Tendaiishe Chitima in ‘Cook Off’

Netflix has added a Zimbabwean-made film to its platform for the first time this week. Tomas Brickhill’s Cook Off is a romantic comedy: boy meets girl on a TV cooking show. Like many films made in Zimbabwe over the past ten years or so, it was put together for just a few thousand dollars, with borrowed equipment and deferred payment contracts for its cast and crew, and filmed under the constant threat of power cuts. The only allusion to the country’s economic situation (even worse now than when the film was made) is a blackout during a cooking montage.

Until recently, most films in Zimbabwe were watched on pirated DVDs sold by street vendors at $1 a go. In 2013, Cook Off’s producer, Joe Njagu, directed a film called Lobola. Instead of trying to find ways around the pirate market, he and the producer, Rufaro Kaseke, decided to think like the pirates. ‘When we distributed Lobola, we sold it like drugs, on street corners,’ Kaseke told me. They went to South Africa, bought 100,000 blank DVDs, trucked them back to Harare and made all the copies themselves. ‘We did a deal with the vendors,’ Kaseke explained. ‘We said: I’ll give you ten DVDs and I’ll only collect money for seven.’ This got the film into people’s hands, but collecting the money from the vendors was more difficult. ‘You go to someone on a particular day and he’s not there. Or you go there and you find he’s just using the copies you gave him for display and is selling his own copies of the film.’ Kaseke reckons that even though they sold 100,000 copies, the most ever for a Zimbabwean film, they only got money back for about 60,000.

Even so, it felt like a turning point. ‘I would say it showed a lot of indie filmmakers that it can be done,’ Njagu told me. For Cook Off, he and Brickhill made an agreement with one of Zimbabwe’s main newspaper distributors to sell the DVD at their official vending stands. Newspapers sold for $1, the DVD would sell for $1. The distributor would take 10 cents from every sale, the vendor would take 8 cents. Njagu and Brickhill felt confident they could make a film that would sell 100,000 copies, like Lobola. Working backwards, after the costs of blank DVDs and printing, that would give them a budget, on paper, of $50,000 – enough to pay their cast and crew.

But these plans were made four years ago, when Zimbabwe was still using the US dollar. ‘Our distribution strategy now is different from when we started,’ Brickhill told me in August last year. ‘Since then the economy has tanked and continues to tank.’ The channels that Njagu navigated so painstakingly with Lobola had evaporated. ‘Our strategy now is to find the Zimbabwean diaspora.’ They knew that to stand any chance of getting a mainstream digital release, Cook Off needed an international profile. It was first shown in London last July, followed by an exhausting tour of festivals from California to Moscow. But the film also came at the right moment. ‘We were lucky that our efforts coincided with Netflix’s well-publicised intention to beef up their catalogue of African content,’ Brickhill told me last month, ‘heralded by the launch of the South Africa-produced Queen Sono, which is the first African Netflix Original.’ Cook Off’s producers signed the deal with Netflix in March. It won’t make them rich, but it will at least allow them to pay their cast and crew, and they’ve beaten a new path for Zimbabwean film.

Brickhill, Njagu and others talk openly about the need to move away from the donor funding which supported much Zimbabwean filmmaking in the 1990s and early 2000s. Films such as More Time (1993) and Everyone’s Child (1996) were made to raise awareness of particular issues, often related to sex and sexually transmitted infections. With funding from Western-backed NGOs or government agencies, their budgets sometimes ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of the most impressive products of this period, Flame (1996), which told the story of women fighters in the war of liberation and was selected for Cannes, was made possible by a mixture of commercial and donor money. Neria (1993), about a woman struggling to survive after her husband’s death, was funded by the US-backed Media for Development Trust (MFD), and is Zimbabwe’s most successful film to date.

For Simon Bright, the producer of Flame, these were hopeful years for Zimbabwean film. ‘Harare was the centre for a transnational Southern African cinema during the 1990s,’ he told me. ‘We had the Southern African Film Festival as a hub for the whole region including South Africa, and it led to many regional co-productions.’

Yet Tsitsi Dangarembga, who directed Everyone’s Child, worked on the script for Flame and wrote the story for Neria, is glad to see the decline of donor funding. ‘Both Everyone’s Child and Flame are educational development message films,’ she told me by email. ‘It is a genre that is on its deathbed, and that is a very good thing … People simply don’t want to be spoken down to all the time, or be told that they are a development problem.’

Whatever its merits, the NGO money and the fragile infrastructure of film production it helped to create could not survive Mugabe’s land reforms and the inflation of the early 2000s. MFD, headed by John Riber, moved to Tanzania, and Simon Bright left the country after being arrested because (he thinks) he was suspected of having helped the BBC with a Panorama programme about youth militias. Within a few years, Bright says, Zimbabwe became ‘the kind of place where you make undercover films about a dictatorship rather than interesting arthouse films’.

The 1967 Censorship Act, enacted by Ian Smith’s government, placed all films under the control of the Ministry of Information. It was maintained by the new Zimbabwe government in 1980 and remains in force today. In theory, all films must be shown to the Censorship Board before they can be released (there are no guidelines for why a film may or may not be approved). In practice, this is difficult, because the Censorship Board doesn’t exist: it was disbanded more than a year ago and hasn’t been reassembled since.

Filmmaking has been stifled not so much by the strictness of the censorship laws as the vagueness of their application. The day after Cook Off was shown in London last July, the screening of a film called Lord of Kush at Cinema in the Park in Harare was shut down. ‘A ten-member police team showed up,’ Daves Guzha, who had set up the venue six months earlier, told me over the phone. ‘They said: “We’ve been told you cannot screen this.” I said: “We don’t do things like this any more, show me a piece of paper.”’ The police left, but later in the evening more turned up (without a piece of paper), shut the film down and arrested Guzha and four others. The objection came, he said, not from the Censorship Board but the Embassy of Pakistan, who didn’t like the film’s depiction of Pakistani terrorists.

In March 2019, the documentary filmmaker Zenzele Ndebele was arrested in Bulawayo when police found used tear-gas canisters in his car. Ndebele said he had collected the canisters while making Zimbabwean Shutdown (released last June), about the police crackdown on protesters in January last year. After a public outcry, Ndebele was released.

‘We are in danger of sliding back into the Mugabe era,’ Guzha said. The fall of Mugabe brought a window of opportunity to challenge the censorship regime, ‘but the window is closing up.’ That was last year, before a whole new problem came along. Guzha had been planning to open more cinemas across the country this year. ‘We had reached an advanced stage with three other venues,’ he told me yesterday, ‘but had to park them due to Covid.’ He now has to figure out either how to operate the cinemas within WHO guidelines, he says, or follow Cook Off online.