How do you tell the story of a country?
Words by Zaza Muchemwa (Director & Writer)
Questions by Zaza Muchemwa and Alex Gwaze (Curator)
Many have argued that the Arts are the best way to tell the story of a society. Furthermore, Film is probably the most useful medium to tell our story because it is collaborative, visually arresting and accessible. However, in Zimbabwe film is not usually the medium that carries our experiences, dreams, musings and aspirations to the nation. Whilst the film industry has seen some growth spurts, it hasn’t yet reached that stage where there are several high quality, compelling homegrown films that are consistently being produced. Therefore I can’t help but ask myself what kind of stories does the current film scene want to tell about Zimbabwe? To uncover these stories, I decided to have a conversation with one of the longest serving (and still active) Zimbabwean filmmakers, Nakai Matema.
If you are new to the Zimbabwean film scene you may be forgiven for not knowing her name. But those who have been following the Zimbabwean Film scene closely would certainly know the National Arts Merits Awards (NAMA) legend, Nakai Matema. Nakai is a Film Producer and the former Executive Director for Zimbabwe International Film Festival Trust (ZIFFT). Whilst at ZIFFT she ran the iconic Short Film Project (SFP) which produced works that won NAMAs and were nominated for various international awards. Some of the talent that came through SFP includes Joe Njagu, Rumbi Katedza, Tongayi Chirisa and Ben Mahaka. In addition she has served on the juries of various international film festivals, such as the Tampere International Short Film Festival, the Durban International Film Festival and the Cape Town International Film.
Nakai has worked on several projects that include: “Flame”, “A Fighting Spirit”, “Africa Dreaming Series” and “Mama Africa Series”, just to name a few. She is currently serving as a committee member for the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe’s (NACZ) National Film Strategy Team, so I thought it would be great to pick her brain to see what kinds of stories Zimbos can expect in the near future.
AG: You worked on the war drama “Flame”. “Flame” explored female guerillas’ role in the liberation struggle. I haven’t seen another film that examines women’s role in the building of our nation. Do you feel the contributions of women are adequately represented in the media?
NM: Working on “Flame” was an incredible experience. I kind of feel like it was my practical film degree dissertation type thing. I worked on it from development, where we were re-writing the scripts, looking for funding-development funding, to production, post-production, distribution and marketing the film. So for me it was the film that I always sort of attribute to being my introduction to film, in the practical sense. In terms of women’s roles in the building of our nation and what contributions women have put, and whether there is adequate stories or adequate representation, I am going to have to say, no. And unfortunately, I don’t think it’s just women. I don’t think there is adequate representation of meaningful, sort of deep stories in Zimbabwe in terms of nation building building. Or even talking about people, not just women, but generally just people who built our nation, people who have built our nation and prominent people for us to sort of revere. So, since women are always at the bottom of the barrel anyway, of course women are just not going to be properly represented. I think also, just like with social media and everything, the image that we have of women is sort of a bit skonky. You know, you got your slay queens and what have you’s, which I am not necessarily saying is necessarily a bad thing. If you want to be a slay queen, you can be a slay queen. But like, I think there is slightly more dimension to who women are and what they represent. And it’s a shame. It’s a shame. I think there is a lot of self-censorship as well which is probably part of the reason why we do not necessarily tell deeper stories about Zimbabweans. So, no there is no adequate representation of the contributions of women in the media at all.
ZM: It sounds like the Zimbabwean story is still under development (laughs). How about African stories. Do you have a favourite African film or series that you think engages the African experience?
NM: There is a Senegalese film that was directed by the late Djibril Diop Mambéty. The film was called “Hyenas”. It came out in 1993 and to this day it will remain my favourite African film. I think, besides being a great film, it was also the very first time I saw an African feature film being given prominence at a film festival. At the time I was working as a volunteer for the first Southern African Film Festival where “Hyenas” was the opening night film. While I always knew who I wanted to be in film, I thought you had to go to Hollywood or somewhere to really work in film. Watching the film and meeting the filmmaker was amazing. Djibril was just a mesmerizing figure. He would wear his robes and had this very sort of like ‘don’t care’ kind of attitude when attending events. The film itself however was just incredible. I just remember thinking, “African people can make films like this?’’ It was just incredible! The costume, the cinematography, the acting, everything.
AG: Just to follow up on that, do you have a favourite genre that you might want to see more Africans and Zimbabweans explore?
NM: Yeah, this is a hard one. Because I just like all kinds of films. But I hate romcoms because I am just not sentimental, and they are highly predictable and just boring. What I think I really like is, I like Dramas and Thrillers. I like those kind of films that have a sort of twisted storylines. You know those type of films where we must go backwards and forwards to try and figure things out. So, Drama mixed with sort of Thriller, sort of very dark stuff. I love films that do not have a happy final sort of ending. I like those kinds of films where the ending is just kinda like fucked. Cause maybe it says a lot about me. But I think also, it’s because it’s more real life. Because, hey happy endings in real life are a problem. It’s just never happens. Yeah, I think I am just a dark human being. So those are the kind of things I really really like. Sort of dark, thriller, horror, drama type things. Not horror, but drama and thrillers type of things. And probably like very dark, black comedy type things. Black Comedy-I know that phrase-it’s a bit ehm. But yeah, that’s kind of stories I like.
AG: I believe that every great film starts with a ‘produce-able’ script. What do you think local filmmakers should look for in a script?
NM: This is a difficult question. Maybe not difficult, just a bit of a bizarre question, rather. Because I think every producer and every filmmaker is different; likes different genres and different things. I just feel it’s up to the individual themselves. But I feel that filmmakers should never ever work on a script that’s only got one draft or two drafts. People need to learn to re-write, to do redrafts and to have other people read their scripts. I find a lot of Zimbabweans are sort of very precious with their scripts. But film is a collaborative art, and you can’t make it in a vacuum. Particularly with film, it’s not made for a personal consumption. It’s made for an outside audience. So, you need other people to read your work. And I find that a lot of what happens is people just do not take in the work of writing a script, of going over it, re-doing it, breaking it down as well, seriously. I think people need to understand the professionalism of scriptwriting. You don’t just wake up and write twelve pages and then start shooting tomorrow. You can, but you are going to have a rubbish film. So, that’s all I can really say in terms of what people should look for in a script.
ZM: Besides finding a good script, one of the biggest issues that filmmakers complain about is funding. You’re a producer, so you know how to find ‘the money’ and work with little money. What’s your best advice when it comes to managing money matters?
NM: Quite rightly, yes, funding is a huge problem probably in all sectors in Zimbabwe. But most definitely within the Arts. Most definitely in film. It’s something that’s hard to come by. However, you know we have a lot of films that are made sort of guerilla style and somehow things get made. However, what I really really think, particularly when you have very little money, pre-production and prep are vital. I don’t know the number of times I see people who have a script that they have delivered today and then they are like, ‘’Ok, get everybody together.’” And then in two days’ time they start shooting the film and they are done within three weeks or whatever. That to me is just incredible. I could never personally do that. Pre-production is vital. Particularly when you don’t have money. You need to make sure you rehearse with your actors. You need to make sure all your locations are found. Because you don’t want to be running around looking for locations while you are shooting. Because if you are doing that while you are shooting then it means you are wasting time and time is money within film. So, everybody needs to understand the script. The script needs to be broken down which is one thing I know many people that don’t even do so. They sort of roll their eyes when you say things like that. But you don’t want to get into the kind of situation where you are working in the middle of a production, and something is missing, and you must look for it. And you waste time. Any time that you are not shooting you are wasting money that you clearly don’t have in the first place because it is a low budget film.
ZM: During your tenure as the Director of ZIFFT, you also had to deal with money matters. You managed to steer the festival through extra ordinary circumstances that included a dwindling film industry, hyperinflation and the closing of cinemas. That must have been very stressful (but also rewarding). What are some of the mental tools you use to motivate yourself to overcome setbacks and survive, in this field?
NM: I think as you grow older you become sort of more mature. What I really do now is, whenever there is a setback or there seems to be a crisis, I never ever panic. I always manage to maintain my cool. I think probably I have always been kind of like this. I have never really been a panicker. But I mean, there were times earlier on in my life when I would maybe freak out, like, “Oh, this has happened!” But now I rarely freak out. I always just take every problem like, “Ok, hmmn, this is something. Ok, let me sit. Think about what I can do. How can I find solutions for a particular problem that I have. In the meantime, let me do something that I can do to solve another problem or go ahead and do something I know I can do”. And then in the meantime I will be thinking in my head, “Ok, how do I go ahead and solve this problem?” But yeah, I never panic, and I always kind of like wear this sort of bland facial expression. And it works for me somehow. I remember being told very early in my film career working on film sets with elder mentors and what not – who would always say, “There is no such thing as saying no on a film set. Everything is possible”. And I ended up taking that to heart.
AG: Talking about mentors and mentees, you once identified “inadequate training” as the major challenge facing the Zimbabwean film industry. Specifically, mentorship or “proficient trainers who can identify and nurture” the next generation. I am interested in skill sharing, what should I look for in a potential mentee?
NM: This is a great question for me. I like this question because being a mentor is a very important thing for me. And I love to mentor young upcoming, aspiring filmmakers and writers. I really feel it’s important because I had such great mentors that I feel that I should give back. So, when I am particularly looking for a mentee – I like people who go out of their way to come and have a conversation with me. Not sort of in a very sort of bombastic way. But just one on one who come and say, “Ok, I really want to do ABCD. How can I go about it? How can you help me?” A lot of these sort of younger, creative younger generation, millennials and Gen Zs, as far as they are concerned, they know it all. So, there is not very much that you can tell them or not tell them. Because they know it all. And they feel to a certain extent, quite entitled (I think). So, it’s very rare, and very nice when you find somebody who comes to you and genuinely wants to learn. It’s easy to tell the difference between somebody who is just making conversation or someone who genuinely wants to know. Somebody who genuinely wants to know who comes back to you time and time again and is not lazy and has a passion and a drive. Passion and drive, I think is more important. And those who continuously come back asking for advice and guidance I am always, always happy to show love. I love mentoring and guiding anybody who willingly wants to learn or exchange ideas. And I say this purposely, because it’s just not about teaching, I am also learning from them. And we are just basically vibing and exchanging.
ZM: You’ve mentioned sharing ideas. I feel the divisions in the Zimbabwean film communities have slowed our progress. If we were to look at the amount of skilled personnel and tools available, we could be producing several good films through co-productions every year. How can we overcome these divisions?
NM: To be very honest with you, I have no real idea on how you can overcome these divisions. And there very much are a whole bunch of divisions within the film industry. There is a whole bunch of different cliques, and different groups that only work with each other within their little community. And so much backstabbing and just general confusion. I think somebody said that there is like two leagues in the film industry. There is like the boozers and la Liga (laughs). Personally, I am open to anybody who is interested in working with me. I can work with anybody who wants to work with me. I just want to work with people who are like-minded creatively and who want to work with me, but we also gel and understand each other. And not necessarily that we all agree on every single script or every single film or every single whatever. But people I can dialogue with and have-a healthy exchange that doesn’t descend into some sort of petty nonsense or something. So, I think that’s what I can possibly say. I mean once upon a time, I did feel there is a way that we can all unite, and everybody comes together but I think there is just so many people working within the film sector coming from all sorts of different backgrounds and different sides and with different chips and what have you’s on their shoulders.
ZM: There are probably a lot of people who want to work with a NAMA legend like you. Your list of achievements is super long. However, I would like to know from you – at what point did you recognize your own achievements? When did you know that you’ve arrived, and your efforts cannot be ignored?
NM: This is a very odd question. I think it is very dangerous to suddenly come to your own conclusion that you have arrived. Because other people must let you know. I do not necessarily think I have arrived right now. I am always learning. And always trying to better myself. I think it’s quite dangerous to blow your own trumpet so to speak. It’s not up to you. Other people must tell you that you have achieved. You can’t decide on your own – my opinion anyway. And even being a NAMA legend that was quite a shock to me. Particularly being put in that basket with some of the legends that were there, I felt quite insecure initially when I found out. Cause I was like, “O, shit! This means what? What are other people’s expectations from me?” For me, I am still arriving. Whatever other people may think I am grateful for that and it’s fantastic that people would think that I am somebody to be looked up to, I suppose. But I just think again, it’s all about humility. And I continue to learn. I haven’t arrived. I think I have got a hell of a lot more years to go, a hell of a lot more to learn. And also I just wanna keep working with people and collaborating.
ZM: People tend to describe you as a tireless worker for the industry. But I’m sure you do relax at some point. So, for my last question, I’m interested in what you do outside of work. How do your recharge your mind, body and spirit?
NM: (laughs) The fantastic thing about working in the creative industry is you never feel like it’s quite work. You are just doing you. So, the one thing I definitely do to re-charge is I watch films, I watch TV programs. I just watch stuff. And that is me winding down. I watch films and I listen to music – I love music, and I read. My whole world is about the creative industries and not just film. That’s me in a nutshell. I am an artist, a creative in mind, body and spirit.
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