Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Night in Film: A Presentation of Three East African Films

Last Thursday, I watched three Tanzanian movies. In some, I could recognize the buildings, people I had spoken to. I could feel the quality of the light, appreciate the compromises forced onto the stories. It was as revealing as watching a home video. Is this what some lucky Americans feel when they go to a Hollywood movie? The appeal of foreign movies frankly pales against the self-interest and satisfaction of watching local film. It is a great feeling.

First up was 'Weakness,': written and produced by Abdu Simba and directed by Wanjiru Kairu. Originally meant for a BBC radio competition, Abdu had a chance to get his script made during the sadly short lived MNet show 'The Agency' and he took it. Thank goodness. Now listen: this film's biggest flaw is that you can tell it was hastily shot. As good as the actors and cobbled together crew was, the seams are visible. The characters are sometimes forced and dialogue is left hanging uncertainly, the soundtrack is way bizarre in its boominosity, and the lighting doesn't do justice to the set or the actors' complexions.

So what? The script soared and dipped with dramatic tension. It was unexpectedly angular at times, uncomfortable. The casting turned out to be slyly effective. How fine it would be to see this again with a real budget, some time, and an editor with the sensitivity to caress all the pieces into place, because there is something going on here. I really believe it could be made beautiful in the city of its conception, maybe even using some local talent. Better yet, it has a static quality and simplicity that would make for an excellent stage production. What about the women, you ask? 'Weakness' had peripheral female characters inserted into its Cain and Abel plot, a bit chattel-like. Bit parts.

The second film, 'Mwamba Ngoma' did not know whether it was a documentary about Tanzanian music history or a promotional documentary about Wahapahapa. So let me disclaim right here: thank you kindly for your good work, Wahapahapa, this was by far the most glossy and professionally shot film and it shows. Now onto the critical: this documentary started out being satisfying, and deliciously engrossing- Ngoma za Jadi, Muziki wa Ala, Muziki wa Dansi, through to Bongo Flava. The film had a good ear, humor, heart, and a light insightful touch- marks of being made by people who know and love the subject. Mwamba Ngoma was on its way to greatness. Then, the Wahapahapa agenda intruded and made it about the message (HIV/Aids and Aid) instead of the people and art. So now, it is what it is not quite one thing, not quite the other.

I would have been quite crazy about this movie if it had been made sans agenda-driven patronage. Let me not mince words: some forms of compromise can really suck the soul out of a project. Mwamba Ngoma has been nominated in the documentary category of the African Movie Awards and I hope it wins, just to put Tanzanian musicians on the map and maybe encourage the director and producers to make the movie it could have been: something to give the Buena Vista Social Club documentary a run for its money. The woman angle? High marks. Mwamba Ngoma featured female artists and performers centrally.

Finally, James Gayo's 'The Trip' was an unexpected bit of fun. What worked: the sly situational humor and sparse dialogue that is reminiscent of Gayo's cartoon work in Kingo. The charming actors, who could have overplayed this into the outer reaches of farce but instead infused it with restraint and credibility that paid off. Note to TZ actors: you don't have to roll your eyes to show disbelief. Also, the matter-of-factness of the plot. This was some very competent comedy, really fun stuff that would probably have a similar appeal as Stephen Chow's work (he did the awesome Kung Fu Hustle). The Trip has a similar oddly timeless quality- contemporary with a strong element of myth. And 'The Trip' specialized in saucy village wenches who were smart and knew how to have a little fun. Heh.

What didn't work: another example of opportunistic compromise, Mr. Gayo's movie was made in Uganda. This lead to some cognitive dissonances: one of the actors slips quite comfortably into Luganda on occasion, confusing the hell out of the dialogue. And the subtitles are in French, which may be a little challenging for an East African audience. Then, there is the notion of a couple of guys traveling by bus from an unnamed (though visually very Lake Zone) rural area to Tanga on the east coast of Tanzania for a job. Dude, what?! And finally: Baganda men playing on a Bao board made out of Mpingo so that a suitor can win himself a wife. Erm. I don't think so. Artistic license.

As it was, the theatre was filled with movie makers whose work hasn't been Big Screened for paying audiences in-country. Which is, like, beyond criminal. And that is how this evening ended: with the hanging question of how to make this kind of thing happen on a regular basis, even if its something as small as two-week annual movie festival in Dar es Salaam.


  1. I'm sorry I missed that evening - but thanks for the good review. What you say about the wahapahapa movie is sad but predictable. HIV and AIDS has killed the arts here.

  2. Wow - very interesting!

    I confess to being almost totally ignorant of the TZ film scene. Clearly there is stuff going on but it really hasn't penetrated even most Tanzanian's awareness.

    The only Tanzanian film I've ever seen was a film by Josiah Kibira - something about an African student in Minnesota. It was OK, but technically very awkward (the sound was not done properly for one).

    I totally agree with you on the appeal of watching something recognizable. It took me a while to just realize that the typical young, educated, middle class white American can relate to a "critically acclaimed" arthouse movie in a totally different way than me because : the stories are invariably about people just like them! And expressed from their viewpoint. So of course they are going to "get" them more than I do!

    I think having an annual film festival is a GREAT idea. I think it could be really succesful too. Tanzanians don't need much of an excuse to come out ;-)

    One potentially fruitful idea for movies is to adapting well known stories into the Tanzanian context. i.e Romeo and Juliet feauturing a prominent CUF family vs a prominent CCM family. And make it a musical featuring Taarab, Sindimba, some colorful costumes and choreographed fight scenes on the Zanzibar beach! Hmmm this actually sounds kind of good ... !

    Another idea is "The Godfather" featuring an anti-hero politican/gangster as the Don, with the other "party apparatchiks" as the rival families. With action sequences at Coco Beach, Slipway, Kariakoo, Salendar Bridge and everywhere in between ;-)

  3. @Swahili Street: yes, it is a bit of an unholy alliance, this project-led "support" for the arts. Almost as incomprehensible as the TZ version of CSR...

    @Mugizi: is that you Doctor Bob? You know, not a bad idea that: Shakespeare on the Beach, Mario Puzo in Mbezi :) The trick is fundraising: we need some money to pay the cinema people to screen!

  4. Yes, tis I ;-)

    You're right - I think we need to have a bigger domestic market to make such movies financially viable.

    But I do think if good movies are made the audience will follow - even the foreign audiences. After all people all over the world watched those Kurosawa, Fellini and Bergmann movies even though they couldn't understand a word or completely relate to their cultural context.

    Indeed, I think cinema is always hungry to get a fresh perspective or new voices. A high quality East African cinema that addressed universal issues from an African perspective could have a huge impact both critically and commercially.


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