Tsitsi Dangarembga needs no introduction to many of us. She is one of Zimbabwe’s most recognisable cultural figures. She’s widely known for her books - Nervous Conditions, This Mournable Body, The Book of Not and most recently, Black and Female - but her cultural influence goes beyond.
Tsitsi is a professional filmmaker and is the brains behind the oldest women's film festival in sub-Saharan Africa, the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF). She started the event in 2002 and this year, it returns after a two-year break for its 19th edition between November 24 and 27 in Harare.
We spoke at length over a zoom call about the festival for which she is currently its interim director. They are looking for someone to take over but Tsitsi remains involved with her focus drawn to training women filmmakers and ensuring the continuity of the festival.
Before we delve deeper into the background of the IIFF, here’s how she is handling its return.
“We have built up the festival to a respectable size for an event of this nature, particularly in the SADC region where there is not a great deal of activity. By 2015/16, we averaged between 60 and 70 films and this year we'll do about a third of that. The festival usually runs for eight days, starting on Friday through to Saturday but this time we are having four days. It’s a small and slow start just to make sure we build again.”
Let’s go back to 2002 when the festival started, at the time, as Tsitsi explained, women's films were few and far in between. Female filmmakers existed but there weren’t resources allocated for them to produce meaningful work.
In a meeting with fellow female filmmakers during the Southern African Film Festival in the late 90s, Tsitsi came up with the idea of providing a platform where women would be facilitated to make films.
“During the Southern African Film Festival,an afternoon was set aside for women to gather and talk. I attended these a couple of times and most women talked about the difficulty of making films, something I perfectly understand because I was in the same situation.
“I thought there has to be a better solution. If we want to make films we cannot sit and talk about not making them, we have to find a way to do it. I went through the scripts the women wrote and realised there was a need for capacity building for them to tell their stories well. I needed a platform where women would see other women in film doing things and also be capacitated with the skills to make their own films.”
The event has been running since then and has attracted international attention and participation. Even so, it’s not been easy bringing it together but the platform has contributed immensely to the development of the film landscape on the continent.
Award-winning Zambian filmmaker Jesse Chisi is a product of the event as well as Nontsikelelo Mutiti, a Zimbabwean-born visual artist who was recently appointed the director of graduate studies in graphic design at Yale School of Arts.
Tsitsi reflected on these with delight.
“In the first year, Dominic Benhura donated the prizes from his studio and we had a wonderful relationship with the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and partnered with the women’s art exhibitions.
“In 2007/08, we expanded it to more women’s culture and the likes of Zukiswa Wanner and Lebo Mashile showed up. Later on, a film from Belgium titled Black performed exceptionally well.
“We then created women’s awards to recognise women of note and did it for five years because we realised that women's achievements weren’t celebrated. We produced two short films; Peretera Maneta whichhas won prizes outside the country and our latest is going to be screened at the Yale literary festival where the Windham Campbell prize is given.
“We had legs in different countries - Malawi, Kenya, Somalia and more, so overall, we have done a lot with little.”
The IIFF continues to be a lead for women filmmakers on the continent and that has seen an increased amount of films being produced. Even so, Tsitsi observed that the growth of women’s participation is slow. Additionally, she touched on the influence of funding on production.
Tsitsi: “There are many more films being made on the continent and many countries are beginning to understand the importance of a creative economy and that’s a positive. However, the growth of women’s participation is slow. My experience is that women lack confidence but they tend to improve with training.
“The other issue is to do with the narratives being produced. Our films aren’t as successful because of the perception of who a filmmaker should be and thus little interest in polishing the skills of local people. In turn, this impacts our production value.
“The source of the money is crucial because what we often have now comes from a developmental framework which requires that there be a social issue at the heart of the story. As such, instead of having a protagonist who wants to move through her life, we have a social issue moving through the film.
“This reflects negatively on the communities who are made to think that they are a problem. The idea that Africans have always to be narrating their problems is in itself problematic. It is not to say that films should not have content that is problematic but centralising the problem dehumanises the actual character in the film.”
There’s Still More To Do
Tsitsi is one woman who has a big vision but knows that it takes small steps to accomplish the big things. While she recognises that there’s been a lot of good over the years, she knows that more needs to be done.
Going back to the types of narratives being produced, she reckons that the continent needs to have its own source of funding if it is to fully produce films told from our own perspective.
Furthermore, Tsitsi shared that the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa (ICAPA) continues to reach out to donors with the aim of creating a film fund that will spur the production of local films.
“The existing funding programs are designed by festivals in other parts of the world which means that they’ll produce particular kinds of films that have the gaze of those places. Until we have our own money and our own experts trusted to work with that money, we’ll never have enough authentic films.
“A few African films that tell black stories well have come up like Solace and Arthur’s Bicycle. They have a different film language and this is what we should be developing.
“At the moment, we are being encouraged to make films that mimic other people’s film drama and way of speaking. We have to experiment, be brave and have experts like myself capacitated to make these decisions.”
Here are Tsitsi’s closing words on why you should care about women’s films.
“People should know that films that feature women protagonists are films that people are passionate about because it is more difficult to get money to make films about women, it's more difficult for women to make films and it's more difficult for films about women to be made.
“The other thing is a film is the language of communication of communities and nations in our times. As Africans, we have to take this seriously because it's a matter of democracy for African women to have at least 50% of that voice and the resources that go to that.”