For a festival that has always attracted the crème de la crème of the movie industry from Tanzania and beyond, Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) 2019 left an impression of ambivalence among attendees.
The buoyant displays of live music that ceremoniously accompanied the main film event, providing an atmosphere of cheeriness, were not part of the package of the 22nd edition of the film festival – something which made it seem like something was amiss, according to some revelers who attended the festival.
But that wasn’t the only new experience, the latest edition of ZIFF, that concluded this past Sunday on 14 July, was the first festival under the leadership of a new management team formed by South African film duo Faith Isiakpere as the new CEO, and Firdoze Bulbulia – the Festival Director.
Fittingly, ‘The New Dawn’ was the theme given to this year’s event that lasted for 9 days at the Old Fort in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
Those who’ve attended past events must have expected something familiar. However, this latest edition provided an experience that they were not accustomed to.
The Old Fort, which normally transforms into a busy arena during the festive session, didn’t seem so busy this time around.
A quick glance around and all that embraced the spacious arena walls were a few posters of the festival, and those of the festival sponsors. At a time like this during past events, the atmosphere at the Old Fort would be busy with different businesses being carried out on ground. Sound check by artistes awaiting to perform were a common occurrence – each night of the festival was always lively.
Speaking to some of the people who’d journeyed to the festival, views shared were diverse and reflected the sentiments regarding this year’s edition of ZIFF.
Mwasha Ismail, a filmmaker based in Zanzibar, says event formalities such as having access to different workshops, which were previously offered to people in the industry were not available this year.
Nonetheless, he expressed delight for the rich film content at this year’s ZIFF. Save for the lack of an upbeat crowd due to lack of music, Ismail regards this year’s festival to be the best in terms of content scheduling and event planning.
“Over the years, entertainment activities such as music were part of the festival simply to add a bit of colour to the event soon after film screenings were done. This helped to attract more people to the Old Fort knowing that entertainment will be on plentiful supply,” he says.
Networking, food and drink vendors, were some of the activities that were part of the movie celebrations thanks in part to the entertainment factor. Tourists would always use such moments to buy souvenirs.
Entertainment diversity was in short supply as the sole focus was on film – a contrast from past events where people from different backgrounds, interests and personalities all came together to celebrate at the Old Fort.
Commenting on why the festival had no music performances, festival director Bulbulia, says this is a film festival and it should be judged as such. “Music is not the key to a film festival. ZIFF ensured that films were watched in Zan cinema and not a hotel room for 2-4 expats. In addition, the festival brought performers such as Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Sipho Mabuse – the most notable African stars,” she said, adding, “I attended last year’s festival, the music was basically DJ’s with a very small crowd. Yvonne is the Princess of Africa, she has never performed in Zanzibar let alone at a film festival.”
Another positive take from the festival, according to Bulbulia, is the fact that every staff member and service provider was paid. “According to Zanzibar’s Minister of Information, Tourism, Culture and Sports, Mahmoud Kombo, this is the first time in his 7-year history at ZIFF that this has happened,” says Bulbulia.
Upcoming filmmaker Amin Salehe cast light on a different issue. He questioned ZIFF’s decision to hire foreigners to head the iconic Tanzanian festival. “Does this mean there are no locals who are capable of running the festival?” he queried.
Over the years it was established that the festival runs on a very tight budget year-on-year. Even this year, ZIFF Chairman announced on stage that were it not for the financial backing they received from Bakhresa Group of Companies, who came on board as the main sponsors, the festival wouldn’t have taken place.
Financial woes aside, Salehe took notice of the diminished role played by filmmakers in the preliminary stages of the festival plans. “In the past, all screened films saw the coming together of filmmakers at the press conferences where they got an opportunity to discuss the techniques, challenges, strengths and weaknesses of a specific screened film,” he says.
“At this year’s festival, 3000 Zanzibari children benefited from media literacy. Students were given a chance to attended masterclasses and workshops daily, where they were able to enhance skills in writing, directing, cinematography and digital editing,” says Firdoze Bulbulia, the Festival Director.
Furthermore, the workshops for school students included animation, acting and a media lab with a green screen and virtual reality experience.
Commenting on the winning films, the director says, for the 22nd edition of ZIFF over 60 films from across Africa and the Dhow countries were showcased. The films were screened in the open-air amphitheater of the Old Fort, in Zan Cinema and at the Beach House.
Among the winning films were Fatwa, a 2018 movie directed by Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud, Tunisia, which won a Golden Dhow. The Silver Dhow went to The Skier – 2018, directed by Fereydoun Najafi from Iran, and Bronze Dhow was won by Subira, directed by Sippy Chadha, Kenya 2018.
Special mention went to Expelling, directed by Chinese Geng Changqing and Indigo, directed by Selma Bargach from Morocco.