Wrestling Grounds

14–25 July, 2006

At the first roundtable of the 9th Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) of the Dhow Countries, held from the 4th to the 25th of July, on the island of Unguja, off the coast of Tanzania, a Kenyan journalist asked festival director Jakub Barua why ZIFF had failed to adopt a “clear, discernible, socially conscious” theme such as the “elimination of AIDS” or the “campaign for debt amnesty”. The festival’s theme does seem rather abstract: “Sails of history: citizens of the sea”. However, Barua replied that the theme:

is about the meeting of other cultures which we aim to achieve through the festival. The sea is a metaphor for the oceans of information, for the fluid spaces in which we define citizenship, identity, difference. One of the main questions of the festival this year is whether cinema can fathom the tragedy of the slave trade and all the other sea–based historical and cultural encounters which have taken place in Zanzibar and across the Indian Ocean.

Throughout the nine years since the festival’s inception, ZIFF has cultivated the idea of “dhow cultures”, highlighting the long history of diaspora associated with the Zanzibar archipelago, which for hundreds of years received infusions of Indian, Arab and African culture as a result of merchants navigating the Indian Ocean trade routes. Notoriously, Zanzibar also served as one of the main slave ports from which the Oceanic slave trade was administered by the Omani Arabs. Zanzibar therefore has a double–sided heritage as cosmopolitan meeting–place of cultures and as site of exploitation and slavery. The festival’s selection of films deliberately embraces this double history, celebrating the cultural ties between India, Iran, East Africa, Indonesia and other maritime cultures and tracing the paths of diaspora throughout the Indian Ocean, but also exploring the traumatic legacies of slavery and colonisation which continue to impact the developing world.

In addition to the main competition films, numerous films were screened which revolved around the economic and environmental challenges presented by modernity to traditional fishing villages: whether in the “First World” of Ireland, Spain, France and the USA as in Da Quixote (Terry O’Leary, 2005), Mahi (The Fish, Mahmoud Fakhrinejad, 2005), El Cerco (The Fence, Ricardo Iscar Nacho Martin, 2005), La Peau trouée (Julien Samani, 2004), and This Black Soil: A Story of Resistance and Rebirth (Teresa Konechne, 2004), or in the East African islands, as in Swahili Islands (Neil Shaw, 2006), and Haiba ya Zanzibar (The Character of Zanzibar, Safia Mohammed Iddi, 2006).

Other films further stressed the culture of the sea, exploring the ways in which food, music, dance and architecture were carried throughout the Indian Ocean by traders, such as From Africa to India: Sidi Music in the Indian Ocean Diaspora (Amy Catlin–Jairazbhoy, 2003) and DCMA–Reconnecting the Roots (Rainner Vierkoetter, 2006) which demonstrated the ways in which the exchange of music between India and Africa led to a unique hybrid musical tradition in Zanzibar.

The General cine-concert

The screenings of two silent film classics as cine–concerts accompanied by the Prima Vista string quartet were among the most popular film events in the amphitheatre. F.W. Murnau’s expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1925) seemed to have a certain resonance with the Swahili audience, since Zanzibar has its own folklore of vampires and shetani–haunted islands. Composer Baudime Jam’s Schönberg–inspired score was suitably dissonant, in an interview after the concert he described it as “dark, slow and ugly as Nosferatu himself.”

Buster Keaton’s The General (1927) drew one of the largest, loudest crowds of the festival, with laughter, cheers and the occasional ovation erupting from the audience. The first cinema in East Africa, the Majestic, opened in Zanzibar in the 1920s, playing silent films just like these. Festival directors hoped that staging a return to cinema’s roots would inspire attending filmmakers to improve the role of music in their films. Said Jakub Barua during a conversation with Jam, “Musicians add the life, the emotions to the images.”

The cultural interconnections exposed by the juxtaposition of films about diverse countries certainly promoted a “diasporic aesthetic” in the festival, encouraging the embrace of shared heritages and the production of art forms fuelled by hybridity. However, in previous years the festival has been criticised by local artists for being too focused on the international audience and too quick to abandon local specificity for the global buzzwords of “multiculturalism” and “diversity”. The CEO of this year’s festival, Martin Mhando claimed, “ZIFF is a brand that is known the world over but locals do not see it as their own.”

Ironically, the uneasy balance between cultural tourism and local relevance was highlighted in the engaging Les Jours à côté (Days Aside, Iliana Estanõl and Ella Pugliese 2005), winner of the Silver Dhow for documentary. Following a quartet of savvy street kids throughout the famous Ouagadougu film festival in Burkina Faso, the film highlights the complex relationship between the production of culture, the economy and local artists.

Although smart, talented musicians who dream of touring Europe with their band, Les Amis de la Nature, the teenaged boys are reduced to hustling tourists and selling cheap tin toys made from crushed soda cans to earn enough to survive. Asked whether he would attend the festival, Isma replies, “I really like the festival because many tourists come and we can make money.” Their working lives are in stark contrast to the leisurely white tourists who fill the bars and restaurants of the city, reaping the full benefits of the service industry. On occasion, the boys try to sneak into films, and the last shot is of them standing outside the main stadium, watching the fireworks display of the closing ceremony through a chain–link fence, willing participants yet excluded from their own festival.

Instead of merely attracting the tourist dollar and setting up an industry which relegates locals to service jobs, ZIFF hopes to reverse cultural impoverishment by thoroughly engaging locals in the festival. Mhando announced his commitment to encourage locally–produced films and to screen them not just in the main amphitheatre in the capital city, Stone Town, but in villages throughout Pemba and Unguja: “We need to make Tanzanians feel the festival is theirs, about Zanzibar, not just the outside world.” This year, twelve Tanzanian films were included in the competition, three of which had been developed in ZIFF film workshops the previous year. A further selection of documentaries set in Zanzibar was shown under the theme “Focus on Zanzibar”.

Karen Yaroksy’s Streetcar from Zanzibar (2006) presented a sympathetic, witty portrait of two Zanzibari girls, one who has emigrated with her family to Toronto and the other a warm–hearted, conservative Muslim who is preparing to travel to Canada to marry the husband her family has arranged for her. She swears to the interviewer, “No, I don’t think I will change there.” The younger girl, cheeky, jeans–clad, fast–talking, is glad of the opportunity to become educated and to wear Western clothing, but she is deeply ambivalent about Canada. The camera shows her wandering in an empty, grey square flanked by monolithic concrete buildings, as she bemoans, “There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go, and it’s freaking cold. I miss Zanzibar, the food, the people, the heat.”

The film explodes the migrant’s myth of Canada as paradise, making it clear that economic prosperity and Western modernity demand certain, perhaps unacceptable sacrifices of culture and identity. Throughout the festival, the theme of diaspora was sounded repeatedly in films exploring every angle of migration, south to north, rural to urban, developing world to first world.

The Sleeping Child

Yasmine Kassari’s L’Enfant Endormi (The Sleeping Child, 2004) received a special commendation for its evocation of the far–reaching impact of migration and globalisation on the lives of women in Morocco. The film opens with Zeinab’s marriage, on the eve of her husband’s departure for Spain. While the men sing, dance and feast outside, anticipating prosperity when they cross the Strait, Zeinab sits alone in a room for three days, a frozen statue in white, forbidden to move until she has been purified by a holy man. The opening scene becomes a metaphor for the clash between tradition and modernity and the position of the women left behind.

Bound by patriarchal constraints, unable to read, the women are forbidden to speak to other men, to travel, or even to protest their abandonment. Left alone to shoulder the hard work of the land, to pound the millet, herd the goats, and repair their homes, while their husbands seek a new life in Europe, they are expected to remain pure and silent. When Zeinab and her sister–in–law Halima innovatively circumvent their illiteracy by borrowing a video camera to send messages to their long–silent, absent husbands, they are reprimanded for “upsetting” the men. When fiery Halima dares to speak a man other than her husband, she is beaten terribly by her in–laws.

With exquisite cinematography and pacing attuned to the natural surroundings and daily routines of the women, the film shows the crumbling of traditional community life in rural Morocco as result of the male labour drain. Zeinab’s mother–in–law laments, “Before we used to marry off our children to get rid of them, now we do it just to make sure they return.” She begs her son to stay, asking, “Why leave the land?” but he replies that it is no longer economically productive to work the land: “Because there is no rain, and when there is rain, it washes everything away, there are no men left to cut the channels.” Only Amziale chooses to stay on the land and plant new olive trees, preferring dignity to exploitation: “Europe is better only for those who belong there. Slaving for my own people is better than breaking my back for others.”

However, the film also shows the first stirrings of social freedom for women. Halima fiercely insists that her daughter remain in school and learn to read. Zeinab, fallen pregnant on her wedding night, visits a wise man to receive a special talisman to put the child “to sleep” until her husband’s return. At the conclusion, surmising that he may never return, she casts the talisman into the river. The camera follows the talisman floating downstream in a long shot, as the writing gradually washes away until it is an empty scrap. The image is thus an ironic reversal of the opening scene of the film, when Zeinab was purified for her marriage by bathing in water in which the holy man had placed a sheet of paper inscribed with writing. In rejecting her husband’s demand to “wake” the sleeper and casting away the talisman, Zeinab symbolically cleanses her body of patriarchal inscriptions and becomes her own social agent.

Hollow City

If The Sleeping Child shows the pain of those left behind, Maria João Ganga’s Na Cidade Vazia (Hollow City, 2004) explores the pain of those forced to migrate. Winner of the Silver Dhow, the feature film is a poetic depiction of the effects of civil war through a child’s eyes. After the mass slaughter of his village, war orphan N’Dala is brought to Luanda, the capital city of Angola, by a group of nuns. The theme of the naïve youth arriving in an urban centre from a rural area was explored in many other films throughout the festival, including Omar Moukhtar Sibomana’s poignant, if somewhat pedantic morality tale about two Rwandan men lost in the big city, Inkovu z’Ibihe (Scars of Days, 2006). Common to these films was a picaresque tone, descending suddenly into tragedy.

In Hollow City, N’Dala flees his caretakers in the hopes of returning to his village, but is soon captivated by the city, wandering wide–eyed amongst juggernaut trucks and towering buildings. He befriends a local boy, Zé, who compares him to a folk war hero: “You’re like Ngunga, wandering, seeing the world.” The dream–like, episodic pacing and the beatific cheerfulness of N’dala lulls the viewer into thinking that he can maintain his Candide–like innocence, but the hollowness of the city, ruled by martial law, rife with unemployment and crime, soon engulfs him. N’dala becomes a prostitute’s house boy, and scrambles with a mob of other orphans to hawk cigarettes. Robbed by a street gang, he is forced to sell his only possession, a tin car made from coke cans. His one piece of identifying creativity thus becomes fodder for tourists, “airport art”.

Finally, gulled into participating in a burglary of a pilot’s home, he shoots the pilot and is shot in return. As he lies dying, the camera jumpcuts to his friend Zé re–enacting the heroic exploits of Ngunga, the boy warrior, in a school play. The idealisation of the adolescent soldier is countered by the corruption of N’Dala, who has himself become a kind of child soldier, saved from conscription in the villages only to be enlisted in crime in the city. The movie ends bleakly, zooming into the eyes of a warrior on a painting on the murdered pilot’s wall, suggesting that the violence of the civil war reaches beyond the battlefields and into the very fabric of the city itself.

Hollow City’s oblique depiction of violence through the personal experience of a child was characteristic of another thread of the festival, “Cinema of Pain”, which showed films with “an intimate empathetic and sensitive approach to individual or communal pain.” The impact of AIDS, gender oppression, poverty and civil war on individual lives was resonantly portrayed through a range of documentaries and features. Talnambami (The Festival, Dhananjoy Mandal, 2005), winner of the Fipresci International Film Critic’s Prize, also chose a child’s perspective through which to explore social and economic inequalities.

Based on a short story by Bengali writer Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay, the film’s plot is extremely simple, following the daily activities and growing excitement of two young brothers, Gopal and Nepal, as the day of the village festival draws near. Their parents are poor and cannot grow rice in the rain, so the children wade in the swollen river to collect palm fruits to sell for a few annas, and fish for tiny minnows. Despite their hunger, they are perpetually cheerful, enterprising and imaginative. The film shows the astonishing beauty of the natural world through their eyes, as they pause to examine insects skating on the surface of the water or a heron stalking fish, observing the many textures and colours of the monsoon rains, the many ways water can fall. The soundtrack is minimalist, composed of birdsong, crickets, thunder and rain, occasionally punctuated by the exclamation of sitar strings. Vivid, poetic, lush, the cinematography is so saturated with colour and water that one almost feels wet watching it.

The night before the festival, Gopal dreams that Jyoti Pishi invites him to the feast at her house, where he eats plate after plate until he cannot move. But when the day arrives, no invitation comes for Gopal and his family, and he is left sitting alone in the pouring rain, watching the whole village pass by on the way to Jyoti’s feast. This small tragedy of exclusion is all the more tragic for its understated tone. As the boys slowly come to understand the extent of their family’s poverty, and how it separates them from the other villagers, this epiphany is more painful than their hunger, marring their Edenic joy in their surroundings and the love of their dignified parents. Yet the film privileges poetry over poverty, showing the boys not as dejected victims, but as wonderfully human and alive.

Hyena Square

Hyena Square (Cecilia Bäcklander and Lars Johansson, 2006) was a fine example of the AIDS awareness film, and one of the most sophisticated Tanzanian documentaries in the festival, focusing on the plight of teenage prostitutes in a notorious slum in Dar–es–Salaam. Like many women across Africa, the 14 and 15 year–old girl hookers come to the city looking for employment as maids or house girls, but end up selling themselves for 300 Tz shillings, less than $.30 US. As a young man in Hyena Square swaggeringly proclaims: “Some brothers say, these are our sisters here, they are too young, we shouldn’t buy them. But there are just so many beautiful sisters here, man, you feel it here [clutches his groin] and you just have to have them.”

The film follows Elisa, whose father pulled her out of school as a child and forced her to leave her village to work in the city. After being raped by the man who hired her as a house girl, Elisa reported the abuse to the police, only to be fined for “slander”. Without enough money to return to her village or even to eat, Elisa wandered until she reached Hyena Square, where she soon joined her “sisters” and contracted AIDS. Revisiting her former one–room “guesthouse”, Elisa cries to remember “slavery on that evil street. One my one my friends died, of abortion, of rape, of AIDS, of tablets. I would tear the whole square down, if I could.”

Yet, rather than casting Elisa as a victim, the film emphasises her anger, humour and resilience: “I blame my father for my AIDS, for rejecting me, for refusing me an education. But I am well. I don’t think I will die of AIDS.” She now plays on a women’s football squad and works as a counsellor for other street girls, offering training in alternate career skills, from jewelry–making to sports. Her manifesto, “Youth who do sports don’t get into trouble,” echoes that of director Bäcklander, whose other film in the competition, Women on the Run (2005) stresses sports as a method of peace–making between tribes and a path of empowerment for Kenyan women resisting genital mutilation and other forms of oppression.

As in Hyena Square, most of the “Cinema of Pain” films in the festival seemed to advocate change rather than an aesthetic of despair. Perhaps the most powerful documentary in the festival was Sisters in Law (Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi, 2005), set in a Cameroon courtroom where a female judge and prosecutor dispense justice. The brisk cross–examination style of Vera Ngassa is compelling – witty, unremittingly honest, compassionate, condemnatory – creating true drama in the courtroom. The four cases of spousal and child abuse which she prosecutes are painful, exposing brutality and gender oppression in harrowing detail, yet the efficacy of justice dispensed by these fierce, wise women offers great hope for social change.

Florence Ayisi commented that it was a privilege to finally show her film in Africa, after winning the winner of Prix Art et Essai at Cannes and screening it at over 90 festivals in Europe and America. “Many African filmmakers never have their films shown in Africa. But women here are at the forefront of changing the economic and social development of Africa – and I want to sing the praises of these women.”

A counterpoint to the “Cinema of Pain” was offered in other films celebrating the redemptive potential of traditional cultural and art forms. Unsurprising for this age of globalisation, football was a common denominator, celebrated across East and West African films, as was music. However, the Golden Dhow winning feature, L’Appel des arènes (Wrestling Grounds, Cheikh Ndiaye 2005), portrays a more culturally specific sport, la lutte avec frappe, the Senegalese art of wrestling. Based on Amina Sow Fall’s novel, The Call of the Arenas, the film is a hybrid of ethnography and feature film.

Ambitious in its handling of a large ensemble of professional and non–professional actors, the film juggles a double plot line contrasting the exploits of Sory, a 25 year–old gambling addict drawn into the underworld of Dakar, with Nalla, a 17–year–old whose life is spiritually enriched when he is befriended by Andre, a champion wrestler. For the alienated Sory, the arena is little more than an excuse for a cheap profit, for ticket–scalping and match–fixing: “I’m sick of this shitty life.” But for Nalla, the call of the arena is the call of national identity. Wrestling is more than a sport, combining music, dance, and combat. It is an art form and a repository of pre–colonial memory. As Andre tells Nalla, “In the old days, wrestlers fought to marry the king’s daughter.”

Wrestling Grounds

Long sequences of Nalla training on the beach with Andre and Malaw, played by real–life wrestling champions, linger over the beautiful bodies of the wrestlers, racing in the sand, or locked in combat like sculptures, the camera dwelling almost homoerotically on their toned muscles and long intertwined limbs. Other dream–like interludes show Andre travelling into the woods to make offerings to his ancestors or Malaw, on pilgrimage to a shaman before a match. Dressed in white, flinging his arms wide, the griot sings Malaw’s history, and the history of his father and his father’s father. He tells Nalla that “Griots led the warriors in times of war. A world without griots is like meat without salt.”

In making the griot a central symbol of the film, Ndiaye builds on a long tradition in Senegalese film. Ousmane Sembene, sometimes called the father of African film, saw cinema as inheriting the mantle of the griot, serving as an oral and visual record of a people’s history. For Ndiaye, the filmmaker, like the griot, is also a “keeper of memory”. The film’s conclusion is predictable, depicting the victory of the spiritually rooted Malaw over his worldly competitor, Tonnere, who sleeps with loose women and consorts with flash thugs. The dialogue is somewhat stilted at the beginning, the cultural nationalism is sometimes didactic, and the film’s female characters are mostly polarised accessories to the success or failure of the men. However, the film is a stylised, moving ode to the beauty of a unique Senegalese art form, tragic in its depiction of a disenfranchised, unemployed lower class, but hopeful in its imagination of empowerment through art.

This year’s award–winning films all hailed from West Africa, the Middle East or South Asia, notably excluding East African films. The Gold Dhow documentary went to Promised Paradise (Leonard Retel Helmrich, 2006) a portrait of a spirited Indonesian street performer who offers a one–man critique of the jihadism which motivated the terrorist attacks in Bali and Jakarta. Saudi Arabian filmmaker Akram Agha won the prize for Best Animation with his three–minute short, Attention (2005), another critique of terrorism depicting the transformation of children into mechanised killing machines through a series of stark red and black images – children poured into bullet moulds, blank–eyed children marching with shaved heads and AK47s, machine guns spouting blood like water pumps, all accompanied by the brutal sound of marching boots.

Even in the Best East African Film category Tanzanian filmmakers failed to win, with the prize going to Uganda director Caroline Luganda’s trio of documentaries about “extraordinary people” who defy myths about age and African identity: Real Saharawi (2006), Dancing Wizard (2006) and Rockamilley (2006). Lars Johansson’s Upende Nyakati Za Ukimi (Love in the Time of AIDS, 2005), which won the Signis prize for East African Talent for its sensitive depiction of the impact of AIDS on refugees in Western Tanzania’s camps, was the only exception.

The ZIFF jury commended the inclusion of Tanzanian films in the screening programme, but sharply criticised the size and quality of the short–list, arguing for a higher aesthetic standard in the pre–selection of competition films. Throughout the screenings, a marked difference in production quality between the more polished West and South African films and the poorly–funded East African films was frequently visible. In West Africa, particularly Senegal, cinema is more sophisticated, technologically and artistically advanced.

The irony of the Zanzibar film festival is that it has become “East Africa’s premier cultural event,” yet East Africa lacks a film industry. In Zanzibar, the last of the island’s three cinemas recently closed. People cannot afford to spend Tz 6000 to go to the movies, as opposed to Tz 50 to watch a DVD in a local “videohall”. Television stations do not screen East African films, showing old action flicks, Nigerian, or Bollywood films instead. Introducing Wrestling Grounds, Jakub Barua exclaimed, “We need to build bridges, to share the wealth of cultures. West African literature and film are very rich, their film production is above the East, therefore, we bring some here to show our people how far they can go, to incite competition and collaboration.”

At a workshop for screenwriters and directors, led by “Godfather of Indie Film” Melvin van Peebles, participants complained that government policy makers in East Africa needed to introduce laws to encourage the economic development of the industry and to revamp the higher education system in order to train film “fundi” professionals. While conducting another workshop for East African actors, actor Malick Bowens proclaimed, “We need our own Africanwood, like Bollywood. We need an industry – actors, producers, distributors, viewers – not just hopeful directors.”

Yet, ZIFF is clearly committed to fostering cinema and the arts in East Africa and encouraging East African filmmakers to aspire to the level of world cinema in West Africa or India or Iran. This is borne out by the impressive program of skills–building workshops for indigenous filmmakers, musicians, artisans and women, and the numerous arts events and campaigns to raise social and environmental consciousness.

Whether or not the aesthetics of this year’s films could be broadly labelled as “diasporic” or “third cinema”, they certainly displayed an inclination towards the ethnographic study of cultural particularities and specificities, an emphasis on natural acting and qualities, and an inherent critique of social and economic inequalities which could be seen as directly in resistance to mainstream Hollywood cinema and to the homogenising tendencies of globalisation. ZIFF was originally formed in order to show people that high quality cinema was important, to establish a cinematic tradition rooted in the different cultures of East Africa, and this year’s festival has clearly swelled that growing tradition.