From premiering "Half of a Yellow Sun" to supporting Swahili films, this year's Zanzibar film festival line-up has attracted hundreds of movie lovers.
The idyllic setting of Zanzibar might render it the last place where one would want to sit inside and watch film screenings, but every year the Zanzibar International Film Festival (Ziff) in Stone Town attracts hundreds if not thousands of visitors.
Also known as the Festival of the Dhow Countries, Ziff, which is in its 17th year, drew nearly 40 visiting filmmakers from countries such as Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti, as well as Namibia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Guinea Bissau, Rwanda and Burundi.
The festival is based on a strong social mandate to support and develop East African filmmakers and communities. Freedom of expression and tolerance are key attributes of the festival, whose theme this year was A Common Destiny. This theme became distinctly relevant when, on the night before the start of the festival, a hand grenade was thrown out of a car window at a mosque in Stone Town, killing one person.
Generally, tolerance and co-existence are the norm in the predominately Muslim Stone Town. Tourists in shorts and bikinis, as well as late-night Full Moon Parties, are tolerated and even welcomed (albeit slightly bemusedly) as the island country’s economy is thoroughly dependent on tourism.
The festival hosted the African premiere of the Nigerian/UK production of Half of a Yellow Sun, the feature film based on the novel published in 2006 that covers the period in Nigerian history during which the Biafran or civil war took place in the 1960s.
The director of the film, Biyi Bandele, had planned to launch it in Nigeria more than two months ago. But the Nigerian National Film and Video Censorship board issued a letter all but banning the film on the day it was screened at the Zanzibar film festival.
The board explained the status of the film in a letter dated May 27 2014 and requested that the distributor expunge or edit some clearly stated objectionable aspects of the movie before it would allow the film to be shown in Nigeria. Censors say parts of the movie could undermine national security and they want the cuts made to allow the film to be shown in its home country. They say they are waiting to hear back from the distributor before proceeding.
Bandele, who attended the film’s launch in Zanzibar said: “They cannot ban it legally, so instead they have banned it through the back door by refusing to classify it. The film is based directly on a book that has been widely available since 2006, yet they claim there are scenes in the film that would be an incitement to violence.”
Bandele was ultimately awarded the Golden Dhow for the film at the closing ceremony on June 21.
Ziff has had to deal with its own censorship-related issues, with the Zanzibar censorship board insisting on various scenes in the movies Mother of George and The Thorn of the Rose being shuttered out during the screenings.
The local crowds who gathered to watch the films in the picturesque Old Fort Amphitheatre were vocal in their disapproval, as was Ziff.
“Ziff is in favour of freedom of expression. Our screening of these films with the required blocking of scenes is the purest expression of conservative censorship, which Ziff deplores,” said festival director Martin Mhando.
With music, art exhibitions, workshops and community outreach – sometimes it’s difficult to focus on the films. The festival prides itself on its support of Swahili films – or East Africa’s answer to Nollywood, dubbed Bongo Films. This year saw an increased focus on Swahili Films, which were screened at a number of venues, including the primary outside amphitheatre of Stone Town’s Old Fort.
Through a variety of workshops and forums that target the outlying villages on the island of Zanzibar and neighbouring Pemba, films are shown to schools, women’s groups and communities on topics ranging from gender violence, environmental issues and HIV. Young filmmakers screening their first shorts were able to meet producers from Hollywood such as Mitchell Peck (Priest, Crooked Arrows) and directors like the UK’s Nick Broomfield (Tupac) through formalised workshops and networking spaces.
The main festival programme though is a mix of nongovernmental organisation-type donor films as well as commercially viable mainstream movies and European art house films. With a predominance of African productions and co-productions, the festival is a powerful showcase of the state of African cinema, which is doing well based on the films on show at the festival.
While Ziff may be a little rough around the edges, but in a way that is part of its charm, it does have the potential to become an important space for African filmmakers to export their ideas and films, as well as a space to support collaboration and exchange. The island of Zanzibar then would, it seems, continue in its historical role as a gateway of trade and communications.