Rumbi Katedza, actively involved in Zimbabwean cinema culture, talks about her evolution into the moving image, the role that she would like to play in forging a modern Zimbabwean cultural identity, and her new film Playing Warriors.
Rumbi, while you are Zimbabwean you are also a world citizen having lived in many locations around the globe. You are also involved in many aspects of cinema and the audiovisual. Please talk about yourself and how you came to cinema.
I always knew I wanted to work in cinema, but I didn’t quite know which road I would take to get there. When I was a young girl living in Japan, I joined a video club, and during the long summer holidays I would spend hours upon hours consuming different films. To me it was amazing how people I did not know could create a reality out of an idea and get an emotional reaction from me. I found that very powerful, and I wanted to be able to do the same one day. I did some work in theatre in high school and university until I decided to return to Zimbabwe after my first degree to immerse myself in the Zim film industry. I started off working in production management, then moved to distribution and festival management, until I finally settled on writing and directing, where my true passion lies. It was a journey that allowed me to witness and appreciate the changes in our industry and to appreciate the struggles of others. I now produce independent documentary and narrative content through my company Mai Jai Films.
I recall in your discussion about your first film Asylum (2007) at the Women in the Sun Film Festival in Johannesburg in 2010, that you wanted to delve into the psychological effects on African women who experience the trauma of displacement. What inspired you to make the film, what were your experiences in the process, and what has been the reception of the film, especially by the women whose experiences you draw from?
When I made Asylum I was a doing my Masters in London and I saw a news piece on refugees in the UK. What struck me about the stories was how so many of the people still experienced fear every day of their lives because they were still haunted by the experiences they went through. Unfortunately, no one seemed to be helping them psychologically. The assumption was, if you are in a ‘safe’ country, then all is fine, but to be honest, you are never safe from the prison that your mind can create for you. Making the film with no dialogue was a very deliberate choice, because I felt no words had to be said to convey the war that continued to be waged in the character’s mind every day. I spent time with Sudanese refugees in London who were very generous with their stories, and they appreciated the film once it was made. The film has travelled to scores of festivals now and won a couple of awards, and wherever it goes, it resonates with audiences. The character in the film could be from anywhere because her experience is a universal one.
Your 13-part TV series The Team explores a completely different theme—boys and sports. What has been the reception?
The Team is a multi-nation project, which has also been produced in countries like Kenya, Ivory Coast, Nepal, Morocco amongst others. We were fortunate enough to produce a Zimbabwean version that was a big hit on our local TV channel. With the series we wanted to tackle issues of conflict in our communities and challenge people to be more responsible for the issues that arise. The series merges the global appeal of football with drama to help transform social attitudes and diminish violent behaviour in a country with deeply rooted conflict.
Your very brave documentary, The Axe and the Tree, was produced under difficult circumstances, and for security reasons has not yet been screened in Zimbabwe. The title is an interesting one, what was your experience with the film, your process, audience reactions? Would you like the film to be a vehicle for discussion among Zimbabweans? And for the larger public?
I was approached by producer David Jammy to direct a film about how a community that has experienced conflict and violence is dealing with the repercussions, and how or if they are able to move on. The producers and I decided to work with a group that was already working on a community-healing project, and through my research, I learned a lot about the terrible things that had happened to every day people during the 2008 Zimbabwean harmonised elections. It was an eye-opener, a kind of education in fear, and how fear can paralyze people and make it impossible to live their lives to their full potential.It obviously was not an easy film to make because there were certain people who did not want the story to be told, but I was completely humbled by the bravery of the people who agreed to be in the film. They shared very painful stories of torture and rape. It was because of them that I finished the film and believed that it had to get maximum exposure. Eventually, I would like a wider Zimbabwean audience to watch the film and discuss its content because what happened in 2008 should never happen again.
The subject matter is of course controversial. Have you personally had repercussions as a result of making the film?
I have not had any repercussions as a result of making the film, but the people in the film still live in volatile communities, where the circumstances that created violence in the first place still exist.
You were festival director of the Zimbabwe International Film Festival from 2004 to 2006, what were some of your achievements during your tenure?
I left the Zimbabwe International Film Festival at the end of 2006, at a time when the festival was focusing a great deal on its outreach programmes. The Trust focused on visual literacy and audience development programmes that allowed the festival audience to grow. This was very close to my heart because we were going out and developing new audiences through our work. This was necessary not only for the festival, but for the growth of the Zimbabwean film industry. The festival truly started to become a national brand while I was there, with the event getting unprecedented corporate support at that time. Unfortunately, with the challenging economic times that Zimbabwe experienced from 2007, cultural organisations took a big hit in funding, and the repercussions are still being felt today.
You also worked at the Media for Development Trust. What are the objectives of the organization and what role did you play.
I worked as the Distribution Manager for Media for Development Trust, and I was responsible for sales for a catalogue of over 200 short films, documentaries and features, predominantly from Africa. At the time, Media for Development Trust was the leading film production house in Zimbabwe, producing such critically acclaimed films as Neria, More Time, Everyone’s Child and Yellow Card, so the distribution wing supported the production work, by expanding our ties with broadcasters and with NGOs, so that grassroots distribution programmes could be set up to disseminate the films.
Postcards from Zimbabwe is a community-focused audio-visual and life-skills training project for Zimbabwean teens. How did it come about and what are some of the projects that have resulted from this initiative?
Postcards is an outreach programme for Zimbabwean youth that uses video as a tool to deal with trauma. The children we select for the programme come from various parts of the country, and we actively seek to have them reach their full potential and discover their voice through the screen.I founded the programme when I noticed that our children in Zimbabwe knew far more about people in the Americas and Europe than they did about people on the other side of their own country. The media was saturated with foreign children’s content. I wanted the children to interact with each other, learn about each others lives and cultures and tell stories that they could share with their communities, and more importantly, with each other. To date, six short films have been produced.The programme is funding-dependent, so we run it when we can, but we find that it is effective in instilling confidence and hope in our participants, because the last thing you want the children of a nation to lose is hope.
Earlier you mentioned your company Mai Jai Films, what is its mission and what has been some of its accomplishments?
Mai Jai Films is a production company focused on pioneering a new generation of Zimbabwean films through smart partnerships and co-productions. Some of our accomplishments in its few years of operation include producing a documentary with National AIDS Council and STEPS International called “Tariro”, the TV series “The Team”, that I talked about earlier, which we produced together with Search for Common Ground, and of course, our feature film “Playing Warriors” which we produced with Pangolin Films.
You are very involved in the myriad aspects of cinema culture in Zimbabwe, some reflections on the future of Zimbabwean cinema?
In recent years, many cinemas in Zimbabwe have closed down and converted into businesses and churches. This is a sign of the times for us. Unfortunately, our filmmakers do not own the means to dissemination and distribution. What I see happening now is a kind of renaissance in dissemination methods, as we become more of a video society. We are making films for the DVD market, and local audiences are buying content more and more from flea markets.This has brought a lot of new players in the industry who are producing low-budget films with Zimbabwean stories, and we are starting to recognise local actors and stars. This is just the beginning of something that has the potential to grow much bigger. In time, as the quality improves and the quantity of our films increases, the industry will grow.Plus, a large part of the major producers and directors in Zimbabwe are women, so I’m also looking forward to the body of work they produce to tell the Zimbabwean story.
Your new film Playing Warriors is yet another theme, very different from your other films. Do you intentionally want to present an eclectic body of work? What would you like your audience to bring from the film?
Playing Warriors is a film that took about 8 years to make for various reasons. Fundraising was difficult and finding the right time to shoot was always a challenge, but we made it. We didn’t want to make another ‘message film’, we just wanted to tell a uniquely Zimbabwean story that entertained audiences, and we feel we have achieved that. Zimbabwean audiences have responded very positively to the film.
During the International Images Film Festival for Women in Harare in November 2011, I viewed the film Playing Warriors, after which we had a long discussion about your intentions, audience reception, outside influences on Zimbabwean identity. Let’s pick up that conversation…
Set in modern day Harare, Playing Warriors is a sexy social comedy that features four ambitious young women and the challenges they face in balancing the expectations of tradition and social norms with being modern, independent women in present day Zimbabwe.This is a film I have wanted to make for a long time. I was able to make other short films, TV series and documentaries in between, but this feature was always close to my heart, because it told a story that related so closely to the people in my life.I like that the story resonates with so many women who finally feel their story is being told. I also like that it gets audiences talking, wherever they are from. Tradition vs. modern, urban vs. rural, older vs. younger etc. Our lives are full of conflicts and contradictions, and this is what I show in the film, and I encourage audiences to allow themselves to laugh at those realities, reflect on them and challenge them.I find myself doing eclectic work, because there are so many untold stories in Zimbabwe, and I find myself always striving to do something new. Who knows what the next project will be? But ultimately, I want to tell human stories, about real people. I want to show the many faces of Zimbabwe today.
Playing Warriors is a film that explored the conflict that exists between notions of tradition and modern lifestyles and how a group of women friends navigate that. Though it is set in Zimbabwe, it is a universal story. We recently screened the film at the Goteborg International Film Festival in Sweden and the audiences truly identified with the situation of the women in the film.
The representation of tradition as it confronts a modern Zimbabwe is done in a playful way, especially the lobola practice…
Bride price and the traditional lobola ceremony is still widely practiced today across socio-economic lines. What we challenge in the film, is how many families are disrespecting the tradition by making it more of a financial transaction, and a means to earn money. Historically, lobola was more of a token of appreciation that was given to bring two families together, but today, with monetary transactions, it feels like daughters are being sold off, and this does not make for a good start to any marriage.
And thus the light-hearted, playful approach is driven by your assertion that: “our lives are difficult enough, we want some entertainment.”
In the past, the Zimbabwean film industry was more of a service industry in which foreign companies would come in to make their films and then leave. We had a highly skilled crew-base in the 80s and 90s, but this has changed over the years, with Zimbabwe losing business to South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, etc. Local films were predominantly donor-funded and focused on a specific issue. They were primarily made to educate. Fortunately, a new generation of filmmakers is emerging and they are making more entertainment films for local audiences. Our audiences are tired of being preached to. Like any other audience, we want films that tell stories we can relate to, stories that represent us, with actors we can recognise. And we want diversity in stories. Africa is not homogenous and even within Zimbabwe, we have diverse communities and economic classes. You can’t tell one story and say that that is ‘the’ Zimbabwean story.
During our discussion Jacki Cahi the co-producer emphasised the importance of framing the film within the context of a society in transition.
The film most definitely does show a society in transition. There is conflict between generations as we question what it truly means to be Zimbabwean, and we want to build our identity and, ultimately, celebrate our differences. The urban/rural divide is getting bigger with increased access to information and technology and Zimbabwean women, particularly in the urban areas, are part of the ever-changing world. They want to be a part of the change in their lives and their country without feeling that they need a man’s affirmation or validation.
Also during our discussion I mentioned the emergence of a “sex and the city” genre in African women’s filmmaking and you agreed that this genre was indeed a sign of the times where women get together and talk about themselves and relationships, and that Playing Warriors is a story where women talk about their own bodies rather than being talked about.
It’s a story about the women in my life. They represent the emerging middle class. They are women who are comfortable amongst themselves, but still struggle against societal prejudices every day.
Interview with Rumbi Katedza by Beti Ellerson, February 2012