The purpose of the African Women in Cinema Blog is to provide a space to discuss diverse topics relating to African women in cinema--filmmakers, actors, producers, and all film professionals. The blog is a public forum of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema.

Le Blog sur les femmes africaines dans le cinéma est un espace pour l'échange d'informations concernant les réalisatrices, comédiennes, productrices, critiques et toutes professionnelles dans ce domaine. Ceci sert de forum public du Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinémas.

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Director/Directrice, Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema | Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinéma

24 August 2019

Joyce Jenje-Makwenda - Women in Film and Television in Zimbabwe: Modern Storytellers

Joyce Jenje-Makwenda - Women in Film and Television in Zimbabwe: Modern Storytellers

Joyce Jenje-Makwenda talks about her evolution as an oral-visual storyteller and how it has prepared her for the research on her forthcoming book, Women in Film and Television in Zimbabwe: Modern Storytellers.

Interview with Joyce Jenje-Makwenda by Beti Ellerson (June 2019)

Joyce, please tell us a bit about yourself.

Actually, flashback 50 years ago I would have said, “I want to be an actor and singer when I grow up.” That is what I wanted to be despite growing up in the township, where black people lived because of race relations in Zimbabwe, which divided people according to race/colour. I really don’t know how I imagined I could be an actor and a singer growing up in a place where there were no opportunities, since basic things, like education, were a struggle. But I wanted to be an actor, I guess as they say, artists are chosen, so I was chosen to do what I am doing when I came into this world! However I had to travel a certain path, which sort of took me away from what I can call active cinema for a while. Maybe to explain this let me chronicle the road I have travelled to where I am regarding cinema.

In the late 70’s I was a member of a theatre group in Mbare and we made the production, “Poor Chaminuka”, about the Prophet Chaminuka who had prophesied that the country Zimbabwe would be invaded by the white people. Since it was produced at the height of the war in 1979, we considered adapting it as a film but did not have the resources. Independence came the next year and while I was celebrating independence I became a fulltime mother, but the germ kept biting. In 1984 when I was expecting my fourth child I decided to do research on our early popular music, at first it was seen as ‘what pregnant women do, they do crazy things.’ When I gave birth I continued and then people saw that I was serious. What I wanted to do, quite simply, was to document the history of our popular music, which originated in the townships.

My paternal grandparents, who were among the early urban settlers, came into the city in 1931 and witnessed how the music unfolded. My father used to tell me about his music, comparing it to the music of my generation: rock, pop and soul. He was really worried when he heard me listening to rock, which was seen as radical music; rock culture was viewed as changing the status quo: everything from education, fashion, religion. I think he tried to neutralise my music with his own, which was also influenced by jazz music. I remember him talking about how they would sit and listen to “good music” and how they would dress properly for the occasion; here he was comparing my rock style dressing with his. Jazz was/is seen as music for the sophisticates and to him my rock culture dressing was to be corrected. Township jazz was associated mostly with the middle class and, by township standards my parents and grandparents were in that category. To them, rock culture was misplaced. One day as I was going to a bioscope (movie theatre), dressed in hippy fashion—in a top which left my stomach bare, in a mini-skirt in which I could hardly bend, platform shoes, an afro—my father asked me whether I had finished dressing, and it was then that he would compare their time and ours: the teenagers of the 70’s rock era. 

However my parents did encouraged me to sing, especially when they heard my renditions of Diana Ross, who became my idol; and was also one of the few African American women actors in the 70’s. I also liked her as an actor and imagined that I could act just like her—and be both a singer and actor.

Anyway, returning to my conversations with my father in the 70’s, every time that I was going somewhere and I wanted to ask for money, I would say to him, ‘tell me about your music’ and he would say, ‘you want some money, here is the money,’ Sometimes he would tell me about his music, sometimes he would do so with his brother, and other times with my mother. I didn’t realise that all these stories were being stored in my mind, and that I would later offload the file. It is the conversations that I had with my father that made me want to understand the history of our popular music. I did not know that the research that I had started was going to be a lifetime project and it was through music that I came to understand the world. It was through music that I became the first female independent film/television documentary producer.

In fact, your experiences are indicative of many African women cultural producers, who wear many hats, who are themselves artists, who draw from their own artistic experiences to disseminate this cultural knowledge and validate it through archiving and documenting, notably using the medium of film. What drove you to continue what has become a lifetime project?

When I started the research on township music I was a homemaker who was into fashion designing, doing very well with my dress designing business. When the calling to conduct research into township music grew strong I had to stop dress design. Embarking on the research on township music needed some money, so I resorted to making some samosas in order to fund my research. Then institutions and individuals got interested in what I was doing and invited me to talk about my research, though I regarded it at the time as a hobby. I would tell them that collection of my township music was just a hobby, but they would say that I was the only person doing this research and it would be good to talk about it.

I was invited to universities, conferences, embassies, cultural spaces, but my big first break came when I was invited in Sweden at the Audio Visual Archives. By then I had collected music from the 1930's and films from the 1940's, my presentation garnered a great deal of attention and the conference organisers asked me who was funding my research. When I replied that I made samosas to fund it, they looked at each other in disbelief, replying ‘you don’t fund such a project with samosas!’ They then advised me to go to the Nordic embassies of Sweden, Finland and Norway; the latter in fact, provided me the funding to complete my research.

After completing the research they asked me what I wanted to do with the findings. I said that I wanted to write a book and then make a documentary; they suggested that I start with a documentary because of the films, music and interviews that had already been collected. I told them that because I had never made a film, I would first need to know the process. They had already read my newspaper articles, and suggested that these documents could actually serve as the script. The women at the Norwegian Embassy were especially supportive, accompanying me to outlets where I could hire equipment. With the support of the Norwegian embassy, the film, journalism community in Zimbabwe and my family I became the producer/director of the documentary, Zimbabwe Township Music, which launched me into my role as filmmaker. The documentary got very good reviews and yet it was my very first time to produce and direct a documentary.

Well this is common among many women who use filmmaking as a means to document their stories, many having never made a film before, nor had training in filmmaking. How did your foray into film production evolve? 

In fact, I was not familiar with the lexicon of film terms; I have always said that I simply used my kitchen language. I would say to the cameraperson I want that person to be big, or small, or make them move whichever way I wanted. I did not know the terms: wide shot, medium shot, high angle, all this jargon, I did not have it, I was lucky that the cameraperson I worked with was very accommodating. However some camerapersons that I worked with later, would ask, ‘what is this women saying?’ and I would tell them that if you do not understand what this woman is saying then please leave. This made me realise why women have not always felt comfortable in the role of film producer and director, it is because of this jargon, and yet women are the greatest storytellers. I said to myself, ‘this jargon will not stop me from telling my story.’ I came to understand why many women were apprehensive regarding modern ways of storytelling because of this kind of intimidation, which I could not tolerate, because I wanted to tell my story just like how my grandmother told stories; technology and rude technical people were not going to deter me.

My documentaries have won awards, starting with the Zimbabwe Township Music Award. The day it was aired on Zimbabwe Television, on 26 December 1992, people called asking to speak to me, people left letters and some left money in my letterbox to congratulate me. I got very good reviews from the media. I became a producer, director, among other positions, over night, and because of its success, I was invited to talk at a variety of institutions. Today I have produced a number of documentaries and I am in the process of editing about 30 documentaries that I have been filming for some time. 

The “Joyce Jenje Archives” is an important contribution to the cultural production of Zimbabwe, especially as it demonstrates the ability to create structures to access information and knowledge. How did this initiative come about? What are its goals and objectives?

The project was concretised when I had amassed and collected a lot of interviews and artefacts over the past 35 years. As I stated before, when I was going about carrying out interviews I did not know that I was creating an archive. The work needed to be housed in its own space and not in my house as it had grown to be an institution and it needed its own place; that is when the idea of an archive came into place. I decided to have this in my two-bedroom cottage, which is now a three-room space as I have added another room. The archive consists of interviews in audio and video, there are photos of some of the interviewees, and their stories go as far back as the 1930’s. The research is on music, politics, women’s histories, sex and sexuality and more. Some of the artefacts that I have collected are typewriters from the 1930’s to 2000, LP’s--about 7,000, radios and gramophone, black and white televisions, I have also donated my very first car to the archives/museum. There is also a room dedicated to the Mattaka Family and Township Jazz, the Mattaka Family deposited instruments dating as far back as the 1930’s – guitars, typewriters, and more. The archives/museum has given an opportunity for people from all walks of life to understand where they have come from.

You have stated: “Film is one of the arts disciplines that women use as a way of communicating their artistic expressions and also as a tool for change.” What are your observations, especially as it relates to Zimbabwe.

Women were the custodians of our culture in Pasichigare/Endulo, the precolonial era; they educated, informed and entertained children, the family and the community through storytelling. Presently, one of the modern ways of storytelling is through film, and women are using it as a tool for change and also to chart their own path. I alluded to this above when describing my own journey. Film just like any of the arts disciplines it is a tool used by women to express themselves; film is the mother of arts disciplines because everything is found in film: music, acting, fashion, you name it, film becomes the best vehicle for women to express themselves. In Pasichigare/Endulo women would also mix the story with a song, as a way to celebrate, to express their pain and concerns, and as a means to find a solution.

Traditionally, women were in a powerful position in society, they had their space, which allowed them to do this and issues affecting them would be discussed. Today women have managed to express this through film, as they deal with contemporary cultural, social and political issues. In addition to working in acting roles, women are now producers and directors; they own the means of production and call the shots rather than being told what to do. Holding positions of influence in film has made it possible for women to do what women in Pasichigare/Endulo used to do, women today have created their own spaces and this has given them a stronger voice.

You are currently completing a book on the subject of Zimbabwean women in cinema, Women in Film and Television in Zimbabwe: Modern Storytellers. Could you talk a bit about the contents?

My book shares women’s stories, women talking about their experience in film. I have interviewed about 60 women dating from the 1950’s to the present. 

The book is organised into eight chapters. In Chapter 1, the introduction, I explain film and the context that Zimbabwean women practice it, and looking at different eras since the 1950s, how they have evolved in film. Chapter 2 explores pre-colonial and modern day storytelling. Chapter 3 examines the transition from film to television. Chapter 4 focuses on independent producers. Chapter 5 presents biographies of women in film and television, outlined chronologically, 60 women are featured. The focus on Chapter 6 is film education. Chapter 7 is devoted to fundraising and Chapter 8 on women’s film organisations.

I have observed a very active and powerful oral-visual grassroots movement among women in Zimbabwe. Would you agree with my assessment? I say this in the sense that while there is not an international media focus on the oral-visual culture of Zimbabwe, it is active, present and very much alive.

In Zimbabwe almost every person is an artist and as I have already mentioned, women are custodians of our society and hence as cultural producers they are problem solvers. They work on solutions for themselves and for their communities. 

Some reflections on the role you play as cultural producer…

Because I am interested in culture, my role as cultural producer is to record, preserve and disseminate our culture in a dynamic way using all forms of documentation and storytelling. Having worn many hats in the media and in the arts definitely makes my role as cultural producer especially meaningful. 

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