The Islands are now home to the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), part of The Festival of the Dhow Countries, now in its fourth year. The festival, arguably the largest cultural event of its kind in East Africa, has effectively tapped into their rich and diverse historical and cultural heritage. Since 1998, ZIFF has drawn on the dhow, the sail vessel used in the Indian Ocean, as a metaphor for the cultural interchange that characterizes not only everyday life in Zanzibar but also the island’s historical relationship with Asia, Europe, the Arab world and mainland Africa. Historically, it was the dhow that united these disparate places and cultures; today it is cultural relations and artistic exchange bodied in the films, music and other artistic material that was shown.
The festival has been evolving in an admirable and inspiring manner for the people of Zanzibar and the entire East African region. Its impact on the landscape of the African film industry is growing, and it has succeeded in attracting African cinephiles, the media and many partners, who have now taken note of its great potentiality. M-Net, the biggest pay-TV station broadcasting in over 40 countries across Africa are the latest entrants and they have made a grand entry. The M-Net New Directions II scriptwriting workshop was held in Zanzibar. Three short feature films, Surrender from Zanzibar, A Barber’s Wisdom from Nigeria, and The Father from Ethiopia, made by the station in the last edition of their ongoing New Direction Africa initiative, were selected to launch the festival. Six other short feature films produced by the station in their project dubbed the Mama Africa series, were screened during the festival. All of them were selected for the short feature films competition that is bound to raise their profiles. The festival presented thought provoking films from South Africa, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Tanzania, Cameroon, Iran, India, USA, France, Switzerland, Britain, Finland, Germany and other countries.
The films explored various thematic concerns that ranged from wars, religion, culture clash, women’s issues to more provocative ones on sexuality. Surrender made a brave attempt at tackling the the subject of homosexuality, which is a sensitive topic in Zanzibar. Nous ne sommes plus morts (We Are Not Dead Anymore) directed by François Woukoache of Cameroon is about the genocide in Rwanda and made an impressive case for this tiny Central African country. It was given a special recognition by the jury for the best montage and for allowing Africans to tell their own stories. There were hardly any films from Kenya and Uganda and filmmakers from this region were challenged to try and rise to the occasion considering the importance of the festival to the region.
This year’s event was marred by the death of the Tanzanian Vice-President, and screening of films were suspended during the mourning period, but it resumed later in the week. In addition to film, The Festival of the Dhow Countries also featured music and theatrical performance and exhibitions of fine art. Over sixty music and performing arts groups presented some dazzling performances that added to the air of camaraderie. Established African stars like Oliver Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe, Ramazani Mtoro Ongala-Mungamba popularly known as Remmy Ongala “Sura Mbaya” from Tanzania, Tata Dinding Jobarteh from the Gambia rubbed shoulders with the young and upcoming musicians from Zanzibar and the Tanzanian mainland. Remmy Ongala “Sura Mbaya” was honored with the Golden Dhow Award for Lifetime Achievement in Music during Festival. “
As the festival exhibitions and related symposium indicate, there is recognition of the need to nurture individual creativity and innovation in Zanzibar and the whole continent,” noted Imruh Bakari, the festival director. “This is important since culture and the arts in Africa are beginning to be seriously considered, not simply in terms of ‘tradition’ but as a contemporary activity vital to the process of social development.”
In an effort to involve everyone, the organizers made this year’s event more elaborate and fun-filled. They had a women and children’s panorama that helped ensure that everyone ‘s interests were represented. Women filmmakers had a chance to sharpen their skills through sharing in a symposium titled “Women in Media and Cultural Life,” a two day seminar on “Culture and Violence Against Women” and a documentary films workshop. Sharing our experiences while developing our skills is the way to build a solid foundation for the progressive growth of our industries,” pointed out Salem Mekuria, a leading documentary filmmaker from Ethiopia. “Hosting such workshops at events such as a film festival is one of the measurable ways in which we can continue to create opportunities for a viable film industry in Africa.”
“Ventures like this one help in the growth of the industry and the continent in general. We need to reposes our capability of inventing our future by highlighting where we are coming from and where we are. Expression in cinema and TV could play a major role in this,” noted Gaston Kabore, an acclaimed African filmmaker from Burkina Faso. “We need to tell our own stories that will raise our confidence,” he added. “We need stories that show the optimistic view of Africa. Films that are sensitive to our dreams and aspirations. Stories that will help reclaim our being.” “The development of a vibrant industry goes beyond the question of resources and money,” he noted. “Burkina Faso is not well endowed but our decision makers also think that we need to consolidate our historical patrimony and have access to our own myths and legends.” “I believe that the real problem of African film comes from the blindness of politicians to culture,” he continued. “They are not making the right choices and there are very few commitments on cultural matter because they underestimate the value of culture in development.”
It is probably out of the need to highlight culture and the arts that the festival organizers made a conscious effort to introduce a radical development in the festival by taking the festival to the village. When the festival lights go on, they are not only limited to the city. The lights shine in the rural areas as well. “The village panorama events are part of a continuing process of cultural development to bring the festival to over 300,000 people in village clusters across the Zanzibar Islands of Unguja and Pemba,” Imruh Bakari explained. Villagers actively participate in planning, organizing and running all the events included in this panorama. “In the program, every village cluster has a one day celebration to appreciate the rhythms of international music, the imagery of international film, and have an opportunity to engage in competitions, games and workshops,” Imruh further noted. “The festival assists and provides theatre, puppetry, music and dance, arts and crafts development, competitions in bao and cards, dhow and bicycle races as well as specific activities for women and children.” “Working closely with NGO groups and the Zanzibar Ministry of Health, we provide the opportunity for rural communities to engage in cultural activities that encourage the awareness of health, human rights, education and environmental issues,” noted Imruh.
As the Swahili saying goes, “Elimu ni bahari” (or “Education is an ocean”). The festival has acted as an important forum to teach us about the cultures and histories, problems and aspirations, of the Dhow region and the entire East African region.