Tsitsi Dangarembga

Tsitsi Dangarembga was born 1959 in Mutoko. She is a filmmaker and writer. Her novel Nervous Conditions was selected as one of Africa 's 100 best books from the 20 th century.

In this present situation in Zimbabwe today, how are the arts in general and in particular film, which you are involved in, affected by the crisis?

I really can't speak for other people. You know, I am a practitioner. I can say for myself that I don't think there is a great deal of difference in my work.

I think the crisis has been very positive for me. This last crisis began while I was in Germany . I had been wanting to come back to Zimbabwe for a while. My husband is German, but my career was not really moving in Germany, so when all this began I said to him: "Look, I can't stay here with the way people are speaking about Zimbabwe , so, I want to go home now and see for myself what's happening". And that was the impetus for us to actually move here, in 2000. And I am so much more creative here.

The tension is also very stimulating; the intensity with which people engage with what's happening is all very stimulating. People who fund the kinds of things that I do are more ready to fund me when I live in Zimbabwe , rather than when I live in Germany . So for me it has been very positive. Of course there is a point beyond which the tension is no longer positive and has a negative effect, but I am hoping we will not get to that.

In which ways are you able to catch this engagement with the issues in your filming?
I am actually not engaged with the issues as such, but it is the mindset, whether I feel creative or not. With all things happening and always having to be alert, I just feel very creative.

The other thing is that the government has begun to understand how important culture is in nation building. So there are some interesting things happening in Zimbabwe in this context. We had a very interesting situation, where a lot of the cultural funding came from outside and therefore it reflected the origin of the funding. I am not saying this is negative or positive but I am just stating a fact. For many people in the street who are Zimbabwean and feel very Zimbabwean, it was a very disappointing thing that the Government did not invest in culture. Now suddenly the Government is investing in culture.

So even within artistic production you have this tension and this polarity, which means that a lot of things can start happening in between. Economically, of course, it is a very difficult situation. Politically, it is a very difficult situation. But I think, probably culturally this is one of the interesting times. I compare it to when I was a student just after independence. That was the same kind of fermentation in the cultural scene, so I think it is actually quite stimulating for artists. Of course, the life is difficult, but the creativity is good.

What kind of project have you been engaged in since you came back?
I have been fortunate to get a very little bit of money so I have been able to shoot a short film that I just finished. It is based on a Shone folktale. It is made on grassroots level, with just enough funding to pay the people participating. It is just wonderful, I spent eleven years outside the country and I was not able to do a single production that I wanted to do. I come back and I'm feeling creative and I'm able to write something good. It is really nice and I'm hoping that I will be able to raise the money for the post-production - the editing.

It is a musical, because I took the original way of Shona story telling which actually is common to most of the African; that you have a song that is repeated with slight variations at different parts of the story. And the interesting thing about the music, or, this kind of song in our narration, our folk tales, is that the song does not just describe the situation. It is part of the dynamic force of the narrative. By the time the song ends you are in a different position. I am trying to see whether this kind of repetition with a slight difference can be used in film structure, which is something very rigid and conventionalised. It is an experiment and I think that's what the funders like. You know, fairy tales can be very brutal and Zimbabweans tend to shy away from openly talking about nasty things.

And what else?
Well, I have a lot of projects. Most of them are long films and that's difficult to fund, so I haven't been lucky with that. The good thing about the short film is that the budget is like a quarter of a long film. You just get a little bit and you are just able to grit your teeth and go for it.

I have also started a women's film festival, which looks at images of women and the way women position themselves. We ask embassies to submit a film that reflects that theme. A prerequisite is that a woman should have the major role in it. So in this way we want to look at the images of women in different parts of the world and see how that compares with what we in Zimbabwe find positive or negative or should be changed about womanhood. The whole idea began with a beauty competition being held here and all the young girls all to be Miss this and Miss that; you know the package and the beauty. And definitely film is another medium in which beauty is packaged, so we wanted to start the festival, which critiqued that kind of image of beauty. Last year we had about eleven countries participating. This year we had about twenty.

I am also working on writing, which is quite difficult with three young children.

I have got three. And they are still quite young. So, as I said, several film projects. I have this festival that I founded last year. I have done the short film, which is really interesting.

Do you have any access to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation?
I have had one documentary screened there and I have offered them two others, because I have made three documentaries about Zimbabwe and they have not been interested. And they also haven't paid for what they did ask me.

What are the three documentaries about?
You know, when one makes a documentary, the content is really determined by where the money is coming from. So they are all on current topical things, like landmines. We have landmines up in the north, dating back from the liberation movements. People are still being maimed by them. We shot this documentary in 1999 and we saw a young boy whose face had been blown away. He had been blinded. You know, he had found this thing and he did not know what it was and threw a stone at it and that was it. They have an awareness campaign and even today they teach the children to be careful, but you know what children are like. So we still have that legacy and now there is a big exercise up there to try and demine the whole border.

Then the other one was on the land issue. In 2000 when I was living in Germany and was hearing negative German points of view on the land policies, I thought: "Let me go and see what I can find out".

So, who made the funding for the documentary on land?
It was a Ford Foundation. I was doing something else, shooting something else at the time, so I just got a young man that I had worked with before to go on to the farms and talk to people. So he spoke to farmers, he spoke to invaders, he spoke to farm workers; so I have a series of portraits.

Has it been broadcast anywhere?
No, not on television. It is been to a few festivals and people have found it interesting. It is quite hard hitting actually, because you know, you have invaders saying this, very definitely, and then you have white commercial farmers saying that very definitely, and I don't even try to bring it together, because you can't.

Has it been to the Berlin film festival?
No. You know, it is not taking the accepted Eurocentric point of view on the whole issue, so people are not very happy. you know, it is not being picked up. I have never been somebody who says what is expected of me, wherever, so I tend to fall into a very small space, and it makes life difficult, but I feel I cannot betray what I see and my convictions. And if I am not convinced that a particular point of view is the correct point of view, it is very difficult for my to jump on that bandwagon just because it might be easier in life if I did.

So my third documentary film is about ivory and the ivory trade, and, you know, I went round again to the villagers in Kenya and Zimbabwe who were affected to ask what they thought. And again, they said what they thought and it is not what they ought to be saying. So I have a problem with that film. It is not easy for the people who normally would be interested in African things to digest. But at least it is there and I think it is good to have another voice. We do not all have to speak with the same voice.

So would you say that you are refusing to make advocacy films for anybody and trying to stick to the documentary?
Well, I don't know; like I said, when people here know that I want to use my film for a particular purpose, they find maybe they don't hold the line enough and then they might say: "Oh, you are too far to the other side". And then the other side find that it does not suit their purposes enough either, you know. So, I just find myself saying what I feel I have to say and I just put it on the table.

Do you find that you yourself are being labelled in this very polarised society - that people are trying to put you into one camp?
Yes, I definitely do. I feel that it has been so, but because I always stick to my principles, suddenly you see that I don't fit to that label anymore and then people have to rethink. And, you know, that's fine with me. If what I believe in means that I have to be labelled in any way that's fine with me but I'm not going to do things simply for convenience. I have never done that. Sometimes, I wish I could. It would make life much easier.

[Interview in Borrowdale, Harare on 8 August 2003]

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