No fest in the isle as ZIFF takes a time out in 2020

Tuesday September 8 2020


By Salome Gregory

Film has always been an endearing form of creative expression beguiling the interest of the mass population since time immemorial. In Tanzania, the film industry has seen its ups and downs, but through the thick and thin there’s always been a moment of respite where fans get to have an interactive, fun and immersive experience with some of the very best talents in the industry.

Such celebrated events include the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF). ZIFF has been an emblem of excellence in Tanzanian and African film. Staged in Zanzibar, the festival has always brought the crème de la crème of the film industry to a common ground where nothing but motion pictures pervade the space.

To better enjoy the experience of movie showcasing and live entertainment from different artistes, the month of July has always been the ideal time of the year to bring together these diverse talents in front of a live audience.

However, this year presents a different picture, unlike yesteryears where things seemed to go according to plan, 2020 has brought a whole different ball game.

The beat has it on good authority that the 2020 edition of the film festival will not be taking place. This marks a rare hiccup to the annual festival which has been in existence for more than 20 years.

Reason for the cancellation of the festival is largely due to the insistent coronavirus pandemic which continues to have its way around the world and destroying everything in its wake – the ZIFF here in Tanzania wasn’t spared either.


But apart from entertaining revelers, ZIFF also brought with it plenty of opportunities to the tourism industry and other local businesses. Many short-term jobs are creating all throughout the festival duration and locals are able to make money by engaging in different businesses such as selling African artifacts and local Zanzibari cuisines.

The 2019 edition of ZIFF themed ‘The New Dawn’ ushered in a new beginning to what was expected to be a better and more exciting film festival. Alas, the following act didn’t get to see the light of day.

If last year’s edition is anything to go by, then the 2020 spectacle was going to be one for the books. The 2019 edition stayed true to the meaning of a ‘movie festival’. The organisers from South Africa decided to forgo the live music performances and decided to strictly make it all about film. The festival was rich in content and splendor, much to the merriment of the audience.

According to the festival’s head of marketing Isiahak Mlawa, what keeps the wheels of ZIFF rolling are the funds from donors and sponsors – with a big chunk of them being from foreign countries. This made the likelihood of ZIFF taking place to whither due to the fact that unlike the calm situation here in Tanzania concerning Covid-19 and its effects, other foreign countries haven’t fared so well, thus affecting their ability to fund the festival.

“What made this whole situation hard to navigate is the fact that we are supposed to submit budget proposals for the festival at least nine months in advance. When you do the math, this is roughly around the same time corona leered its head in some foreign countries, prompting partial lockdown. This made it impossible to even think about staging the festival under such circumstances,” says Mlawa.

“The expert advice calling for people to observe social distancing and avoid large gatherings meant we couldn’t go ahead with the festival,” he adds.

There cannot be a film festival without films to showcase. This is another shortcoming experienced by ZIFF organisers. They say that submissions of films to feature at the festival were dismal due to fears of the pandemic.

Perhaps had ZIFF been a strictly local showcasing maybe there would’ve been a slither of hope that this year’s edition might still go on. However, ZIFF attracts a mostly a global audience with revelers coming from as far afield as Europe, Asia and America – some of the most affected areas by Covid-19. Put in numbers, around 200 locals and 5,000 foreign tourists grace the grounds in Zanzibar during the festival.

A businessman at the popular Forodhani Gardens Ramadhan Abdallah, always looks forward to ZIFF due to the boom in business during such times. As a food vendor, he sells an assortment of dishes to tourists who like local delicacies.

“I always make Sh300,000 in profit per day during ZIFF. Multiply that by 9 [duration of ZIFF] we’re talking of a substantial amount and a lot of work put it,” says Abdallah.

Fareed Kubanda, famously known by his stage name Fid Q never misses a chance to be a part of the festival. Even though he is a hip hop artiste, the element of music at the film fest has always brought him closer to ZIFF and made him feel at home.

He’s understandably disappointed with the cancellation of the 2020 edition but finds delight in cherishing moments from past ZIFF experiences.

Film editor from Kenya Roselida Taabu, got an opportunity to premiere her film Subira at the 2019 edition of ZIFF and managed to bag two awards.

She views this year’s ZIFF misfortune as a chance for the fest to come back even stronger in 2021. She says Kenya experienced a total lockdown, meaning most activities were at a standstill.

Zanzibari filmmaker Mohammed Salumu echoes similar sentiments of dejection. This year he was set to submit three films for showcasing.

He was well prepared to uplift Tanzanian representation at the festival considering that each year local films are overshadowed by films from Kenya and other countries.

But just like Taabu, he’s now preparing for a more prominent showcasing in the next edition of ZIFF.

With big names such as Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Sipho Mabuse all being lured to Zanzibar to be a part of ZIFF, the global appeal of this Tanzanian film fest has continued to grow over the years. Perhaps this latest Covid-19 setback is a chance for the fest to come back even stronger next year.