Zimbabwean filmmaker Tatenda Mbudzi's comedy documents the tribulations of an anime enthusiast and social outcast at Zim High.
Dreaming of an escape, the main character attempts to become a prefect at his school in the hopes of receiving a ticket out: a scholarship to study anime in Japan. Zim High is shot mockumentary-style by an Aboriginal Australian student who comes to the high school to document the experience of outcasts for the Aboriginal Exchange Documentary program.
Judging by the trailer, we’re in for a riotous time that is both fun and serious as the characters navigate authority figures, racism, relationships and trying to make their dreams come true in post-colonial Zimbabwe.
Mbudzi agreed to answer a few of our questions over email about his film and why he's calling it the "first African teen movie ever."
Abel Shifferaw for Okayafrica: So, the black nerd, the black weirdo, the black outcast who is supposed to be a thug and criminal but is really smart and creative and butts heads against every stereotype thrown at them is finally getting some shine. I see that character in your film, which I think is great. Can you touch on that?
Yes, I definitely wanted to articulate my experience which is different than the usual stereotype of the black high school student. The black African outcast experience is rarely, if ever, seen, so I wanted to dive into that, but also show similarities and common ground between the different Zim High personalities. The inspiration for the character comes from my personal experiences.
African creativity is only just starting to be appreciated on a wide cultural level in an African and global context. This is frustrating because many Africans eagerly take works coming from the West or the East as the final word on creativity, and do not support their own artists. This happens on the individual and corporate level, which makes it very hard for young African artists to find encouragement, let alone financial backing to pursue these dreams. It's important to support stories like these—and African filmmaking—or outsiders will tell our stories for us, and we know how that usually ends: famine, blood diamonds, white saviour, black target practice and so on.
The effects of these images are very powerful. I mean, look at the reaction to Spiderman in the new Captain America: Civil Wartrailer. The last frame is a not so subtle nod to America. Red, white and blue— and even has product placement in there (Tug). Yet, he is a fully-rounded character with flaws, a 'nerd' if you will, who challenges the stereotypes of being a hero. I've been exposed to Spiderman from a very young age and I absolutely friggin’ love that character. Good writing—mostly—for a solid 54-year stretch.
Now, imagine an African character created by an African person, that African kids grow up watching, reading, playing, cosplaying. A character who reflects African identity. An African character American kids want action figures of. You might say Black Panther, but until yesterday, Black Panther was unknown by the majority of the entertainment consuming public. Also Black Panther is the creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who are great at creating characters, but, I think it says something that Black Panther is from the fictional African country of Wakanda, and Spider Man is from the very real New York City. Africans need to create their own characters or will remain stereotyped in fiction, and in real life, forever.
So yes, creating real characters that defy stereotypes is very serious business, in every sense of the word. And it is also very fun.
How did the film initially come together? What was the process of making it all happen like?
Oh man. Well I've been writing it for about seven years. When I left high school, I was like, "What the cuff just happened, that was a crazy experience." So, it's been about trying to capture the extremity of the situations we saw in this very unique post-colonial environment.
I was fortunate enough to intern at Africa First, Focus Features' former African short film program. I was inspired by the submissions that came through there. I started writing Zim High on and off in 2009 but really hammered out the full screenplay in grad school, after a particularly demoralizing day. I tried to garner interest for Zim High in Hollywood, but I didn't have enough pull or a ‘high’ enough concept—How the heck does Malick get his movies funded? Must be awesome! So, I ripped the band-aid off and came to Zimbabwe and decided to crowdfund.
Rick Cosnett (Eddie The Flash, Dr. Wes Maxfield in The Vampire Diaries, Elias Harper on Quantico) saw the campaign and was like ‘Let's do this.’ Cinematographer Naim Keriah (Directed Rujeko) and production designer, Carine Tregold (Art Director on Lumumba, production designer on hundreds of films) came on board to make it look brilliant. We shot for 12 days at my old high school, St. John’s College, who were very kind and helpful. I cast locally. And then we shot it. It was gruelling, and fun. We had some long days and nights, and lots of mud, but everyone, cast and crew really came together to make something wonderful.So you make this very lofty claim that Zim High is the “First African Teen Movie Ever.” Can you elaborate on that?
Zim High is The First African Teen Movie Ever that isn’t about AIDS, Ebola, blood diamonds, Leonardo DiCaprio and blood diamonds, Somali pirates, Tom Hanks, dudes holding AK47s, child soldiers, child pregnancy, an NGO, saving animals, etc.
Not that those things aren’t important, but I don’t think that’s all Africa is, and I don’t think that is all Africa wants to be. For example if an African AIDS orphan wanted to watch a movie about a young African kid going on an adventure—that has nothing to do with AIDS—the options would be very limited. I choose the phrase "First African Teen Movie" so that I would get this question, and be able to hopefully shift paradigms about what an African film can be.
Zim High is like Harry Potter but instead of magic, there is casual racism. We get a lot of sci-fi and fantasy allegorical stories about the “teen” experience, some of which are awesome, some of which are not. I debated this for a long time as I was writing the film (I'm a Gryffindor), and I have some YA in me. However, the real things that happen to you as a Zimbabwean teenager, are far more disturbing, given the context, than an allegory could express.
It’s a movie about identity and finding a way to make your dreams come true. It’s a dark comedy and I wanted it to be visually fun too, hence the use of animation and illustration—which also expresses the character’s struggle, and one of the themes, which is being creative in Africa. As an African, what is the movie of your life? What do you want it to be? I don’t think anyone would say ‘I want the movie of my life to be a depressing documentary with no adventure or excitement.’
Help support my former student creating the first African Teen movie -ZIM HIGH
— James Franco (@JamesFrancoTV) July 13, 2015
So, the film had an Indiegogo funding campaign that was unique to say the least. What was your thought process behind it? How was it received?
I wanted to highlight all of the above aspects of the film that corresponded to the tagline “First African Teen Movie Ever.” This was/is going to be a different African movie. We were fortunate to get some great support and raised a bit of money—James Franco tweeted about us, we got great coverage from local and international press, we were interviewed by Femi Oke live on AJ+, we were on an African innovation panel, and featured on PIVOT, Participant media’s blog. I decided early on that no matter what happened with the campaign, I was just going to make the movie anyway, and that helped alleviate the anxiety of putting the whole thing out there. And that is what I did.
Stay tuned for news about the release of Zim High. The film is currently in deep post production. Keep up with Tatenda Mbudzi on twitter.