The magic of cinema and pain of nation-building

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There is a passage in Shimmer Chinodya’s novel Harvest of Thorns that I love to read again and again:

For those of us who saw the traumas of our country from the doors of township houses, peeking through the restraining skirts of our mothers like young Benjamin, the ’60s are a special period.

Every generation has its sentimentalities, its nostalgias; for us the ’60s were both an end and a beginning . . . those were the days of the mobile bioscope, when the nights belonged to Mataka and Zuze and the Three Stooges and cinema was so alive you could smell cowboys’ gunpowder off the big white screen.

When I first read the above passage I recalled my own childhood and how “firimu” or “bhaiskopo” was central to my life.

I remember one time in the late 1970s we went to watch Charles Bronson in some movie in which he was a blind cowboy.

Rorenz, the enfant terrible of our youth, decided to round up donkeys that belonged to a certain Mr Chipinge and rode one into the Beit Hall hollering “hee-haw, hee-haw”.

We could only watch and admire his chutzpah. But his actions were understandable because for us film-watching was not about listening to the dialogue. We were a participatory audience.

We took sides with the good guy (the “champion”) as he sorted out the bad guys (maguruvha). We shouted to warn the “champion” of impending danger, stood up and clapped when he floored a bad guy and we itched to join him in the movie.

Our “champions”, invariably male, ranged from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Mars Villa, Terence Hill (Trinity), Bud Spencer, Charles Bronson to Clint Eastwood.

That these movies were telling a one-sided story that denigrated the other (the Native American or the Mexican or the Japanese) was beyond us. All we knew was that our heroes needed to be victorious at the end.

Years later I would work in places that made me understand cinema a bit more.

I watched an old film called Rhodes of Africa (1936) and saw how film could be used to create myths.

In this particular movie, Cecil John Rhodes is depicted as a misunderstood visionary who sought to unite a continent.

Several generations would have grown up on a diet of that particular narrative. The ultimate subversion, the burial of Rhodes at Matopo Hills, the very place Lobengula was supposed to be buried, is interpreted differently.

Now contrast my experience with that of a person born in 1980 who will turn 31 sometime this year. They will also hold their own memories of Zimbabwe.

In a different society their memory would be easy, they would be able to tap into a coherent collective national memory.

But in our polarised and poisoned society atmosphere truth has been exiled. So they will not want to hear more about the past, it’s a strange foreign country that has been reduced to a jingle on government-controlled radio.

In the early 1980s a good friend of mine who is an African national and lives in the US, was invited to Zimbabwe by the powers-that-be to come and direct the definitive film on the liberation struggle.

Eventually, my friend refused to direct such a film
arguing that the story of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence needed to be told by a Zimbabwean. He went further and advised:

“Don’t make one single film. Instead get seven young Zimbabweans to direct seven films that explore different aspects of the struggle.”

His point was clear: the birth and formation of a nation is a complex and multi-layered story.

But his would-be handlers wanted that meta-narrative, the big movie that opens and closes the story of a people.

I suppose they wanted something like DW Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation movie, the 1916 American film that sought to tell the story of the American Civil War of 1861-65 with a positive portrayal of slavery and a sympathetic depiction of the Confederate forces and the Ku Klux Klan.

So we still wait for our own films equivalent to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Gillo Pentocorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966), a gritty story set in pre-independence Algeria and depicting the beginning of organised urban guerrilla warfare pitting the Algerians against the French.

But we should not hold our collective breath because the signs are not too good. For three decades the government has blown hot and cold over the potential of cinema, welcoming foreign productions in the early 1980s and encouraging co-productions in the 1990s.

But this never translated into a coherent policy and the results are all too visible in the decline and death of our film infrastructure, the closure of the Central African Film Laboratory, the moribund Unesco-Zimbabwe Film and Video Training School and the lack of funding for both the National Museum and the National Archives. Perennial discussions on film policy and a film fund have just been hot air.

Across the country we have witnessed the closure of cinema houses.

And all this in a country where the highest grossing film for decades was Neria, a Zimbabwean film that had a massive audience across Africa.

In countries like South Africa television is the key driver of film and video production through the commissioning of independent producers.

But here we can only await the birth of a genuine public broadcaster and the licensing of commercial and community players.

It seems in matters of arts and culture we have to look to ourselves and to philanthropists.

The African state and its bourgeoisie have constantly reneged on their duties and responsibilities. It’s not kenge.

Chris Kabwato is a media professional involved with ZimbabweinPictures.com and the Centre for Public Accountability