ZIFF: Integrating the Region through Art and Culture

From its humble beginnings in 1998, the Zanzibar International Film Festival of the Dhow Countries (ZIFF) has grown in leaps and bounds to be a grand and momentous event for arts and culture in the region. The centerpiece of the Festival is an international program of film screenings, workshops and the film industry events. It has continued to showcase films that would not have been accessed by the local and regional public. See the 2004 Show Award winners.

These films have, in their own small way, contributed to a new emergence of cinema, artistic excellence and the cultural discourse. This year’s theme was Tafakari Mikondo, Hisi Upepo Exploring the Currents, Feeling the Winds. There were over 100 films and over 30 musical performances, exhibitions and workshops. The screened films, which included feature films, shorts, documentaries and animation, were drawn from various countries that included Iran, Angola, South Africa, Tanzania, Austria, The Netherlands, Ethiopia, Ghana, Bangladesh, India, Japan, United Kingdom, France, the United States as well as others.

The films tackled a wide range of thematic concerns with a specific focus on environmental films that highlighted the concerns of the Indian Ocean region. “With the blurring of national identities,” said the films workshop committee in their introductory remarks for this year’s event, “it has become important to document the state of being in which we as human beings particularly human beings whose images and voices often find themselves relegated to the margins of mainstream society find ourselves in this day and time.” They added, “The selection of films this year reflects this, whether the subject is life in the city, the isolated community or a journey of self-discovery.”

Apart from this, the theme of history and the role it plays in contemporary society and experience was also highlighted with the recognition of ten years of the new South Africa and a celebration of its link with Tanzania. Some of the films and documentaries screened were Soldiers of the Rock (2003) directed by Norman Maake, The Wooden Camera (2003) directed by Mtshavheni wa Lurili, Freedom Is a Personal Journey (2004) directed by Akiedah Mohamed, King of Tears (2004) directed by Teddy Mattera, and Forgiveness (2004) directed by Lan Gabriel and others.

Recalling historical links was not only celebrated through political relations. It was also a tribute to Lionel Ngakane, a South African filmmaker and actor best known as the founding member of both the Pan African Film Festival (FESPACO) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and the Federation Panafricaine des Cineastes (Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers) (FEPACI), the international lobby group promoting independent film productions in Africa.

Ngakane’s career in film started when he became assistant to renowned producer and director Zoltan Korda for the film Cry The Beloved Country (1951), in which Ngakane acted alongside Sidney Poitier.

He also attended the first ZIFF event and his ideas and opinions regarding the role of ZIFF in the East African region helped to focus the eclectic mood that gave birth to this East African event in Zanzibar. This year, the organizers hosted the launch of several film programs that aim to enhance the region’s competitiveness, to tell their stories through films and to unite the region. The programs could be setting the pace where politics and the politicians seem to be floundering.

The most significant education and capacity building programs that were launched at this year were those aimed at sharpening the competitive edge of the region’s artists include Maisha: the East African Filmmakers Laboratory by acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair best remembered for her movies like Mississippi Masala, the sensuous Kamastura, Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay and others.

Maisha: the East African Filmmakers’ Laboratory, will be dedicated to developing and supporting visionary screenwriters and directors from East Africa and South Asia. It will provide emerging filmmakers with professional training and production resources to help them hone their storytelling skills and articulate their visions.

“Through Maisha, I aspire to bring a diverse selection of East African and South Asian stories to both local and global audiences,” said Mira during the launch. “Maisha is motivated by the belief that a film which explores the truths and idiosyncrasies of the specifically local often has the power to cross over and become significantly universal.”

Maisha was developed and shepherded at Mira’s company in New York, Mirabai Films. Mira envisioned the lab as a resource for East African filmmakers, to address the dearth of local productions and to encourage the formation of a local film industry. Each lab is designed to give promising filmmakers a venue in which to develop their skills and projects under the intensive guidance of respected filmmakers and other industry professionals, selected with the help of the Maisha Advisory Committee. Mira’s concept has expanded to South Asia and the diaspora communities.

At the moment, the Advisory Committee is made up of renowned professionals like Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Raoul Peck, Sabrina Dhawan, Bingham Ray, Karen Cooper, Mahmood Mamdani, a distinguished scholar and Mira. More information about the project can be accessed on their website.

Apart from Maisha, other programs intended to help develop the region’s artistic prowess include the East African Film Academy and UNESCO’s initiative for cartoon production. The Academy wants to help put East African stories on the market and are already talking about adopting the Dogme regime with African rules to try and replicate the Danish film miracle.

The UNESCO initiative dubbed Africa Animated! will produce animation films or series with African aesthetics and narrative using the children’s cultural language, edutains and addresses issues relevant to their realities and environment. The initiative started with a series of regional training and production workshops that were held in Zanzibar and quickly moved to Nairobi. These regional training and production workshops will in future be turned into a regional center for animation training and production to address the absence of a formal training institution in this field.

Like in the past, this year’s festival was rich with films, music, literature and the performing arts drawn from the Gulf States, Africa, several Indian Ocean islands and the Indian sub-continent, which had a heavy representation this year. In fact, the Festival was opened with Maqbool, a modern day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that is set against the backdrop of Bombay’s underworld. Vishal Bhardwaj, who began his career in the Indian film industry as a music composer, directed the film.

The experience of the Indian cinema was part of the larger debate in the festival and was brought into focus by other films such as Maargam (The Path) directed by Rajiv Vijay Raghavan, which also scooped the Golden Dhow as the Best Feature Film in this year’s competition. Others include Let’s Talk directed by Ram Madhvan, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay all directed by Mira Nair and The New Beginning directed by Sundhakar Reddy among others. There were films from Iran and other parts of the world that contributed immensely to the Festival’s principles of dialogue between cultures and histories.

Other film industry events included several workshops and launches of significant bodies related to the industry. The Tanzania Independent Producers Association was launched at the beginning of the Festival. There were capacity building workshops that tackled creative documentary, film editing, writing soap operas, animation, the Dogme movement, film composition, films by women, film training and education in South Africa since 1994 among others.

The stiff competition at the Dhow awards captured the mood and spirit of the Festival. All regions were represented and there were remarkable entries by Kenyan directors and producers. However, Kenyan films performed dismally. The Golden Dhow for the Best Feature Film went to Maargam (The Path) and Sofreh Irani (Iranian Spread) took second place. Senter (Centre) from South Africa scooped the Golden Dhow in the Short Film category. The Silver Dhow went to Mozart: The Music of the Violin also from SA. Conakry Kas from Guinea/France and Final Solution from India scooped the first and second places respectively in the Documentary Film category.

The top prize for the ZIFF East African Production Award went to Stephen Nyeko of Uganda. His movie Full Energy impressed the tough jury, who were quite critical in their report. “The jury saw many films not worthy of any form of consideration by such a festival even allowing sometimes for technical competence,” noted the jury, “Which was often betrayed by poor mastery of the subject matter by the authors of the film and an inability to communicate.” The second place in this category went to Eric Kabera’s moving film Gardiens de la Memoire (Keeper of Memory) that revisited the Rwandan genocide.

The excitement was not limited to the films alone. There were delightful musical performances every afternoon in the Forodhani Gardens next to the ocean and late evening shows at the Mambo Club in the Old Fort. The music and performing arts program was headed by Amal Murkus, a top musician from Palestine who has used her music to preach peace. Amal and her group, comprised of a Palestinian and an Israeli, have developed a style that strikes a beautiful balance between folk, classical and popular Arabic/Middle East songs. Her music mixes classical Arab poetry with modern arrangements and it is quite soulful. Her two performances confirmed my belief that good music is good music no matter the language it is sung in.

The Nubian Tambours from Egypt were sensational. The group, which was formed in 1990 with the aim to preserve the knowledge and practice of traditional music from the ancient Nubian heritage that share common roots with ceremonies that date back to the ancient Pharaonic era. The Tambours were awesome. They played traditional and contemporary instruments like the rebeck- an instrument found in almost all the communities from Egypt to Mozambique and beyond, pipe, cello and ngoma. The dances were magnificent.