he feels that, on the whole, people seemed
to respond favourably to the programming, from the opening night, which featured
Ava DuVernay’s historical drama Selma, to the various panel
discussions that were taking place alongside the screenings. He pinpointed the
following highlights:

Difficult Dialogue: a public forum on pan-Africanism

Feeling that the time was right for a reassessment of the pan-African ideal, in light
of ongoing government corruption across the continent, xenophobia in South Africa
and refugee migrations across and out of Africa, the ZIFF programmers decided to
facilitate a workshop on the subject with a group of young Africans. Led by Tonni
Brodber of UN Women, the three-day workshop featured intensive discussions and
forums, as well as the collaborative creation of a collage and dance performance
that highlighted pan-Africanism. A public forum opened the discussion to all who
had an interest in the subject.

Mhando says: “The South African High Commissioner to Tanzania spoke very powerfully on
the historical importance of pan-Africanism. Tonni Brodber stressed the point that
pan-Africanism is a journey – you can’t expect it to stay the same all the time. If,
as some people say, pan-Africanism is dead, then we need to go back and see what
happened to it so that we can revive it for this era. There was a very strong
argument put forward that young people no longer believe in pan-Africanism, they
have been let down by their leaders, they have little hope for the future, so they
don’t really understand the purpose of pan-Africanism anymore. We know that it is
important to have a collective voice in Africa, but that collective voice needs a
reason, a rallying point. What could that be in the current era? It was very good to
have these questions put forward and the discussion was very robust. At the public
forum there was an hour and half of conversation around this, which I felt was
really one of the highlights of the festival.’

Sembene Ousmane competition

ZIFF also ran a short film competition in which 17 films were in the running for a
special award named in honour of the great Senegalese filmmaker Sembene
Ousmane. “The jurors were very happy with the quality of films,’ says Mhando. “To
have a selection of African short films with such a wide variety of styles and subject
matter was very important to them and they came to me afterwards and said that
this is something that needs to be maintained.’

Tanzanian film

Mhando has felt for many years that one of the weaknesses of the festival
programme is the quality of work coming from the host nation, Tanzania. Much of
the work that is produced by the industry, largely based in Dar es Salaam, is
inspired by the Nollywood model, made with low budgets and production values and
underdeveloped scripts. They have been branded “bongo’ by audience and industry
alike. Mhando is heartened to note that the productions are showing signs of

“This year we have included more Tanzanian films than in previous years and three
of those won over international films in their categories. That shows that there is
some development in the Tanzanian industry. We are now seeing films that are
more multilayered, more streamlined.

“Zuku hosts a workshop for bongo filmmakers every year and one of the things that
came out very strongly from the workshops was, you can’t just put on a doctor’s
coat and call yourself a doctor. You have to study. Why do we think that we can just
pick up a camera and call ourselves filmmakers? This is something we say to
filmmakers in Africa time and time again. It’s time for us to really train our
filmmakers and open up the space for them to understand that they can really do so
much better than they have been.’

Increase in female filmmakers

“It is very gratifying to see that more and more women filmmakers are having their
work featured at ZIFF. We saw this year that more than 50 per cent of the
programmed films were made by women – and they were very strong films. You
see a major difference in the way subjects are treated and you realise that this is
the other half of the story that we have been missing all this time.’

Mhando cites the example of Simshar, a Maltese film, directed by
Rebecca Cremona, which won the overall runner-up award, the Silver Dhow, at the
end of the festival. “You can see that this is a filmmaker who has thought through
the issue of African migration into Europe and brings such deep humanity to the
story. She looks into the whole argument about migrants crossing the
Mediterranean and cuts through all the politics and diplomatic debate and shows
that it is simply about being human. How would you feel if your family was
shipwrecked and drowning? What would you do? Treat others as you would have
them treat you. That is the message of all religions known to humanity.
This filmmaker manages to say it in such a powerful way. This to me is the strength
that women bring to filmmaking. We are increasingly hearing these voices that we
haven’t heard enough of before, and they are enriching our cinematic culture.’

Mhando also remarks that the subject matter of many of the films, whether made
by women or not, dealt with problems faced by women, specifically in the east
African region. More and more, filmmakers in the region are forcing their society to
engage meaningfully in dialogue about longstanding gender issues.

Individual stories

The debate continues to rage in Africa about western filmmakers who come to the
continent and “tell our stories’. Some of the higher profile films at ZIFF push this
discussion into the spotlight. The Golden Dhow winner, Wazi? FM, and
the closing film I Shot Bi Kidude, each dealing with very different
aspects of east Africa’s culture and history, were both made by European
filmmakers. So what does Prof. Mhando have to add to that discussion?

“To me, that’s not even an issue. It’s about individual expression. Nobody else can
tell your story. How can they? They don’t have your experience, they don’t see
things the way you do. They are not telling your stories, they are telling their
stories. You and I may walk the same street and find completely different stories
there. Let other people tell their stories. Which story is yours? Which one is mine?
Point yours out to me and I will leave it alone. Even if we deal with the same
subject matter, we can’t possibly tell the same story. This, to me, is a non-issue
and as a programmer here, it never even enters my mind when I look at the films.
Sometimes I don’t even look at where they came from. If they are good films and
speak to the theme of the year, they need to be seen, regardless of who made
them and where they come from. I may not agree with what is being said but I
walk into that theatre because I am interested in engaging in the story. That is all
that matters.

“That is the beauty of cinema. People go into the darkened room to engage in a
communal experience, with the story they are being shown and with the human
beings sitting around them. This is what film is all about. And when you are sitting
in a location like this, in one of the most beautiful places in the world, it doesn’t get
much better than that.’


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