By Seth Onyango, bird
Last week, “Vuta N’kuvute” made history as the first Tanzanian feature film ever to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), debuting in the discovery section.
Released in Swahili and with a majority black cast, Vuta N’kuvute (loosely translated as “Tug of War”) becomes one of the most authentic African movies available on the global big screen.
Director Amil Shivji told bird that using local language was deliberate –– as the use of east Africa’s most widely spoken language best carries the depth and meaning of the historical events leading up to the period the film is set in.
Set in colonial-era Zanzibar, Vuta N’kuvute tells the story of a young revolutionary and a runaway bride whose romance thrives on the back of a political revolt in the dying days of British imperial rule.
Already, Vuta N’kuvute has secured a distribution deal with Africa’s entertainment behemoth, Multichoice, meaning it will be seen on TV’s across the continent in the coming months.
It is also expected to debut on the company’s streaming service, Showmax.
“The Africa rights belong to MultiChoice. They came early on the film, during script stages. We are still looking for distribution rights outside, especially in Europe and North America,” Shivji told bird.
“But it is not easy distributing a Swahili film with a local cast. For the distributors (it) is not ticking off many of their boxes, especially at a time like this, when they have already cut down on many of their acquisitions.”
He decried the fact that despite the presence of an audience, the African film market fails to support films such as his.
“We have a problem because the custodians of the market, like DVD distributors before, haven’t allowed films like this to gain any kind of value…we have been shut out of the market. So we have used other venues such as the festivals circuit, academic screening…to gain prominence so that we can be sitting on the same table with the distributors and argue our,” he noted.
“So I hope “Tug of War” can be used as a tool to fight back, to allow us to enter the mainstream market and to gain a fair contract with distributors. I hope they can open up new audiences for this kind of work.”
Shivji is bullish the film will strike a chord with African viewers, who have in recent years developed an appetite for local content.
Following the TIFF première, he said they have lined up a series of local screenings, starting in his home country Tanzania, as well as several crucial movie markets on the continent.
The film is produced by Steven Markovitz (Big World Cinema) and Shivji (Kijiweni Productions), who co-wrote with South African director Jenna Bass. The script is an adaptation of the Shafi Adam Shafi novel, Vuta N’kuvute, written in Swahili and to date never translated.
In the film, Denge (Gudrun Mwanyika), a young freedom fighter agitating for Zanzibari independence, and Yasmin (Ikhla Vora), an Indian-Zanzibari who is fleeing an arranged marriage in search of her freedom, fall for each other.
It is a forbidden love, that, coupled with Denge’s resistance struggle, complicates things for them, putting their very survival in peril.
The movie casts a spotlight on Zanzibar, an archipelago, adjacent to mainland Tanzania in East Africa and a top tourist destination thanks to its pristine white sandy beaches and Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Shivji, told bird that the movie is also a conduit to critical literature for African movies, a gap he saw while studying in Canada. His experience while pursuing his undergraduate studies at a Toronto University lifted the lid on the treatment of African films in universities overseas.
“I remember there were certain instances where we would study week by week different movements of cinemas across the world from Italian neorealism, Soviet montage, classical Hollywood…and we would spend two to three weeks on each module. But African cinema as a continent was given one class. A textbook that had 1500 pages had one page on African cinema,” he recalled.
It was after this that returned to Tanzania and opened Kijiweni Productions, then went back to Canada for his masters and came back home to focus on films, in order to generate content that builds a long-term, sustainable industry.
But he has an even bigger mission.
With Vuta N’kuvute, he wanted to create a film that would provoke thought, create political awareness and shift narratives that have become all too entrenched in Africa.
“I wanted this film not to romanticise the past but to speak about our present… and the film is made in a very contemporary nature. Like, you feel like it is happening right now, like it is happening outside your door… and the 1950s spoke about this idea of ‘mental change’,” he said.
“We are told to join the rat race but we have been tied to the ground for 150 years, so it was never a fair race, to begin with. There are so many political factors that have created a mentality that is so upsetting…it is a colonial mentality, a defeatist mentally.”
Shivji opined that movies could either fight stereotypes or entrench them because for years it was profitable to cast Africa in a negative light. Fighting stereotypes seems to be something he is good at.