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Proteus – 30 Years of Zimbabwe

by Annie Holmes


A woman carries an old-fashioned suitcase on her head. She steps, fully dressed, into a shallow pool and her skirt billows out over clear blue water. A man follows, a suitcase in each hand, his brown suit pants dragging wet and heavy as he surges through the water. What is going on here? We are seated around a large fountain on a traffic island in the centre of downtown Cape Town in February 2009, watching a drama group re-enact an illegal crossing from Zimbabwe into South Africa through the Limpopo River.

A Zimbabwean myself, I’ve heard this story many times before. Thousands of people have forded the crocodile-infested river, slipped through holes in border fences, risked attack and rape by border gangs, and faced likely exploitation, arrest and deportation in South Africa. In the border town of Musina, conducting interviews for a book, we recorded gut-wrenching accounts by teenage girls and boys, a banker, a preacher, and a former soldier going AWOL. Zimbabweans in South Africa have been telling me how they side-step attacks by passing for Zulu and how they work three jobs to send food money to their families. At home and in the diaspora, I’ve been hearing about rape as a political weapon, about the abduction of opposition activists, about shrinking livelihoods, about torture, about loss and grief, about hunger and anger.

How did we get to this unhappy low point? In 1980, newly independent from minority rule after a bloody nationalist struggle, Zimbabwe was an African beacon of promise. The glorious 1980s! I came home from university and set up a reggae-blasting commune on a small farm on the outskirts of Harare. There was much to celebrate: education and health services opening up to everyone, literacy rates pushing 90 percent, access to credit and transport for peasant farmers (whose output rose 200% in those first years), and a national policy of reconciliation quashing white fears of retribution.

And yet …

At the same time, conflict raged between the former liberation movements. A secret campaign called Gukurahundi, led by a dreaded Fifth Brigade of the national army, claimed 30,000 lives in the Ndebele-speaking south of the country. Looking back, I can’t remember if my friends and I were ignorant or chose to wear blinkers. I knew that villagers in Matabeleland left their homes each night to avoid army attacks by sleeping in the bush. But the government’s argument – that agents of apartheid were crossing our borders – seemed convincing. Then, in 1987, leaders of the two parties signed a peace accord and President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party absorbed Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU party. A Government of National Unity was declared. Gukurahundi went unacknowledged.

Two brakes slowed national development in the early 1990s. I witnessed both, firsthand, in my new career as a documentary filmmaker. First, a terrible two-year drought struck. Then, a programme of economic structural adjustment, a condition of loans from the IMF, cut subsidies to education, health and other services, while opening our borders to tariff-free imports and our currency to international speculation. Democratized in 1994, neighbouring South Africa overshadowed us. Our president gave up on political correctness: women should stay with their parents until a husband pays bride price, he announced, and gays and lesbians are worse than pigs and dogs.

And yet …

Zimbabwean women have won progressive laws on domestic violence and divorce settlements; the country’s LGBTI organization survives; and, through the 1990s, the trade union movement and angry township dwellers protested rising prices and fought for better salaries. Opposition grew, civil society organized.

Zimbabwe’s troubled passage through the 2000s drew international attention. The world learned about the government’s campaign to turn commercial farms over to liberation war veterans, landless peasants and (less publically) political heavyweights. Our hyperinflation – reaching millions of percent before we switched to US dollars – hit global headlines. So did the violence against the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Economic and political refugees still flee over our borders and around one third of Zimbabweans now live outside the country. I am one of them, although one of the more privileged. Coming home every year or so, sometimes for months at a stretch, I find myself on a bizarre edge between normal and nightmare. Out in the world, I produce my no-longer-popular green Zimbabwe passport for the suspicious eyes of immigration officials.

fountain place

Which takes us back to Cape Town, watching actors cross a fictional river. A life-size wire sculpture stands beside the fountain. The symbol for this performance festival on xenophobia, it depicts a figure on all fours, a flaming tyre around his neck. The young Zimbabwean who made that sculpture – let’s call him Proteus – also told the story that is being enacted in the fountain. He is reinventing himself in this new country, first as a spokesman for a displaced people’s camp after the 2008 attacks on foreigners in South Africa and now as a cultural activist. “That’s life,” he says. “It’s always changing. Sometimes you are a master, sometimes a slave.”

Through Zimbabwe’s past thirty years, contradictions have played simultaneously: misery, racism, repression, but also pride, prosperity, action. And Proteus’ shapeshifting – from middle-class nightclub owner to illegal immigrant and now to artist – is just one, thoroughly Zimbabwean story.
Annie Holmes
Zimbabwean writer, editor and director of documentary films. Born in Zambia Annie Holmes grew up in Zimbabwe and studied at the universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand in South Africa. Her short memoir "Good Red" was nominated for the Pushcart Price and her short stories were published in the anthologies "Writing Still" and "Women Writing Zimbabwe". In the end of 2010 her newest book "Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives" will be published which she coedited with Peter Orner (Voice of Witness).

Idea and Organisation

Andreas Wutz
Artist, writer and director of experimental documentaries. Born in 1962. Lives in Munich and Barcelona. Studied art at the art academies of Munich and Duesseldorf. Since 1998 he is producing own films and videos which have been presented at international film festivals liek Rotterdam, Chicago, Utrecht, Jihlava, Hongkong, Karachi and in 2007 in Harare. Founder of the film program "Kino der Piloten" (Cinema of pilots) with presentations in San Sebastian, Prague, Berlin and Munich. Collaboration with the National Film Archive in Prague, the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona CCCB, the Fundación Cristina Enea in San Sebastian, Les Documents Cinématographiques in Paris and others.

A Rebirth of Zimbabwean Cinema – Interview with Nakai Matema (2007)

by Andreas Wutz


Nakai Matema is film producer and director of the Zimbabwe International Film Festivals ZIFF in Harare.

One reason for founding the festival, you said, was a sudden gap, a void, a lack of films to be seen in Zimbabwe. How did this happen?

We would get the standard American Hollywood films and all Hongkong-Karate films. But we used to have also a very healthy own film production industry here. What happened then was, firstly South Africa gained its independence. So a lot of the films which were originally shot in Zimbabwe, would now go to South Africa. Also the political situation at that time in Zimbabwe became very precarious. War veterans demonstrated for compensation of their injuries. The Zim dollar devaluated after 5-year Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) introduced by the World Bank. And the first listing of farms to be taken was announced. The image of Zimbabwe to the outside world became very threatening.

When was this?

1997. It was the last big year for 35mm film production in Zimbabwe. We had here „Lumumba“, a French production, a feature film about the assasination of Lumumba, the first democratically elected president of the Congo, and a local production called „Yellow card“. Also that year Olley Maruma shot his film „The big time“. Now a lot of our technicans and crews have moved to South Africa, England, even to Kenya.

Is there any state support for the film festival?

We still dont get state funding. The government Media and Information Commission helps us with the clearance of the films. In the first festival we had screenings in only one cinema. This year we screened in Harare, the capital city, in Norton, in Bulawayo and also in Mutare. So it is becoming actually a sort of national event .

What is the role of the church in Zimbabwe? Is it powerful enough to take influence in such a event?

Zimbabweans are very religious. It is a very religious country. But i was very shocked when a journalist (of a Zim newspaper) asked me: So are you a Christian? I didn’t understand what it had to do with me and the film festival. But it is a typical sort of Zimbabwean question. We were colonized by missionaries and that is something that stuck with us.

Because of the lack of gasoline there is a public transport problem in Harare. Was it difficult for the audience to come and visit the festival?

The petrol problem had absolutely no effect on the festival. We had good days, bad days like every festival. I can’t negotiate enough the impression that people have of what is happening here. Yes, there are people who are suffering, there are people who are hungry, there are people who cant afford basic accomodoties, but i dont think the country is collapsing. Zimbabweans have got this general attitude: life has to go on. Also what happens is that we recently - which was actually 27 years ago, but that is quite recent for us – came out of a very terrible war. It is still fresh in the people’s minds.

„Life of Others“ won also the Audience award. A film about East Germany, the times of communism, repression, fear, espionage. Would you see any parallels?

We are trying to give Zimbabwean audiences the opportunity to see all these kind of films that they only could read about. But the subject matter was also interesting, because we are going through trying times here. But again: The film was not censored.

There was a Zimbabwean film called „Superpatriots and Morons“, a political satire about an unnamed lonesome african leader. As a theatre play it was banned before. Why? and how different is the film version?

I did watch the film by Tawanda Gunda and people, who also had watched the play, told me it is more or less the same. But i have no idea why it was allowed to be screened. But it was. They finished the editing on the day of the screening. So I don’t know where it is going to go after the festival.

There were also short films and even an action movie made in Zimbabwe.

Yes, I think there is a beginning of a rebirth of Zimbabwean filmmaking. And what is beginning to help now, especially younger people, is digital filmmaking. We are getting more and more productions like that. But we also have a lot of people now, who know how to press play, but slightly lacking in the skills of telling a story in film.

During the festival, there was a workshop called „Postcards from Zimbabwe“. What was it about?

It is part of the program of the ZIFF trust called „Outreach to Educate“. We teach a group of youths the rudimentaries of filmmaking. The tutors are local Zimbabweans, who worked in the film industry. At the end the youths make 2 short films. This year the one film was called „Commercial sex worker“. All these kids came from orphanages. So „Comercial sex worker“ is basically talking about the problem of how young girls are left orphans. Mother dies of AIDS, father dies of AIDS. And you have a 13 year old being the head of the household. A lot of those end up in prostitution to look after their younger siblings. The other film was called „Gadgets“. It is talking about how young people have cell phones, MP3 players and how it is a good thing or bad thing. Ringing in a school class. That’s their reality.


Recorded interview transferred by Toni Crabb and first published in Spanish on 20/02/2008 in LaVanguardia, Barcelona

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