Speaking the ‘unspeakable’ through film in Zimbabwe
From socially conscious film-making to challenging the invisibility of women in the industry, pioneering Zimbabwean filmmaker and writer Tsitsi Dangarembga speaks with Beti Ellerson about her film activism.
Beti Ellerson: Tsitsi, you have had a parallel trajectory as writer and filmmaker, how did these interests take shape?
Tsitsi Dangarembga: Initially my idea was to develop another skill, besides prose writing, that would enable me to earn a living. At that time, in the mid-1980s, I could already see that skills in moving images narration were essential to the national agenda. Our then Minister of Finance, Bernard Chidzero, also saw a role for motion picture in development. That was good in that he incorporated film as an important medium for sending out development oriented messages (such as Neria – women’s rights, and many HIV films such as More Time, Everyone’s Child and Yellow Card. The downside of this was that film became identified with social messaging in the minds of the local public. We had a strange dichotomy: film was either frivolous, meaningless entertainment, or it was disseminated as didactic and developmental. The study of film theory and the way the medium speaks to the individual and shapes the individual consciousness, was still a specialist area. But I had a premonition about these matters, so I decided to study film as an adjunct to making my living. …
BE: Your role as film activist is apparent in your various initiatives in the area of cinema. In 1992 you created Nyerai Films, a film production company in Harare. What is its mission and what are some of the projects that it has undertaken?
TD: The mission of Nyerai Films is to produce and distribute compelling, international-standard moving images on issues that our societies have difficulty in engaging with. Zimbabwean society is very secretive. People seem to thrive on intrigue and subterfuge. This means the real problems are rarely discussed in the open with the aim of finding solutions.
Our idea is to bring these issues to public attention through film. For example, one film that Nyerai Films co-produced, Peretera Maneta (Spell My Name), concerns child sexual abuse. In the story in question was the abuse of a primary school child by her headmaster, with the tacit consent of parents and other adults. This went on until one teacher started to question the situation. The woman who played the questioning teacher said she wanted the role because in our script we showed that anything could be talked about, even if our societies thought the issues were ‘unspeakable’ as Toni Morrison so often describes in her writing. So Nyerai Films’ mission is to make the unspeakable speakable…
BE: You are a member of Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe (WFOZ). What are its goals and how do your activities and interests as a film professional coalesce with the organization?
TD: When Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe was formed in 1996, its general objective was to increase the participation of women in the film industry in the country… I joined the organisation in 1998, at the personal request of the then Chair, the late Petronilla Munongoro, who was a Production Manager. That will always remain one of the highlights of my time with the organization—the fact that a competent woman called on another competent woman to work together in the medium. However, I quickly saw that the organisation’s goal could not be fulfilled without some sort of training or capacity building element to the programme, because most of the women who wanted to depict the things important to them in motion picture had no or little training. Realising this, I racked my brains for a platform from which to spring activities that would give women a chance in the industry, and sought to redress the kinds of images and messaging that women were not comfortable with.
This idea took the form of a festival which offers sponsors a platform and at the same time enables them to contribute to worthwhile projects. The festival was the woman-centred International Images Film Festival for Women (IIIF), whose first edition was in 2002. The festival features films with a female protagonist in line with a festival theme that is decided on each year. As I had hoped, we were able to stage other events in addition to the main festival [including] outreach programmes to communities that cannot reach the festival and training seminars, which produced the above-mentioned film on child sexual abuse Peretera Maneta (Spell My Name). WFOZ membership is increasing, especially amongst young women, who realise that moving images in this day of the Internet offer a career path. The enthusiasm that has stemmed from young women, and international filmmakers who have heard about the organisation as well as some who have attended the festival and met the women of WFOZ, has led to some remarkable developments.
One of these is the quarterly newsletter, Wild Track. We came up with the name to incorporate the idea that women are still not in the mainstream with respect to the medium, no matter how institutions speak about the woman question, because a wild track is a sound track recorded without visuals. It denotes the need for something else, namely the picture, and yet is essential to putting a whole narrative together. The situation of women with respect to film sounds 19th century, and from the point of view of a woman filmmaker it is. Few countries have significant percentages of women in the industry. Fewer countries still have quotas of money spent in the industry going to women according to their equivalence in the population. …
BE: One important interest of the IIIF is to mine visual representation, in particular, of African women. It is exciting to see this critical engagement with the critique of the image. How was IIFF conceptualised and what are some of its goals and objectives?
TD: IIFF was founded in 2002, a year which saw a proliferation of beauty contests in Zimbabwe and in the southern African region. We resolved to question society’s reduction of women to the object of the gaze, where the gaze is male and leads to male gratification. This time-honoured theoretical maxim is a starting point which needed to be taken further in the Zimbabwean context, where many other possibilities of oppression beyond the male gaze existed. These ideas of the male gaze and making a narrative in film that does not rely on the male gaze are very foreign to just about the whole world. This is why it was particularly exciting when I was invited to take part in a meeting of African Women Filmmakers in 2010, organised by the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg. As I understood it, the purpose of the meeting was to come up with some concrete and specific programmes that would contribute to the voice of women filmmakers on the African continent…
The meeting was immensely stimulating to the continental and Diaspora filmmakers and film theorists who attended. The gathering formulated a manifesto that requested proper gender desks at all media outlets, as well as for 50% of funding for any media-related exercise to be directed towards female players. This request was made to be in line with the Southern African Development Community’s quotas on women’s representation in decision making, since the filmmakers were aware of how often the role of the media is ignored in decision making issues….
BE: You did your doctoral studies in African Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin. I am intrigued by the proposed title of your thesis, “The exotic has always already been known: changing the content of the black signifier as a means of improving reception of African films.” Please talk about the research, your findings and the contributions you would like it to make to African cinema studies.
TD: I have not completed my doctoral thesis, but I am hoping to find the means to do so. The idea for this research was inspired by the work on gender as a signifier in film, particularly the work of Laura Mulvey. My reading of Mulvey was that biological differences correspond to systematic differences with respect to how individuals are portrayed in film stories. According to Mulvey, the man is portrayed as the dominant character, while the female has no significance in herself in film narrative, but is only represented as an object of male gratification.This immediately said to me that the female is only represented as a figment of the male imagination. I thought one could expand the categories of difference beyond sexual difference, or even gender difference, to incorporate other aspects of difference. For me, these other categories of difference mean also race. However, I think Mulvey’s analysis can be extended to any other category of social difference such as class, or sexual difference, or indeed religious faith…
BE: Thirty-one years after independence, twenty-three years after your novel Nervous Conditions, a quintessential discourse on post-colonial identity, how would you assess Zimbabwean culture today and what are your hopes for its future, especially as it relates to cinema culture?
TD: In my opinion, the average Zimbabwean has become more desperate in the years since independence in 1980… Our issues can be traced to a single problem. This problem is called lack of morality in global parlance. It is a lack of ‘unhu’ in the languages understood in Zimbabwe, or a lack of ‘ubuntu’ in the wider languages of our region. So I think, yes, we in Zimbabwe have lost the knowledge in the intervening thirty years of what it means to be human, to be ‘munhu’, and have humanity, ‘unhu’.
We have listened too much to propaganda that tells us about our own inhuman destructiveness. We have read too many books and seen too many films that depict us as losers in the battle of knowledge. In my opinion, Zimbabwean culture today is a culture of intimidation, fear, malice and ill-won gains. I do not know of a single sector, my sector included, where rewards are given in accordance to merits, whether these rewards are given by the government or international organisations. I can only hope that the people who control Zimbabwe’s narratives and artistic output understand soon the destruction they are doing to the nation by their current practices.