A new breed of cinema

A Harare-based film company is using movies as a unique brand of social activism

Julie Goodman

It is early evening and thousands of people are gathered at an old bus stop in Dzivaresekwa, a congested township in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

Rap music pulses through large speakers, women stand with babies tied to their backs, teenagers hang off the bus-stop shelters, and the show begins

On a large movie screen before the crowd unfolds the story of Tiyane, a young man in Harare who impregnates a woman and finds himself saddled with single parenthood when the baby is left on his doorstep.

This is not a drive-in movie. Instead, the film, Yellow Card, is projected from a mobile truck on to a white plastic banner a makeshift cinema easily transported from town to town.

The crowd stands in clusters, some talking, some sharing drinks, but most focus on the rare spectacle of evening entertainment in their impoverished neighborhood.

They “ooh” and “aah” when the pregnant teenager faints in the sun; gasp when they see her try to abort her baby; and laugh when Tiyane’s coloured girlfriend serves food on her knees.

“Since we are poor, we should not do the things that disappoint our parents. You can see right now,” 25-year-old Perpetua Beremauro says, pointing to the screen as the new mother prepares to abandon her baby.

The movie is the work of the Media for Development Trust (MFD), a Harare-based film production and distribution company that uses movies as a unique brand of social activism.
The group makes movies to be taken into Zimbabwe’s townships and rural areas, offering entertainment laden with messages on everything from sexual behaviour to gender inequality.

It has, probably more than any production house in Africa, managed to reach a commercial scale with social development films, doing so in a country where the film industry faces closing cinemas, rampant video piracy and poor television broadcasting systems.

The idea is to boost the local film industry, while educating communities on the spread of HIV, the effects of harmful inheritance laws and the dangers of teenage pregnancy using Hollywood-style movies.

But instead of recruiting the Kim Bassingers and Tom Cruises of the United States for action-packed drama, these films feature African actors and contemporary African issues, resulting in a new breed of cinema European festival organisers aren’t quite used to.

“It’s not what they want to see from Africa,” said the MFD’s director, John Riber, an American who has spent most of his life in Third World countries.

“They want to see some exotic, calabash movie or something deep and painful. So to make a sort of light, funny, comedic film on such an incredibly important issue irks them.”

But the movies are a success gauging by their ability to fulfil a longing in Zimbabweans who want to see their own people on the screen, dealing with their own issues, without the paternalistic stance of mainstream educational films, Riber says.

Since its inception in 1987 the MFD’s sponsorship has grown, its audiences have burgeoned, and its movies have become popular in different countries across Africa.

“We’ve had a lot of kids coming up to us and saying, ‘God, this is just really great, it’s like a real movie and we thought it was going to be another one of those boring, lecturing kind of films,’” Riber says of Yellow Card, the group’s latest production, and the one recently shown in Dzivaresekwa.

While Yellow Card is a progressive film about placing the burden of parenthood on the male, Neria, another popular MFD film, tells the story of a grieving widow evicted from her husband’s home by her in-laws.

Consequences is the saga of a girl shunned by her school after she falls pregnant and Everyone’s Child is a drama depicting the lives of Aids orphans.

The MFD launches highly publicised theatrical releases of its films, sells them to television stations, then creates video masters and sells copies, creating a potential audience of millions.

In Zimbabwe Neria sold 100 000 cinema tickets, compared to Titanic’s 120 000.

Yellow Card is being distributed on video in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, as well as in Zimbabwe, in English and several vernacular languages. The movie, which was shot by Hollywood cinematographer Sandi Sissel, is also being made into a television series.

Kenya Airways has agreed to air Yellow Card on its in-flight screens. Video orders for the films have poured in by the thousands from nearby countries and dubbing facilities in Tanzania and Kenya copy and distribute the films nation wide. The group is also working with education officials in Zimbabwe to get the films added to the school curriculum. And the mobile movie vans, like the one used in Dzivaresekwa, are preparing to show the films in towns and villages in different parts of the continent.

The MFD also has a catalogue of 1 000 African films available for viewing for a small price at its Harare resource centre, in addition to video and sound equipment available for rental to local filmmakers.

But beyond showing the films in an entertainment setting, the MFD takes its work a step further with a grassroots effort that puts the movies into the hands of schools, clinics and churches.

Along with a copy of the video, teachers, community leaders, HIV-testing counsellors and family-planning workers receive materials and workshop training to lead group discussions on the films’ contents.

“There is no right or wrong really. It’s more just like think about it, talk about it. What does it mean to be a pregnant girl? What does it mean, an illicit abortion?” Riber said.

In Muzarabani, a rural area in northern Zimbabwe, farming students gather in a thatched hut with dusty cement floors, few windows, and walls covered with posters reading, “Stop domestic violence” and “Aids, what is it?”

The farmers were taking a respite from their training to view excerpts from Neria, the MFD film depicting a villager who loses her husband in an accident. The devastated mother of two is crushed when her brother-in-law takes advantage of African tradition to whisk away her children, claim Neria as his own property, and descend on what few possessions she has left. But the real drama begins when Neria decides to take her brother-in-law to court.

In the hut, an MFD researcher begins by asking questions after the viewing, about how traditions twisted are today, what choices widows have and how marriage issues were settled in the old days. The farmers write their thoughts down on paper, and soon a full-blown discussion emerges, encompassing everything from Aids and prostitution to beer halls and education.

The discussion, studded with laughter and passionate outbursts, goes on for several hours: was Neria abused? Did she have the right to go to court? Are Africans losing their traditions?

“If my son passed away, according to our traditional law, the widow is supposed to stay with us and be responsible for looking after the property and wealth. The problem only arises when she wants to leave and go back to her family and take all the property with her,” says Evelyn Chiwashira, an elderly woman in the group.

One man interjects, asking if parents get frustrated when their daughter-in-law squanders their deceased son’s wealth.

“When we tell her to stay with us we make sure that we give her another husband and if she can accept the husband, they then stay together,” Chiwashira says. “If she refuses to take that husband, then we have a big problem, like the one we saw in Neria.”

For Charity Maruta, who shows the films as part of her Group Africa marketing organisation, MFD films are a necessary diversion from the American fantasy-land films Africans usually see, films that lack basis in African reality.

The MFD films manage to draw the “young, old, even the drunks”, luring in those who can not afford books or food, and are beginning to reclaim lost African values and morals, she says.

“This is for Africans to consume, digest and to come up with the answers,” says Maruta, whose group reaches 2 000 people at each screening.

And back at Dzivaresekwa, where on a breezy African night people of all ages are gathered in front of their makeshift cinema, the stories are a chance to see themselves for once on their own kind of Hollywood screen.

“It’s got a message,” 16-year-old Chiedza Beremauro says while watching Yellow Card. “No sex before marriage, for one. Don’t be tempted.”

Beremauro appreciates that Tiyane is “so caring of the baby”, and likes “the people, the characters and that girl,” she says, gesturing to Linda, the impregnated teenager, on the screen.

“She is beautiful,” she says. Beremauro turns back to the movie and the crowd whistles as the love scene gets under way.

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