Tanzanian Filmmaker Amil Shivji is Making History with a Story of Love and Resistance
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Tanzanian Filmmaker Amil Shivji is Making History with a Story of Love and Resistance

As the first Tanzanian film to be chosen for TIFF, Shivji's film is sure to get the African country a seat at the table.

Amil Shivji remembers, like many other Tanzanians, reading the book "Vuta N'Kuvute" when he was in high school. Written in Swahili, Adam Shafi's award-winning coming-of-age love story, set in colonial Zanzibar, left an impression on Shiviji, a budding young writer at the time. But it wasn't until he was in the middle of working on his first film, many years later, that he returned to the story, looking for inspiration among local authors like Shafi. The novel would not only provide that, but it would also become the second film he made and the first from Tanzania to be selected for the Toronto International Film Festival.

Born in Dar Es Salaam, Shivji has spent his career telling stories of marginalized communities and re-imagining the way Tanzania is seen on screen. When he's not making films, he's lecturing at the University of Dar es Salaam.

He spoke to OkayAfrica about shooting Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute) in Zanzibar and researching colonial-era life.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

How did you return to the story of Vuta N'Kuvute?

I was dealing with writer's block in the middle of making my first film, T-Junction, which also has two women at the center of the story. A friend suggested I take inspiration from some of our local writers. I picked up Vuta N'Kuvute and started reading it, and it really took me on a journey. The writing, the poetry, the symbolism, the metaphors, everything about it was so Zanzibari. You felt the island, you felt the coast, you felt the rhythm of the waves, you felt everything that Shafi wrote, and it was very cinematic. It just spoke to where I was in my career; I was developing my visual style more. So it helped me finish T-Junction and definitely gave me the inspiration to do the script. But I also then knew I wanted to make a movie out of the book.

How did you eventually end up making it?

I optioned the novel in 2016, which is not really a method of working in Tanzania. But I thought it's best to do this, to try to formalize these approaches to filmmaking and these structures, as much as we can in order to create an infrastructure. I used it to create an example of a possible infrastructure of our own, that can be more long-term. So at the time, I was like, if the movie gets made, and I have an interview one day, with [for example,] OkayAfrica, I can tell them about it. It can be part of the story and the creative possibility and not just a fluke or coincidence. You can choose a novel to make a film. So we optioned the book, and then felt confident to continue with the film and bought the rights two years later. And then we shot it.

You chose to shoot more in Ng' ambo, the so-called 'other side' of Zanzibar, rather than in the more popular area of Stone Town. What was that like?

There's no denying the role Stone Town plays in the tourism, the narrative, of Zanzibar. I understand the necessity of that. It is a beautiful place for people to come and see it. But Zanzibar is so much more than a World Heritage Site and so much more than the old buildings of the Sultan, or the slave trade. It's current, it's contemporary, there are people there. And I wanted to tell their story. And that's where I chose to base the film, more on the Ng'ambo side, which in Kiswahili in English means the other side, like the other side of the tracks, the working-class neighborhood. So we filmed more there and that really made me happy. Because even when we were working out there, people appreciate the fact that we were telling a story from that side and not just Stone Town. If you want to be honest to the history, the struggle of the working class in Zanzibar, then it would be happening in Ng'ambo. The colonial administration officers never went to that side. So a lot more places of resistance for more activities would happen there. Stone Town was really the colonial stronghold. Making a revolutionary piece for me in the 1950s, it would have been contradictory to set it in Stone Town simply for the mesmerizing architecture.

You made a 50s-era period piece — what was the most enjoyable part of that for you?

The research. I come from a culture of academia, my family [is full of] academics, I spent significant time at the university research lab and also teach at the university. So the research report is probably the most exciting part because it really allowed us to tap into the primary source material, which was probably the majority of it was led by white researchers and authors from the West. And the way they would write about Zanzibar — not all of them — but more times than not, was in a very, like, outside, foreign perspective, looking in from the out, and not really speaking to the everyday struggles of the Zanzibar people, that someone who speaks Swahili can very much understand. So there's a lot of contradiction in the research material, which pushed me to further do more of my own primary collective research, which was talking to Zanzibar people and going to the archives. The archives are not in the best state. So what we did is, when we would collect material, we would go back to the archives and give them digital copies on a flash or over email, or digitize some of their work, as well, and give it back to them. When I make films, it's not just about the final film, it's always about the process. It's part of my activism. Every film I make affects me as an individual. Finding the right material to be able to tap into, from the 1950s, was a challenge because we were never behind the camera at that time. But we really were able to gather the information that contradicted a lot of the historical material that was there, but also offered us a way to tell the story that we felt was true to Zanzibar's history.

'Taarab' music is a big part of this film…

Historically 'taarab' was Arabic music that came from Egypt. It was really highbrow, elitist in its approach. It was not meant for the Black African population. It was meant for the Arab and Indian population, more so, the Arab population. It would be a huge orchestra, 20-25 people singing in Arabic. And then came Siti binti Saad, the famous taarab singer from Zanzibar, and the first African to sign with Columbia Records. We modeled [actress] Site Amina's character on Siti binti Saad.

She was from Ng'ambo, she was a working poor class woman. She would sing in the Sultan's palace, because of how beautiful her voice was, and she would sing in Arabic. But when she would go back to Ng'ambo area, she would sing in Swahili for the people. She would do this because they had a story to tell. Either they'd come to her to complain about an abusive husband or to complain about the landlord taking too much money, so she would immediately start creating lyrics and singing in response to this. And the songs would be so good that everyone wanted to sing them too. They were catchy, but it was also a way of responding to the social or current issue. She was doing it in Kiswahili because said more people could access it. She revolutionized taarab in East Africa.

What do you think your film being at Toronto means for the Tanzanian film industry?

I'm careful to call it an industry yet because we lack the infrastructures for it to be sustainable for it to be long term. It's more of a film sector, and we make a lot of films but they don't cross boundaries, they don't go to festivals. We don't even have any marketing and distribution models anymore. Now that we had any, but there was some form of distribution to the DVD market but that's completely sidelined by the streaming platforms. If it was an industry, you would have this infrastructure for people to follow through with, but I think we're getting there, and I think putting in these small elements, small pillars of direction does allow filmmakers and future filmmakers and even current filmmakers to have a system in place that they can depend on and can develop together and grow together. Because creativity exists, the power force exists and labor exists, the interest and enthusiasm is there, clearly, but we lack professionalism, inherently because of the lack of infrastructure. So I feel like if we continue to focus on making good films, but also in addition, trying to create most of the presence internationally, then we can get more of, not only a financial injection into the film industry, but also a creative one.

The film will have its African premiere in Burkina Faso. Where to from there?

We would like to bring it home in a way that really creates an impact. It's a novel in schools, so we'd like to send it to schools, create a discourse around Zanzibar history. It hasn't been taught properly, or it has been redacted in many ways, for political reasons. Also, I want to make sure the film finds an audience beyond Tanzania because this is one for the Swahili-speaking region — Mombasa in Kenya, Nairobi, Rwanda, Uganda, all the way to Somalia, this represents the coast. It's not a unique one-of-a-kind story. It's the 1950s, it's a time of revolution, of star-crossed lovers, so it's not a unique story, per se, but Zanzibar makes it unique.

Watch the trailer for Amil Shivji's film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute) here.

Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute)