Story behind the filming of Amil Shivji’s ‘Vuta N’kuvute’


What you need to know:

  • ‘Vuta N’kuvute’  producer opens up on what inspired him to film the iconic tale of colonial-ERA zanzibar 

It’s not often that a novel embarked in the high school curriculum is reincarnated into a film! This is the reason why many people were excited when Kijiweni Film Production announced making a film based on ‘Vuta N’kuvute’ (Tug of War), a novel by Shafi Adam Shafi.

They became even more curious when it became the first Tanzanian film to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Never did the film’s producer Amil Shijvi think that a writer’s block would lead him to lay his hands on Shafi Adam Shafi’s work of art after one of his friends advised him to seek inspiration from local writers when he was working on a script on his previous film, ‘T- Junction.’

“Writing a script for T- Junction led me to talented treasures, the likes of Adam Shafi - and, when I reread his novel, it inspired me to complete my script. But, it also gave me a new mission: to see his novel become a film,” says Amil.

Amil says that this new mission also related to the fact that, despite the ever-growing number of Swahili films, Tanzanian stories are not told on screen as much as they should be - and, that, there is a significant gap between what’s being made and the portrayal of actual realities in the film industry.

“I then took a leap of faith and optioned the novel in 2016 from the publishers over a period of two months, I would weekly meet Zaka Henry, fellow writer, to deconstruct the novel, chapter by chapter, so that we could find the soul of the story. We had discussions over tea about the characters we liked, did not like; subplots, and so on. This allowed me to draw up a basic blueprint of what the script should look like,” he recalls.

According to him, he chose Vuta N’Kuvute out of several other novels because it appeared to him as someone who traces their heritage to Zanzibar and has love for the culture of the coast. Amil explains that Shafi’s writing is undeniably very descriptive.

“When I started rereading his novel, I was transported to the time Shafi wrote it - and, somehow it all felt so real in life. The period covered in the novel was such an exciting time for the story to be told. In addition, I could not think of a better way to reflect and make a comment on our present without digging into our past,” Amal says.

“Zanzibar has always been a contentious space with discourse around it normally degenerating into racial bickering. When one studies the history and speaks to elders, one realizes how complex, layered and nuanced Zanzibar’s source of conflict spans generations of oppression and resistance. These were the kind of stories I wanted to see on screen.”

After T- Junction in 2017, Amil decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Film Production at York University - and later created a concept proof for Vuta N’Kuvute, making a short film that he used to pitch to producers and investors in order to raise funds for the feature film.

“I had already picked the chapter I wanted to adapt: chapter four , where the two main characters meet. After completing my coursework in Toronto, I moved to Zanzibar to begin research and pre-production. At the Zanzibar International Film Festival in 2018, I had a catch-up coffee with Steven Markovitz, a prominent producer who had read the short script I had written and was keen on collaborating. We then decided that I should get away from shooting a short film and focus on writing the feature-length script and shoot the full film. This improved things,” he told The Beat.

In exactly five week’ time, Amil wrote the script as he explored Zanzibar during the 1950s from past interviews about the Island, walking throughout the island durin day and night time, as well as participating in cultural Taarab groups that performed on a weekly basis opposite his apartment.

“By the end of 2018, we had a script that we began to pitch across the world at different festivals, and at various events to raise sufficient finances needed to make such an ambitious film. While I lived in Zanzibar, I saw my script move away from the source material and, instead, represent my contemporary experiences through Shafi’s characters,” he recalls.

After spending a-year-and-a-half developing and writing while in Zanzibar, Amil was privileged to blend in with the Zanzibar community whilst winning their confidence at the same time. With time, the people and government of Zanzibar, alongside many other institutions, extended a supporting hand in terms of provision of resources whenever they were needed.

“Despite the communal support in the areas of production and participation, there were several challenges we faced during the production of this film. These included - but were not limited to - financial struggles and lack of industrial infrastructure that could fully support a production like this.

There were many times we had to compromise. This was really gut-wrenching for me as the director - especially whenever I was forced into a corner to change the vision in order to stay within the limited resources,” he confesses.

The film has recently had its world premiere at the 46th TIFF: the first time ever for a Tanzanian feature film to do so. ‘Vuta N’Kuvute’ is also set to have an African premiere at the Fespaco, a festival that takes place in Burkina Faso yo promote African filmmakers.

“We will then bring it home in Tanzania - and it will be more than a screening but, rather, an event that will forever signify a shift in the direction of Tanzanian cinema as it will speak to every person who will watch it due to how relatable it is,” Amil explains.

He also says that, one of the many memorable moments during the production of this historic piece was when Adam Shafi was invited to the set to have a small cameo on the film.

“My crew of about 100 people wanted to get a glimpse of the man responsible for penning this stunning story. In that instant, it gave me hope for the life of literature and arts.

“It wasn’t about a cool movie anymore, it was now about our culture and heritage and figuring out who had dedicated their life to documenting Zanzibar’s poetic resilience and existence. We were all in awe, including crew members from Kenya, South Africa and France,” he recalls.

For his part, Gudrun Mwanyika - who plays ‘Denge’ in the film, one of the main film characters - says Vuta N’Kuvute will rewrite history in the film industry, as it was a connection of creative minds that are eager to see development in the filming industry.

“It was my first main role in the film world - and, truly, as much as it was thrilling being ‘Denge’, it was also terrifying . This was because, with every scene I acted, I knew I had to meet the satisfaction of the audience, the scriptwriter as well as myself in accordance with what I read in the script and in the novel,” Gudrun - who is the infamous real life ‘Denge’ - details.