Spotlight on Zanzibar

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Every year since 1997 the Festival of the Dhow Countries illuminates the heart of Zanzibar. Between 9 and 17 July 2016 Stone Town hummed with the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF). The colourful and crowded streets between vintage hotels saw more than 60 filmmakers traverse between screenings, art galleries, musical performances and parties among thousands of Zanzibaris and international visitors to the vibrant village.

A full moon graced the closing ceremony, awards evening and numerous after parties that was clearly visible from the quaint and charming Old Fort amphitheatre. This alfresco backdrop hosts the first and final celebrations of the largest East African film festival.

“More than 500 films were entered and 90 were in competition,” says ZIFF acting chairperson Hassan Mitawi. Speaking at the awards evening, he said: “It’s not about the management, I shouldn’t be making a speech. Tonight is about the filmmakers, it is they who have made this film festival possible.” He went on to say that while film is the core of the festival, the arts make up the exterior, and artists from all over the world were there to perform.

The opening night film of ZIFF 2016 was the South African film Kalushi, which won the Bi Kidude Award. Composer Rashid Lanie accepted the award, a fitting tribute to the protagonist and apartheid struggle stalwart Solomon Mhlangu, after whom a school is named in Tanzania. The poignant biopic was embraced and audiences were moved to tears by the graceful portrait. Lanie says that he and director Mandla Dube plan to educate South Africans about their connection to the spice capital, which long served as a hub for “central slave, now cultural trade between many nations from Britain to China, and all these countries were involved in bringing a culture which then extended all the way down to SA, and not many are aware of how much SA culture stems from Zanzibar. We want to make that awareness from our relationship to Zanzibar. Through music (Lanie) and film (Dube) there is much to learn from ZIFF,” he confirms, “The connection goes far beyond a creative one.”

“There was big buzz but a smaller festival because we had less money to spend,” says ZIFF CEO Martin Mhando. He explains that the festival was formed to encourage the culture of watching films. In Tanzania all cinemas had collapsed, so ZIFF became the only time that the community could sit down and watch a film together. “Our job was to revive the culture. That is why we do not charge locals to watch the films,” he adds. This year the major sponsor retracted its support in March, pulling out after five years despite having a ten year contract.

“At the same time another ten-year contract with a sponsor ended. Mhando explains, “The biggest problem with them pulling out was the timing, it was very close to the time the festival was on. Therefore it was very challenging to find sponsorship, but we were able to bring in local sponsors: ZanLink, ComNet and AzamTV for the first time (being the biggest TV station in Tanzania); it is a fitting partnership.”

This is the tenth ZIFF where Mhando has been CEO. Zanzibari born and bred, he has been living in Australia working at Murdoch University but plans to retire in Zanzibar. This will be his final year as CEO, after which, he plans to move on to brighter and bigger things.

Mhando was the first recipient of the ZIFF Golden Dhow for Best Feature Film, and in 2017 he plans to return as he began. “ZIFF launched my filmmaking career and now is the perfect time for me to come back as a filmmaker,” he confirms.

After cleaning up at the awards evening, Watatu director Peter Reding explained that ZIFF is important for Kenyan filmmakers. “It’s the platform where you get your film recognised. He says it was his launchpad, where the success of his previous film Ndoto allowed him to find funding.

“ZIFF opens many doors and it helps filmmakers grow within the industry,” says Leeches director Payal Sethi. “Once you’re noticed at a film festival you can get better funding,” she says. She adds that her “struggle allowed me to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it.” Leeches won the Silver Dhow for Best Film from the Dhow Countries.

ZIFF 2016 awarded some of the best films from across the globe and announced the dates for ZIFF 2017, which will mark the 20th anniversary and be held under the theme Finding Joy, from 8 to 16 July 2017.

While Mhando won’t be back as CEO he will be busy making his homecoming film and trying to raise funds to restore the old cinema. The Majestic, as it was once known, is now an abandoned and derelict cinema, with decrepit seats filling its two-storey theatre. Marvelling at its exterior Mhando hopes that this cinema can be restored to its former glory for next year’s festival. The task of finding a sponsor to rebuild it has not yet begun.

Despite the dilapidation, the cinema is still used by a handful of elder gentlemen, who watch a VHS video there every afternoon. A reflection of the spark that still remains in Zanzibar for its steadily growing film industry.

ZIFF 2016 Awards:

European African Film Festival Awards

  • Zawadi – Richard Card and David Kinyanjui – Kenya
  • Watatu – Nick Reding – Kenya

Emerson’s Foundation for Zanzibar Award

  • Daladala – Salum Stika – Tanzania

Sembene Ousmane Award

  • A Place for Myself – Clementine Dusabejambo – Rwanda
  • Macarrao – Iyabo Kwayana – Brazil
  • Ugali – The Family Dinner – Tony Koros – Kenya

Jury Special Mention

  • The Suit – Jarryd Coetsee – South Africa
  • Zawadi – Richard Card and David Kinyanjui – Kenya

Signis Prize

  • Watatu – Nick Reding – Kenya
  • APlace for Myself – Clementine Dusabejambo – Rwanda

Azam Bongo Movie Awards

  • Best Actress – Godliver Gordian – Aisha
  • Best Cinematographer – Freddy Feruzi – Kariakoo
  • Best Editor – Momose Cheyo – Aisha
  • Best Feature Film – Amil Shivji – Aisha
  • ComNet Bongo Movie Awards
  • Best Actor – Salim Ahmed – Safari ya Gwalu
  • Best Writer – Abubakar H. Guni and Devotha Mayunga – Queen of Masai
  • Best Director – Chande Omar – Aisha
  • Best Film in Sound – Joseph Myinga – Bongo na Flava

ZIFF Awards

  • Golden Dhow – Best Feature – Watatu – Nick Reding – Kenya
  • Silver Dhow – Best Documentary – The Valley of Salt – Salaud Morisset – Switzerland/Egypt
  • Silver Dhow – Best Film from Dhow Countries – Leeches – Payal Sethi – India
  • Golden Dhow – Short Film – A Place for Myself – Clementine Dusabejambo – Rwanda
  • Golden Dhow – Special Jury Prize – Me a Belgian, My Mother a Ghanaian – Adams Mensah – Belgium
  • Bi Kidudu/Chairman’s Award – Kalushi – Mandlakayise Dube – South Africa
  • Best Music Video – Walk it Off – FID Q featuring TAZ
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Cera-Jane Catton
Cera-Jane Catton is a writer and journalist with years of experience in community newspapers, blogging and freelance journalism. She has worked in a cache of capacities, often finding herself behind or in front of the cameras, intentionally and less so. She has been a stunt double in two Bollywood movies, has worked in various capacities on a number of natural history documentaries, and other international productions shot in South Africa. Cera is a former Screen Africa journalist.

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