Interview: Tsitsi Dangarembga's Films & Thoughts

Interview conducted by Lize Ehlers on the occasion of AfricAvenir's, Studio 77 and Nawa Cinema's screening, in Windhoek, of Tsitsi Dangarembga's films and the celebration of one of Africa's most talented writers and directors.

Tsitsi’s Films & Thoughts
By Lize Ehlers

It is a time where Mother Africa weeps for her children, especially for her Zimbabwean children, as rulers oppress and kidnap and cholera infects almost 60,000 and has killed than 3,000 Zimbabweans.

But it is also a time to celebrate the Zimbabweans, who now, than ever, fight to give of themselves and to share their vision.

We, AfricAvenir, African Perspectives in Windhoek, who consist of cultural activists who organize a monthly film series, aiming to overcome the marginalization of the African audience thus contributing in creating an audience and screening culture of African cinema, recently held hands with Studio 77 and Nawa Cinema to celebrate and share in the vision of one of Zimbabwe’s, one of Africa’s, most talented writers and directors, namely Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Tsitsi spoke to AfricAvenir and answered some intricate questions regarding her four short films, namely Peretera Maneta (Spell my name), Growing Stronger, Kare Kare – Mother’s Day and Sharing Day that were screened at Studio 77 on January 24, 2009.

KARE KARE ZVAKO
1. How did the script of Kare Kare Zvako come about? It deals with very harsh topics such as poverty, core gender abuse and then the element that makes it so personal: betrayal.
The script for KARE KARE came about as the result of my intellectual engagement with film as a film student, combined with my passion for story telling. At the intellectual level, the question I was asking myself was, how can Zimbabwean film develop a signature that is so specialised that it creates a niche for this film in the industry at the international level?

Obviously, professional considerations such as expertise and production values are very relevant. But I was looking for that particular quality that differentiates this art from that art. So, I looked at how other national cinemas had developed, and I realised that basically all successful national cinemas tell the half a dozen or so great human stories that exist in the world from their particular point of view, thus providing their own particular development of the narrative of that common story and their own particular visual spectacle which is all important in film. On the other hand, the stories must be told in a way that is not so culturally bound as to make them incomprehensible to a wider audience. That is where I found that primordial forms of narratives such as myths provided the content I was looking for. So KARE KARE was an experiment: a primordial Zimbabwean story that deals with universal themes told in a way that can incorporate elements of Zimbabwean cultural spectacle. I actually heard the story from my grandmother when I was very young and never forgot it, so I thought it might make a memorable film also if I developed it in the right manner.

2. What made you include the giant termites? As that in itself gave such an amazing (dark) fairytale effect to the film that otherwise could have been severely disturbing (which it is, as it states such incredibly bold messages.)
Yes, you have it right. The termites were put in as (comparatively) light relief, representing the potential for good in an otherwise devastated world. I was also exploring the notion of reciprocity generally and in the sense of the environment. Old Shona folklore has it that before one killed an animal, or took fruit from a tree one would have to explain why this was necessary for one's own survival. The seeds would be thrown away and the tree would grow again. Or the predator would have the same attitude towards a human it ate, and presumably said the same kind of prayer! The other narrative purpose of the termites was my Zimbabwean adaptation of a Greek chorus that soothes us with hope when everything in the narrative becomes too much!

3. An audience member stated he was revolted and awakened by the reality of hunger. Was that an initial response you wanted to the film?
Do you know, we in Zimbabwe have recently experienced hunger and many of us still are experiencing that suffering. I lost about 5kg last year before dollarisation, when the parallel market went berserk with greed, so even if you had some money you could not buy enough food, and of course what was there went first to children and husband. So I would not wish anyone to be revolted by the idea of hunger. Although I think I can empathise with a sense of strong negative reaction, I would wish them to be angered by hunger rather revolted by it. Perhaps revulsion comes in as a response to the way we see specific people or groups of people reacting to hunger.

Awakening is definitely something I wanted to achieve. So many of our problems on the local, national and global scale could be tackled successfully if people could be awakened in a positive way that makes them believe in their own personal and collaborative agency against the forces that create and perpetuate the problems.

GROWING STRONGER
1. The documentary was very honest. I loved the way Tendayi mentioned little things and was not just focusing and telling the audience about her plight against stigma.
I believe honesty in my filmmaking is part of the signature of my style, whether documentary or fiction. I was drawn to Tendayi as a person because she is an amazingly strong and courageous person. Sometimes being so beautiful can be a disadvantage in a country that does not have a beauty industry that you can make a living out of. In fact beauty can be stigmatised itself as being the characteristic that lures other women's husbands away, and so is akin to prostitution! Popular wisdom has it that a man should not marry a very beautiful woman as this is asking for trouble.

Of course not all men are so insipid in their thinking, but that kind of notion in society means someone like Tendayi, who is also HIV+ has an incredibly hard time. My intention was to portray her as a person. All people have positive and negative characteristics, whether HIV+, or beautiful, or not.

Of course it was important for me that Tendayi herself is the kind of person who chooses not to be a victim, who by her nature is proactive in facing her condition. This is the kind of good role modeling that films can do. I am not impressed by people who parade their victimhood without responding proactively. So I was happy to present this woman, Tendayi, who refused victim status.

On the other hand she is very beautiful. How many of us would not want to look like her? So the two messages go hand in hand. People associate HIV with ugliness and lack of agency. Neither of these have to be the case if you are willing to come to grips with your situation, and looking good despite your HIV+ status can pen doors if you go for it. Tendayi herself in the film indicates she is particularly endowed with beauty, but she does give women lessons as to how any woman can make the best of her physical assets. I think this is really important. She helps other women to make the most of themselves, whether HIV+ or not.

Having said that, of course the negative situation in Zimbabwe has affected Tendayi too, and I am hoping that now that we are heading for settlement and national unity, she will be able to engage in the programmes she needs to engage in to disseminate her vision, help HIV+ people and sustain her livelihood.

2. I really thought it was important what you did, including the story of the very poor woman, who is a victim in so many ways. How substantial do you think her story is in the film? Because to me, it made the light and shade gap even bigger. I salute that.
Thanks for your for appreciating of that. A lot of people ask why I included the second woman, Pamela Kanjedzanwa. It was precisely for the issue of contrast in material conditions, at the same time as the similarity in spirit: the determination and coming to terms and managing the HIV+ condition. Pamela might not have had the advantages that Tendayi had. In fact Pamela had a lot of awful disadvantages, but she fought back, looked for information about how she could help herself and information about organisations that could help her, and she too survived. So the film addressed than one stereotype - the stereotype that HIV is ugly and he stereotype that HIV is poor.

PERETERA MANETA
1. This was the film that had the most impact at the screening. Why did you use an albino girl? (I know I have many answers to that question but it would be best if you elaborate the purpose of Maneta being an albino.)
What actually happened was that PERETEA was the result of the training pogrammes I conduct here, on an ad hoc basis depending on funding, as we do not have a proper film school in the country, but I am strongly concerned about raising our skills base in the medium and profession. After all, moving images is one of the most important way that individuals, groups and nations communicate with each other in the 21st century, so we need to now how to do it well.

In my discussions with the trainee director we looked at how to raise the stakes even beyond the level they had been raised in the script. That is how the idea of the albino child came about. What kind of man would take advantage of a girl who was already in such a desperate situation? A monster, obviously. credit to Aaron Chiuundura-Moyo who carried off the role so superbly.

2. I absolutely applaud the way you truly captured the teacher. The fact that she was so honest. You captured diverse truths and I am so glad you did not leaf fringe them, but I mean you don't leaf fringe in any case. How does the teacher translate to the every day person?
As mentioned, this film came out of my teaching workshops. So I do not mollycoddle the students and trainees in any way. If they don't like the stringency I bring to my teaching, they leave.

My methods are, I like to say, derived from some of the best teachers I had as a student at the Deutsche Film und Fernseh Akademie Berlin, notably the Hungarian Bela Tarr and our director, Professor Hauff. Neither of them minced anything that had to be said, much to my distress at the time. But this was all to my immense professional benefit as I see now. I hope some of the young people I am teaching and mentoring will understand this process.

For me, honesty is the only way to make memorable art, memorable narrative. When I talk about honesty I talk about the practical day to day honesty, but also a deeper personal honesty that has its root in the soul of the person. To hide the things that hurt, that one does not want to see is, in my opinion, dishonesty.

But by bringing these awful unmentionable things into the open we can interrogate them and hopefully develop solutions for a better society. I think most people in life may have the same attitude on an everyday basis, and the same tendencies as the teacher, but they may be dishonest and pretend they don't have them, for example the mother and father, especially the father. In that case, change is going to be verydifficult. Because of her honesty the teacher was able to change and do something for good. The headmaster is a different kind of example. Only some form of dishonesty or psychopathy could have allowed him to think what he was doing was permissible in any way. Having been caught, he will pay a great price for that moral dishonesty.

3. The slightly caricatured Headmaster was a very interesting contrast that you brought in. Hence, him being the rapist was very fascinating. Because, yes, friendly and funny men rape too. The whole sweet connotation was very strong. Care to elaborate on the decision to make that character the way it is and the importance of his behaviour?
Again I can only say that we work at our films in minute detail. We look at the overall story and themes, We look a the individual characters and their development and what might define them as a character. I am very strong in teaching my students that the little things of life are what makes the character, hence the sweets. We were looking for something that might explain why a man would behave in such an abominable way. We came to the conclusion that he must have been deprived of something important and good an enriching and sweet in life. How could this be represented? His craving for sweets!

SHARING DAY
1. First of all, the music, the lyrics are absolutely mark worthy and ring in the ear even days after being heard. Who is the singer and how important did you feel that particular music was in this film?

Plaxedes Wenyika is the singer. She is a very popular artist in Zimbabwe and has just been nominated for the National Arts Merit Awards for her role in THE SHARING DAY. I believe art is a spiritual matter and this is how it happened: at
fast during preproduction I was talking to my husband, who is my co-producer and partner in Nyerai Films, about the kind of person I saw as the altruistic female figure in the film, bearing in mind that the audience would have to identify with her and her good intentions.

After fast, I went into the office to find an article about Plaxedes Wenyika in the newspaper.

I did not know her personally then, but reading the article, I felt sure she would be perfect for the character in THE SHARING DAY. As I put the paper down, the phone rang. It was Plaxedes enquiring about the THROUGH MUSIC VIDEO PROJECT that Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe did in 2006/7 for upcoming female musicians who needed a professionally made music video to help them in their careers.

The rationale was that brainstorming the concepts for the videos, writing the scripts and doing the productions on a minimum budget would help the women filmmakers hone their skills. In the end, we did have some support for the video project from NORAD and the African Women's Development Fund.

The project was conceived as a competition, in which singers applied blind. Little did we know that one of our stars, Dudu Manhenga would end up having two of her songs chosen. Anyway, Plaxedes heard of the project, and of the high quality of our videos. So when she called to enquire I informed her that the music video project was over, but we were auditioning for THE SHARING DAY and I invited her to audition.

The decisive moment came when I gave the applicants the task of driving a car with daughter and sick friend in the vehicle. Plaxedes immediately began humming and singing, and that was that! It was wonderful to build he song into the mourning scene when the young protagonist Tabitha passes away. And Plaxedes was very professional to work with, allowing us to use the instrumental version of her song for the theme music at an affordable price.

2. I know music is a great tool to create the desired atmosphere in each film, in each scene, and music acts like an extra character transporting the film into the understanding of the audience, how important do you value music in all of your films?
Music is internationally identified as having notable African traditions and world influences. I try to exploit this in film in tasteful ways that do not have the music blare for its own sake of being amazing African music. I spend lot of time considering how to blend this particular music into this particular narrative. But I do also think that music has a particular resonance for African audiences, and we must recognise this professionally, as success begins at home. Look at Oliver Mutukudzi. In my opinion, the music is of crucial importance to the sense that it is an aspect of the spectacle that I referred to before that has a very specific cultural signature.

3. How important do you value silence?
Silence is immensely important. To have an audience watch an image with no sound and yet be totally enthralled is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of the art of film. We only have to think of Charlie Chaplin, and, for example Mike Leigh. Coming from stage and literature, as I did, this was a difficult practice to master. Many years ago, alright, about two decade ago, my husband and partner advised to me in the gentlest way possible, "Tsitsi, try to write a scene in which there is no dialogue."

It took me time to understand what he meant. But since then I have been honing my skills in that direction. Examples are where Tabitha's friend just leans against the verandah post as she mourns her friend's death.

In KARE KARE you have the husband walking purposefully to the rack and fetching the axe and then going off into the forest and cutting down trees and so forth, with no dialogue.

In PERETERA you have Maneta herself walking the whole distance from the headmaster's office, here he has just sexually abused her, without a word. You also have the teacher looking at Maneta's disturbing drawings without saying a word and this scene goes on for without being boring because the tension rises. Then you have the headmaster leaning his cheek sadly on his hand as he sits at his desk after he has been found out to be a child sexual abuser.

I remember we shot that scene just after lunch. Soon after we had finished eating, I went round to check that everything was ready for the scene. I found Aaron looking extremely miserable and asked him what the matter was, whether he had eaten something that disagreed with him at lunch. But he said no, he was just getting into character! That is the kind of professionalism I expect, but I say we do not have much of in Zimbabwe.

Silence is of supreme importance if the film has been constructed properly. It allows the film to continue to gather momentum in the audience's head without the audience feeling something is being pounded into them, as though it were propaganda.

4. Are all the actors in this film, including the other 3 films we screened Zimbabwean? The fine acting is applaudable and made all the stories tangible.
The actors in the dramas are Zimbabwean. I always organise an acting workshop before the shoot as most actors are stage and (generally dreadful) Zimbabwean television actors. I conducted the KARE KARE workshop myself. But pressure of work meant I had to hire a specialised drama company, Theory X, to do the other workshops for the other drama productions.

5. The film received the loudest applause, as it brought in such a tragedy of the little girl dying, but then the story of change for the aunt, and the reiterated obstacles that one face on the journey of helping others. If you were to watch this film, what would be your the first remark if people asked you how you found it? I know mine was (after wiping away my tears) that you have captured the essence of the human spirit. And no matter what size mountain stands in front of the human spirit it always gets a change to climb and conquer.
UNESCO, who commissioned the piece gave me certain parameters they required me to engage with, concerning how people in communities are helping each other and making a difference in the case of child survival. This resonated with me as I have young children who bring back horror stories from school and elsewhere of how some of their friends are being treated and are surviving or not surviving.

THE SHARING DAY was a synthesis of all this - UNESCO's desire to show how people are managing in the face of the most awful obstacles, but also the terrible suffering that young children are facing. Mothers are often venerated in our culture, but I felt the issue of motherhood also had to be dressed, even though in the film the mother figure was the maternal aunt. The maternal aunt is not a step mother in Shona culture, and should not have behaved in such a way.

But yes, I believe in redemption. I have experienced it so often in my own life, and have seen it in the lives of others. So the aunt is redeemed, and this presents hopeful possibilities for the other children who are now in the aunt's care, and for the entire village that is faced with the challenge of increasing numbers of orphans and decreasing numbers of individual caregivers. I think the spiritual and the artistic are very close.

In Conclusion
Can you please elaborate how you are currently working in a country that is submerged in so much political strain? I know it must be hard to be the inspirer when your immediate world around you is falling apart.
It is hard. But I have referred to the spiritual element, and that sustains me, even if I am not your most devout Bible reading church every Sunday Christian. I also have faith in Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans. I am Zimbabwean myself and am proud of how we are resolving the turmoil we have been through these past several years. My faith is that we are too big as a people, and we have grown too much through our hardships, to throw all we have endured and learnt away through petty disagreement. The practice of this faith remains to be seen. But personally this faith is my sustenance. Of course finding work is difficult. But I believe in integrity. Integrity to me also means the courage to say, I am wrong, if that is how the situation transpires.

About the director:
Tsitsi Dangarembga is a writer and director, born 1959 in Mutoko, Zimbabwe. She studied at Cambridge University (Medicine) and when Zimbabwe was about to become independent in 1980, she returned to Harare to study at University of Harare (Psychology). Later she made her Diploma at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (German Film and Television Academy Berlin), from 1989-1996, which she completed with distinction.

In 1992 she started Nyeria Films, a film production company in Harare, which she heads until today.

She is the founder and director of International Images Film festival for Women, Harare, and member of Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe (WFZ).
She completed her doctoral studies in the Department of African Studies at the Humboldt University Berlin.

Works:

  • Nervous Conditions, book, 1988
  • Passport to Kill, film, 1993
  • Neria, script for movie by Godwin Mawuru, 1992
  • Everyone’s Child, film, 1996
  • The Puppeteer, film, 1996
  • The Elephant People, film, 2000
  • On the boarder, film, 2000
  • High Hopes, film, 2004
  • Kare Kare Zvako, film, 2005
  • Growing Stronger, film, 2005
  • Pamvura (At the water), film, 2005
  • Bira. Stopping the time (The book of NOT), book, 2006
  • Peretera Maneta (Spell my name), film, 2006
  • High Hopes, film
  • Hard Earth – land rights in Zimbabwe, film
  • On the boarder, film

Prizes/Awards:

  • Commonwealth Writers Prize, 1989 (for her book “Nervous Conditions”)
  • Winner of UNESCO Children’s and Human Rights Award, 2006 (for her film Peretera Maneta)
  • Winner Zanzibar International Filmfestival, 2006 (for her film Peretera Maneta)
  • Winner Gender, Equality & Media Award, South Africa, 2006 (for her film “Growing Stonger”)
  • Winner of Golden Dhow Zanzibar, 2005 (for her film “Kare Kare Zvako”)
  • Winner of Short Film Award Cinemaafricano Milano, 2005 (for her film "Kare Kare Zvako”)
  • Short Film Award ZIFF, 2005 (for her film “Kare Kare Zvako”)
  • Special Jury Mention Amakula International Filmfestival Kampala, Uganda, 2005, (for her film “Kare Kare Zvako”)
  • Special Jury Mention Slowfood on Film – Corto in Bra Filmfestival, Italy, 2005 (for her film “Kare Kare Zvako”)

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