What some Zimbabweans know and those that don’t can learn from other nations’ film industries

last updated on September 21, 2012

a version of this essay by Andy Kozlov appeared in 2012 in the issues # 27-29 of Hello Harare! 

Creative industries (creative economy) is a range of economic activities which are concerned with the generation or exploitation of knowledge and information. Most experts peg the world’s first government effort to identify and promote national cultural and creative assets as an industrial sector as taking place in the United Kingdom in 1997. According to the UN Creative Economy Report 2010, the term emerged in Australia in 1994 with the launching of the report, Creative Nation. (See Steppes In figures # 1: creative industries)

Creative economy comprises advertising, architecture, art, crafts, design, fashion, film, music, performing arts, publishing, R&D, software, toys and games, TV and radio, and video games.

The creative industries have been seen to become increasingly important to economic well-being. Their proponents suggest that “human creativity is the ultimate economic resource.”

The mountain-dotted and no-less futuristic island nation of Taiwan is no doubt overshadowed by its big cultural and historical sibling China. And, from this point of view, it’s a perfect example for Zimbabwe. (See Taiwanese: Taiwan better suited than the mainland to export Chinese culture)

In Taiwan, the cultural and creative industry began receiving official attention in 2002, when the government included it in a six-year national development plan. The most notable result of that initial effort was the establishment of five creative and cultural parks in the cities of Taipei, Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan and Hualien. Each park was located on land previously occupied by the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp. to take advantage of the sites’ decommissioned warehouses.

Chiu Cheng-sheng, deputy chief executive officer of the Taipei Culture Foundation, which is funded mainly by the Taipei City Government, singles out the importance of the movie industry, as films can also involve the music and animation industries in the production process. Moreover, if a movie becomes popular, it can go on to spawn derivatives such as online games and merchandise. Steven Lin, a Taiwan-based exporter and importer of TV drama series, stresses that television products have a higher penetration rate among the public than other parts of the cultural and creative field. “Pop culture is the beachhead of any culture war, and TV is the most influential part of pop culture.”

As the Taiwanese government steps up its effort to boost the cultural and creative industry, more investors in the private sector are emerging. The mainland market is a natural target for Taiwan’s cultural and creative industry, given its shared language and culture, as well as vast size, something that those involved in the re-emerging Zimbabwean film industry can keep in mind when looking across the Limpopo.

Zimbabweans can publicize creative businesses at industry exhibitions worldwide. Recent events include the China Beijing International Cultural and Creative Industry Expo and similar fairs in London, Tokyo and Shanghai.

Creative Boutique (image courtesy of taipeitrends.com.tw)

It proves fruitful for the government to also organize small-scale groups of businesses in a specific sector and take them abroad to meet partners. There is need  to provide for the creation of a research center devoted to the sector. The Creative Boutique at Taipei’s Red House serves as an entertainment hub and incubation center for emerging businesses that make creative merchandise.

So let’s take a look at Zimbabwean film industry to understand how it can benefit from the international industry trends and its growing domestic talent. (See From Zimbabwe to Australia: Stephen Chigorimbo on the International Public Television eventOn the winding roads of African film distribution)

Seth Lazar in his Harvard paper “Media for Development Trust Film in Post-colonial Zimbabwe” provides a riveting account of broader social factors that had influence on Zimbabwean film. Soon after achieving independence, the Zimbabwean government began to encourage Hollywood studios to film in the country; the hope was that the presence of the foreign production companies would give Zimbabweans experience in the industry and eventually encourage them to produce their own films. However, given the popularity of “safe” Hollywood blockbusters in the region, the market for locally produced, independent films was minimal.

Both commercial and governmental funding were ruled out for Zimbabwean filmmakers: the only viable sources of capital that remained were development funds, run by organisations such as the European Union, SIDA (Sweden), DFID (UK), USAID, NORAD (Norway) and the Media For Development Trust, which at one stage provided the infrastructure for most Zimbabwean filmmaking.

This money did not come without conditions – the hard-pressed aid organisations did not feel justified in subsidising an African entertainment industry – so justification for funding of local film productions was found in engineering movies that would address specific contemporary issues. Zimbabwe’s film icon Tsitsi Dangarembga once raised questions about the ‘gate-keeping’ role of donors, who favoured some directors over others, and some narratives over others. “Everyone’s Child is not the film I wanted to make. I didn’t want to make another AIDS film on Africa. I was not empowered to make the narrative that I wanted to make. There is no guarantee that NGO-directed film projects can find the authentic voice of the oppressed and disadvantaged groups. Some of them may, in fact, represent institutional self-interest at the expense of local development.” (See Zimbabwean women master film production in Bulawayo)

As Martin Mhando,  an Australia-based Southern African film scholar, has observed, “Sometimes one finds African films that have won awards in Europe being totally incomprehensible to African audiences for which they were initially supposedly intended!” Flame, a Zimbabwe-produced epic about the Liberation struggle, for example, played at 24 festivals, of which four were in Africa, one in Asia, and the rest in Europe and North America.

I talked to Stephen Chigorimbo, a prominent Zimbabwean producer and director with vast international experience, to get his perspective on the nation’s film industry trends and prospects.

On Film Stats in Zimbabwe

The film community in Zimbabwe is a very small one. Either it is documentary or feature filmmakers (producers and directors), at the end of the day, we are less than 50.

The Film Makers Guild of Zimbabwe  has a database of everybody. Nocks Chatiza, a lecturer at the Zimbabwe Film and Television School of Southern Africa, is their coordinator.

The National Arts Council of Zimbabwe has similar database. The Culture Fund of Zimbabwe is also somebody to go talk to if you are interested in finding out more.

On Afriwood

I am part of three companies. Afriwood is the latest one, it was formed a year ago with the aim of marketing African films. There are films that were made in Zimbabwe and have never been shown here, let alone outside of the country. It’s a new development, we are still breaking ground.

I am also related to a company Africa Sun Motion Pictures(launched 1986), with which I do my productions. Most of the documentaries that we have done were broadcast by either ZTV [a Zimbabwean public broadcaster] or SABC [ZTV’s South African peer], Danish television [stations] or BBC. (16 million eyes of ZBC viewers could add on several millions more)

If they put the money they own the rights. But now Afriwood has acquired the rights back so we will be able to distribute these productions in our own capacity. We plan to be selling them via the web site [to be launched soon]. We are also talking to the TV stations, we go to festivals where we meet other broadcasters. In one year’s time we hope to be working closely with all the video stores.

In April 2012, Afriwood partnered with the Kyiv-based Media Resources Management and will be  in Ukrainian capital in September as a seller at the 2012 Ukrainian Media Content Market.

On Piracy

See Copyright wars I: Consequences of illegal downloading for local media industries, international media investment and global cultural trade

See Copyright wars II: What “pirates” of Hollywood (read “American film-making pioneers”) share with Nollywood marketers

Piracy is a problem. Since there are no films being distributed through video stores. So when someone has a copy others say, “Let me make [another] copy.” You find that piracy of overseas productions is not a major problem because there is already a system in place to distribute the product in a legitimate way that gratifies the creative talent. But in Zimbabwe it’s very big because, sometimes, the only way you can get to watch a movie is by buying it from a person in the street.

It’s a whole industry that Zimbabwe is missing out on. We are trying to organize the market here and tackle the piracy culture. I know people in Harare who say they sell 10,000 copies a day [priced at 1 USD]. Meanwhile the guys who’d made the movie have not made 10,000 USD.

On Film Industry Trends in Africa

Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ghana are the largest film industries in Africa. South Africa is number six or seven. Maghreb countries have a long-standing experience in film industry.

But in Southern Africa, South Africa certainly has the best infrastructure. They have a [number of] film commissions with the money (ca. 10 million USD a year). So they have companies from overseas coming there to make productions. If you are making a film with a 10-million-rand budget, the Department of Trade and Industry will give you back 35%, their Industrial Development Bank can cover up to 50% of production [costs], a local TV station and a local film commission can put in up to 25%.

Still it is not as fast as in Nigeria. The Nigerians have a system in place to sell up to 500,000 copies of one movie on DVD.

Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa are exchanging a lot, but not so much other African countries. There are films made in DRC, Gabon, Cameroon, Algeria, Egypt. But we see less of those.

Part of what Afriwood is doing is to take those films that are in English and subtitle them into French for the Francophone Africa, into Arabic for the Arabic-speaking population of the continent. But it is hard to do without a solid support of the film commissions.

When I meet Chigorimbo on the first floor of the Production Services offices ( Zimbabwean film commission) on Mazowe Street in Harare (between the South African Embassy and the World Health Organization country office), he is discussing a new film production with Dr. Thomson Tsodzo, the newly appointed  head of the film-making centre.

Production Services of Zimbabwe on Mazowe Street in Harare (photo by Andy Kozlov, 2011)

Tsodzo runs a film column in The Patriot and invites young Zimbabweans to contribute. “There has to be a connection between the future and the past,” he suggests matter-of-factly. — “We want to be relevant to life, talk in our productions about the people that are living today’s life.” No wonder, the long-time educationalist with experience of American academia is a bit skeptical of Lobolathis film needs to be refined.  According to Tsodzo, although the lobola ritual has its flaws, its treatment in the film is rather simplistic.

Later into the day, strolling in Milton Park, I find myself in front of the “Media for Development Trust” sign. The house is serene and there is only an intern to greet me. Joan Musikavanhu, back on studies at the Midlands State University in Gweru as you read these lines, informs me that their most recent production out of the catalogue packed with HIV-themed films is from 2009.

They have a website but developed a habit of dealing with the customer by phone – a sign of evident underfunding. One can stop by and support them by purchasing DVDs of original African  film productions at 5 USD a copy. Tel +263 4 701323. Or give it a try: usher.chitumba@gmail.com

My picks include: a comedy Rue Princess from Ivory Coast, Put Yourself in Her Shoes talking about Sister Rose’s loss of patience with women she has treated for complications of unsafe abortions, and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Everyone’s Child with a 20-min support video and a workbook in English and Swahili.

Writing this article, I wanted to update with former CEO for ZTV, Susan Makore, currently Managing Director of Harare-based Mighty Movies. She  gave me an invaluable behind-the-scenes look at the recent Zimbabwean film successes.

On Lobola

We do multimedia productions: video, audio, film. We do a lot of documentaries, we co-produce several feature films, like Lobola. The scriptwriter and the producer approached us. We were just coming out of the hyperinflation (See Advertising trends in Southern Africa and beyond). The society was getting itself accustomed with the concept of dollarization. It was challenging to get the sponsors come on board. Pulling resources together, with a little bit of cash here, a lot of the technical support there and offices ( all the editing was done in Mighty Movies) – this is how we helped them.

Wilson Biswell, Zimbabwe country representative for Afriwood, in front of Meikles Hotel in central Harare. Biswell was a script supervisor of “The Gentleman.” (photo by Andy Kozlov, 2012)

Maybe from a business perspective, the film was not an absolute success. But from the aesthetic, creative point of view, it was a good experience for us. What was also gratifying about it was the fact that we were successful in putting together creative minds and resources. Our primary goal was supporting the industry and learning new techniques along the way.

When you look at the film you can see that a few things could have been done better. We could spend more time in post-production, the storyline could have been refined a bit. So probably we ran too fast, but, at the end of the day, the product was satisfactory and also became a springboard for developing other projects like, for instance, The Gentleman. [Lobola sold over 70,000 DVD copies in direct public sales two months after release. Both films are available from Afriwood.]

I think what the film industry has suffered from was having an individualistic look at things and this project has shown us that with a lot of cooperation you can come with a model that works.

On Local Talent

We know we have the talent in the country. What we have to do now is to focus on the quality, paying particular attention to detail especially in post-production. When you look across the Limpopo, in South Africa they are now refining their quality. Therefore, if you are going to compete on that level you then need to know that you have a quality script, that when it comes out of post-production it is something that is flawless. We need to take our audience seriously because now they are exposed to the latest films from Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood etc.

I think we need to tell more of our own stories. Not try and just mimic what we see done by others. What is it about our own history, our own life that people would love to see? Maybe then we will have to go back in time and be looking at the liberation struggle and tell these historical stories. They tend to sell in some countries. In the United States, if they make a film on the Civil War it will be a big hit.

On Film Industry Trends

I wouldn’t say there is some common understanding that there should be collaboration across the borders. But I think each production company is reaching out to partners on its own. It would be good to have some sort of collaborative framework. Probably that’s something that Stephen Chigorimbo and Afriwood can do. They are the ones that, in a way, are coordinating the film effort in Zimbabwe.

We are really looking forward to working with the Zambians. They have a new private station Movie TV. They have visited us looking for content. They are ready to commission production houses to produce content. Since culturally the differences are not that many, one can come up with the television content that will be embraced by the audience in Zambia. And once Zambia has paid for that product, we could give it to the public broadcaster to screen in Zimbabwe and charge them next to nothing.

What we are trying to say is that it is not a hobby, this is serious business. Still now when we go into the corporate world, people tend to look at us as if we were playing around. But for us it is serious business and we will actually be very serious in terms of making sure whatever we do, we do it professionally. In other countries entertainment is big business. It should be seen as a business because that’s what it is.

Coming out of recession, the film industry in Zimbabwe is showing positive signs of recovery. The new generation of producers, directors and distributors finds itself in a position where they no longer have to comply with the donor-inspired storyline and they are free to look for fresh underdeveloped narratives. Such people as Stephen Chigorimbo get their act together so efficiently that they manage to acquire back the rights for their productions that had been funded by overseas broadcasters. Such companies as Mighty Movies learn from their own mistakes and, by doing so, move the stamdards up in Zimbabwe to catch up with the rest of the world. What Zimbabwean film industry really needs now, as admitted by those same people developing this creative sector, is more partnerships that work and consistent government support in the form of film commission subsidies.

Write to Oscar Chung to learn more about the Taiwan’s creative economy success on oscar@mail.gio.gov.tw

Andy Kozlov can be reached on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

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