A starring role for Zambian stories

Red-carpet premieres have become more frequent in Zambia and crowds now flock to cinemas to watch new local films.

Previously, most Zambians preferred to stay at home in front of their TV sets to going out to see a movie at a cinema.  Sustained advertising through print, radio and TV has become a trend whenever a new movie is about to be released. And unlike before, local movies are now shown alongside foreign movies in cinemas in the capital, Lusaka.

And there is increasing demand for Zambian content from big industry players such as South Africa’s M-Net, through its new channel Zambezi Magic. The Zambian film market is estimated to be worth about $350 000 a year.

“Zambia is virgin soil that seeks cultivation,” says filmmaker Jessie Chisi. “It has an attractive natural landscape suitable for developing the film industry and this can be used to attract both local and international filmmakers.”

Mulenga Kapwepwe, chairperson of Zambia’s National Arts Council, says the country’s film industry is still in its infancy, but that big strides have been made in the recent past.

“We still have a long way to go.  The absence of a national film and broadcasting policy has hindered the development of the sector since there has been no clear direction in terms of financing, regulation, protectionism and censorship,” she says.

A successful playwright herself, Kapwepwe is happy that Zambians have begun to appreciate the industry by turning out in good numbers every time there is a premiere of a new local film.

Zambia’s emerging filmmakers, constrained by limited budgets, often use their homes and neighbourhoods as locations, and cast family members, neighbours and friends as actors. A few local directors are managing to transcend the difficulties of making films in the Southern African country, which has a population of more than 13-million.

Chenda, the latest film from Owas Mwape, a director in his 30s who has been making films for about 10 years, has recently been bought by M-Net for its Zambezi Magic channel. The film’s mix of suspense and passion  saw it play to full houses in Lusaka for most of its two-week run.

It tells the story of Chenda, a proud housewife whose dreams of a happy family life are ruined after her husband’s infidelity with a komboni (township) girl. She then falls for a handsome friend of her husband’s who comes to stay with the family. Mwape is one of the few Zambian filmmakers able to make a film at least every year. 

A scene from Henry Joe Sakala’s ?latest film. 

“I had to draw deep into the experiences of family and friends in order … to bring out strong characters in as few locations as possible,” Mwape says. “This experience highlights the issue of [the] lack of funding.”

There are no proper editing studios in the country, says Henry Joe Sakala, an actor and filmmaker. “Most productions are produced with shoestring budgets, so the editing is done in homes on desktop computers, some even on laptops. It’s definitely cheaper.”

But, as Sakala admits, the lack of high-end editing and sound equipment can result in less than professional quality. In an ideal world, says Sakala, there would be specialists working on different aspects of the film.

He says the packaging of films is generally good and inexpensive, but there are no dedicated film distributors in Zambia. Super Shine Investments, which is well known for distributing music, has recently started distributing films but local filmmakers often distribute the films themselves.

The sale of a DVD, for example, is done by individual film producers on the streets, selling at about $2 a copy. The introduction of the country’s anti-piracy policy has not helped much because enforcement is weak. There are cheap DVDs being sold on every street corner of the country. Much of the piracy is done in Lusaka’s notorious Matero township, which is well known for producing counterfeit products.

Sakala says that to keep costs down locations and cast are kept to a minimum. He shot his film When the Curtain Falls mostly in one location — the Lusaka Playhouse — with a cast of 10. “Brothers, one of the TV series I wrote, was filmed in one place — a lodge — we had two homes, a bar, [and] a police station, all at one site.  This reduces the costs of transport,” says Sakala.

With Chenda, Mwape decided to cast his net wider and bring in award-winning Malawian actress and Africa Movie Academy awards nominee Flora Suya.

“A few years from now, I envision Zambian movies including international actors from all over Africa. The movie industry is in its infancy but the Zambian story is being told,” Mwape says.

What is the Zambian story? Film producer and actor Mingeli Palata describes it in one way as a story of how more than 73 different tribes have lived together peacefully in the country for more than half a century.

“I suppose it’s not accurate to crystallise a particular subject or theme as the Zambian story, seeing as everyone sees it from their perspective. Zambia is many things to a lot of people and each experience is unique,” says Palata, whose TV series Maliposa was nominated for the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice awards.

Not until Zambia has a national film policy, says Kapwepwe of the National Arts Council, will it be possible to quantify the industry because at present it is fragmented.

“Currently the industry is growing but still needs a lot of support. One major thing that we need is a film school,” says Sakala.

He adds that film funding could be undertaken through the setting up of a film commission, which could disburse the funds to production houses that submit good scripts and proposals.

“The government should take up the chain of cinemas that they used to run before setting up cinema facilities in the townships community centres. These would be the places where local films can be shown.”

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