The Post-Independence Development of Film in Zimbabwe

Hayes Mabweazara (Address: 7524-37 Tshabalala, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe)

Independence brought a new era in which the culture of the indigenous people would flourish and unfold unabated. It is against such a background that the government sought to develop a local film industry. The first attempt by government at developing a local film industry, was through attracting Hollywood Studios to film in Zimbabwe. An argument was posed that, "the presence of Hollywood studios in Zimbabwe would facilitate the development of local skills and capacity in film making" (Hungwe:1992).

Reputable Hollywood studios, such as Cannon and Universal Pictures responded positively to this invitation in the early eighties. The then Ministry of information had the prerogative to approve the filming projects in line with its aim of ensuring that Zimbabweans got an opportunity to learn from the experienced film makers. The vetting policy was also an attempt to bar the infiltration of Western influences on the Zimbabwean cultural outlook.

Cannon studio embarked on the first Hollywood project and filmed King Solomon's Mines in 1985. The film has been described as an adventure pot-boiler. Its success on the market paved way for other Hollywood film-makers thus spearheading the inflow Hollywood aesthetic values. We got geared into the mentality that, the Hollywood way is the way of making films and failed to develop our own craft of story telling. Undoubtedly, some of the influences were to prove to be positive to Zimbabwean film-makers with an objective of making commercially successful films with an international appeal. In the majority of cases however, negative influences are predominant.

King Solomon's Mines caused controversy among Zimbabwean audiences. It did not appeal to many Zimbabwean audiences. The Herald of 14 July 1986, reports that, the Ministry of information received "numerous complaints from the public about the way Africans were depicted in the Cannon production." The film depicted "Africans as exotic, sub-human and therefore needing Western values more than anything else in order to survive" (Vambe 2000). Notably, the film has numerous shots of black characters on the right hand of the frame in the negative part of the image and in some instances on the ground, thus expressing the animality of the black figure. These are clear testimony of the Hollywood influences on the cinematographic presentation of African images.

After the first Hollywood project, the government sought to make Zimbabwe a leading player in film production instead of just being a location for the shooting of Hollywood films. This initiative was also driven by the desire to develop an indigenous aesthetics in film and counter Western dominance. What is discernible in this policy change, is that Zimbabwe adopted the Hollywood ideals of film making as final. The partnership between Universal Pictures of Hollywood and the Zimbabwean government resulted in the making of the film Cry Freedom. The film in many ways indicated the dominance of Hollywood aesthetic modes. The special effects used in the film are reminiscent of the communicative elements of most Hollywood films. One also notes the manipulation of montage, camera angles and distance to emphasise the artistic and technical innovation of the film director, Sir Richard Attenborough.

Of particular note is the fact that the major character of the film, Denzel Washington (Steve Biko) is a renowned Hollywood film star, whose acquaintance with African culture and history is questionable. This demonstrates that Attenborough chose to keep close touch with the Hollywood system of using big name stars in an attempt to minimise uncertainty on the market. This point is emphasised by the fact that, Zimbabweans who featured in the film took peripheral roles which had a superficial aesthetic bearing on the film. The Hollywood influences in Cry Freedom are a logical culmination of the fact that the film was directed by a Hollywood film director.

The dismal performance of Cry freedom on the market constituted a turning point on the government's attitude to film making in Zimbabwe. The film suffered a great many criticisms for failing to present a true picture of the tragic death of Steve Biko, a black South-African political activist. It was viewed as a Western imposition on African history. The response by Sir Richard Attenborough to the criticisms leveled against his film rexcognized that "the authoritative film on the life of Biko has yet to be made, perhaps by black directors, writers and technicians" (Hungwe:1992). The response not only implies failure to appeal aesthetically to an African audience, but also acknowledges his obscure understanding of African history. It also points to the insistence by the West in giving Africa a cinematic heritage whose visual appeal is exotic.

The change of heart by the government in its contribution to the formation of a film industry in Zimbabwe was to have a long and far reaching effect. The government resorted to encouraging the consumption of foreign-made films, especially Hollywood ones. The idea of bringing foreign films to Zimbabwe was viewed as a way of importing downstream benefits to the local film industry, but the local film industry did not benefit much from it. The entire undertaking only reinforced the adoption of Hollywood aesthetics at the expense of indigenous modes.

The government's withdrawal of support of local film production paved way for donor agencies who took up the challenge and worked with individuals who had acquired film making skills from the activities of the Hollywood Studios. Hungwe asserts that films which resulted from donor initiatives had their thrust on "message rather than profit," they were pedagogic. Examples of these films are Olley Maruma's Consequences (1987) which focuses on teenage pregnancy, Godwin Mawuru's Neria (1991) and Ingrid Sinclair's Flame (1996) both of which address the issue of women rights.

The donor-funded films have not gone without criticism, Tafatawona Mahoso argues that, donor funded films should be "seen as suspect epistemologies of the West." This is chiefly because they have been viewed as hindering indigenous film makers from making films reflective of their own ingenuity. Zimbabwean donor-funded films are interesting examples of hybridization, that is, the mixing of Western cinema and African storytelling traditions. Neria for example, has been influenced by Western film techniques and technology which have been transformed into an African style and technique. The director of the film, Godwin Mawuru, acknowledges the presence of Western cinematic influences in his film but asserts that his main objective was to tell a story that "was from within emotionally," a story that came from his own mother's experience.

One observable point is that the pedagogic objectives and the desire to communicate from within the African experience, characterising Neria and other films of its kind, waters down the predominance of Western aesthetic influences. It is on the basis of these particular aspects that the film differs with Michael Raeburn' Jit,the first commercially successful Zimbabwean feature film, which falls in the group of an emerging film making dimension in Zimbabwe.

The dimension of film making which embraces Jit is still at its infancy and is embodied by a handful of film makers who have sought to break away from the dictatorial tendency of donors responsible for the local tradition of using film to achieve social agenda. The filmmakers have endeavoured to come up with films that overcome the problem of limited audiences facing Zimbabwean film. According to Hungwe, "the producers seek to generate profit by entertaining international audiences as well as appealing to local interests."

Zimbabwean films which fall into the paradigm of Jit are ostensibly influenced by Western aesthetics, far much more than all the categories of film discernible in post-colonial Zimbabwe. Jit is the 'representative par excellence' of films influenced by Western aesthetics hence the key position it assumes in this paper. It was produced in 1990 as Raeburn's third film and the first Zimbabwean feature film.

The post-independence development the Zimbabwean film industry is inextricably attached to its colonial history. More recently, Western values have penetrated Zimbabwean images through donor funding, it is a fact however that the didacticism of most donor funded films has tended to subvert Western influences, this is noticeable in Godwin Mawuru's Neria. An analysis permeating the images non-didactic films such as Jit demonstrates overtly, the influences of Western aesthetics on Zimbabwean film.


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Last Modified: 28 August 2003