Film and film-making in Africa

Kedmon Hungwe Reviews, criticism and theory of Africa cinema

Fifty Years of Film-Making in Zimbabwe

Kedmon Nyasha Hungwe
Department of Education
Michigan Technological University


The Origins of the Film-Making Agenda in Zimbabwe

The origins of film making in Zimbabwe can be traced to initiatives in the United Kingdom, which was the colonial power over the period 1890-1979. The British government established the Colonial Film Unit at the beginning of the Second World War, in 1939, as part of a propaganda initiative directed to colonies. The unit was directed by the Ministry of Information. Its purpose was to explain the war to British subjects in the colonies and enlist their support; England’s ruling elite had great faith in the power of cinema as an instrument for persuasion when communicating with the masses, whether the working class of urban industrial England or illiterates in Britain’s African colonies (Smyth, 1988, p. 285).

At the end of the Second World War, the film initiative shifted from war propaganda to development in the colonies. Prior to the war, Britain had a poor record of promoting development in its colonies, and this record had been criticised by Germany war propaganda as well as by the United States. The US, which emerged as the dominant superpower after the war was keen to promote economic development and political stability in the Third World, so as to avoid losing the new states to the Soviet communist bloc (So, 1990).

The use of film was part of a new developmental initiative in the colonies and was funded by the Colonial Development and Welfare Act (1940) and subsequent acts. The initiative stressed adult education. The experiences gained during the war were to be harnessed to develop and use film as an educational medium in the colonies. The British Colonial Film Unit set up four production units that it directly controlled in East and West Africa. The Central African Film Unit (CAFU) covered Southern and Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia respectively) and Nyasaland (now Malawi). Forty percent of its funds came from the British government and the rest from contributions from the territorial governments that made up the federation (Smyth, 1983).

The activities of CAFU spanned the period 1948-63, coming to an end with the dissolution of the federation. Before the formation the federation (which was established in 1953), CAFU was administered by the Central African Council, an interim administrative body that preceded the federation. When the federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was formed in 1953, CAFU became a part of the Federal Department of Information. Financial support from the British government was phased out in 1956. The federal government retained an interest in African development that had been a founding principle of CAFU.

However, after the phasing out of the British government subsidy there was a shift in priority to making films that promoted the federation overseas, and encourage white immigration (Nell, 1988). The federation was a fragile coalition of white interests in the three territories and its legitimacy was undermined by African resistance. These political imperatives compelled the government to spend more on promoting the federation.

The first executive producer of CAFU films was Alan Izod, who was recruited from London. He had previously produced some British propaganda war films during the Second Word War. His team was entirely made up of expatriates. Izod described the challenge as difficult:
"We had of course set ourselves a very difficult task, perhaps more difficult than we realised. I personally was without previous first-hand knowledge of African life and customs and so were two of the leading technicians" (Izod, 1950).

Film making for African audiences was informed by a number of assumptions about the audiences. The primary goal of the colonial government was to maintain white standards and privileges while promoting limited African development. The mission of the ‘white race’ was to civilise the Africans. Some progress had been made, but there was a long way to go. Development was construed in terms of a relationships between two races that were at different historical points of evolution, with no prospect of equality in the near future.

These assumptions informed the creation of film text directed to Africans. In a 1950 radio broadcast Alan Izod outlined the broad perspective on which film-making in CAFU was based as follows: The goal was to make educational films that were presented in an entertaining way, with strong moral messages. Adult Africans were to be protected from unwholesome messages, in other words the production of films "affording healthy entertainment."

Obviously films could serve as one antidote to the undesirable activities which are such an easy pitfall for people with spare time on their hands. I am not saying anything new or startling when I say that Europeanisation has removed his own culture from the African and given him little in return. This is of course particularly true of the African who is employed in towns (Izod, 1950). Beyond the problem of creating wholesome messages, films were to inculcate in the audiences the necessity for, and the value of hard work, of self-help, and by that I mean doing things for themselves without payment instead of doing them only if the Government is willing to pay for them (Izod, 1950). These values were intended to benefit white controlled capitalist enterprise, in an environment were economic relations were unequal and forced labour (chibharo), was a historical reality for Africans.

The goal of agricultural films was to promote good farming methods and prosperity but this was problematic in a context where government land tenure policies and agricultural production and marketing policies blatantly discriminated against Africans. Other films promoted initiative and community development using heroic figures from the community. The Wives of Nendi is a film about Mrs. Mangwende, the wife of Chief Mangwende, who was the moving force behind the development of women’s clubs. The film A Day in the Life of Rachel Hlazo is about the life of Mrs Hlazo of Goromonzi, who is a health care worker and has made a difference in her commuity. Both were made by Stephen Peet as director-cameraman.

The civilising mission of CAFU films does not stand the test of time. There is evidence that with time, after the initial novelty had worn off, African audiences were able to critique them against their lived experience and political aspirations (Hungwe, 1991). There is also strong evidence that the colonial film-makers under-rated their audience, who developed rapidly with successive shows of films, and began to raise questions about the messages to which they were exposed, and how those messages related to their economic and political aspirations (Hungwe, 1991).

The problematic relations between film-makers and audiences turned antagonistic in Zimbabwe after 1965, when the state unleashed a vigorous propaganda campaign against the African majority in an attempt to thwart their aspirations for self-rule. A civil war broke out and escalated rapidly, beginning December 1972 when guerrillas launched an attack on Altena farm in the North East part of the country. From then on, the guerrilla offensive was relentless. The government stepped up the propaganda machine. A new type of war propaganda films were commissioned and shown in the war zones in order to undermine the support for the guerrilla armies in rural communities.

The War Films, 1973-1980

Prior to 1962, it had been possible to conceive of some formula for reconciling the conflicting demands of the minority white government and African political aspirations for self-determination. The elections of 1962 signalled the collapse of that vision when the Rhodesia Front party assumed power with a mandate to safeguard unimpeded white rule. It was to be only a matter of time before a state of war existed between the state and the majority African population.

The government unleashed a major media propaganda war. Control of film production now fell under the Rhodesian Ministry of Information. It is from there that propaganda war films were produced. The films were directed to both African and white audiences. Those film directed to African audiences, and in particular, the so called "war films" sought to undermine the support of rural communities for the guerrilla armies that were challenging white rule.

Not much is known about the production of the war films. The evidence for their use comes from oral interviews from the war zones, the most notable source for which is Julie Frederiske’s (1990) None but Ourselves. The films were produced at a time when Anker Atkinson was head of the Ministry of Information’s film production unit. Louis Nell who was a scriptwriter for the unit has described the production of these films as a "hush, hush" affair. The propaganda offensive involved some collaboration with white Portuguese who had some experience with guerrilla offensive and tactics in Mozambique. According to a Ministry of Information internal memorandum, the goal was to use the excellent medium of film to broadcast propaganda in order to win the hearts and minds of the people.

Mobile film units were deployed to show films in the war zones. In one film War on Terror a Rhodesian Army soldier is shown tracking ‘terrorist spoor’ after a ‘contact’. A camera shot shows a close-up shot of a dead guerrilla. Two Rhodesian soldiers are then shown approaching a village and setting the homestead on fire. The aim of such films was to undermine the rural support for guerrilla armies through terror tactics. But ironically such depictions left the African population much more resolved to support the guerrillas against a Rhodesian army perceived to be killing their "sons and daughters."

In another untitled production that was widely used, the film opened with shots of three insurgent entering a village where they were fed and given shelter. As the story unfolded, the guerrillas were tracked and shot dead. The villagers who assisted them were arrested. In the most horrific scene the camera shows a hyena on leash rolling itself upon three real human bodies which are badly mutilated, licking up the brains of one body, ripping open another to pull out and eat entrails. The camera lingers on this scene for a considerable while.The film closes with a pitch black screen and the sound of hyenas laughing (Frederiske, 1990, p. 95).

This widely used and came to be known as the ‘hyena film’ by locals. It had neither title nor credits. It left audiences stunned, and some of them sick. In 1980, just before independence, the Rhodesia government destroyed some of the film stock used during the propaganda offensive. There is no evidence that the war films programme succeeded in undermining support for the liberation war. As the war escalated, support for the guerrillas intensified, and by 1979, the government was forced to concede that it was losing both the military conflict and the struggle for hearts and minds. In the words on one informant, responsible for taking the films to the rural areas:
"The films didn’t do anything for all these years. This I’m telling you from my own personal experience. The people didn’t want to see things like that — guerrillas being killed — for the people were supporting the guerrillas, though they couldn’t show it publicly for fear of being prosecuted." (Frederiske, 1990).

In many ways, the war films were the low point of film-making in Zimbabwe. There is clear evidence of audience resistance to propaganda messages. The experience clearly demonstrates the limits of propaganda, when there is a strong contradiction between the lived reality and aspirations of the audience and those of institutional film-maker. This is a salutary lesson for political elites who have historically tended to over-rate the power of media over the masses (see for example Smyth, 1988). The war ended in 1980, when Zimbabwe attained independence. Independence promised an new and exciting chapter in the development of local film.

The Post-Independence Agenda in Film-Making, 1980-1999

During the first decade of independence, the state, through the Ministry of Information, launched an aggressive initiative to promote Zimbabwe as a film-making centre for Hollywood studios. The country was described as a "perfect film-making venue" with an excellent climate, a good and varied terrain, excellent infrastructure, and adequate technical support base (Government of Zimbabwe, 1987). The reasons for promoting the country were both cultural and economic (Hungwe, 1992). It was expected that Hollywood studios would inject money into the economy and provide training for local film-makers, who would, in turn form a local film industry. Among the films made in the 1980s were Cannon studio’s King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel Quartermain.

In pursuing the objective of a local film industry, the state was keen to invest directly in film industry. A partnership was struck with Universal Pictures that led to the production of the anti-apartheid film, Cry Freedom. The film was not as successful as anticipated, and the government did not realise a return on its US$5.5 million investment in the film. Stung by this loss, the government has stayed away from the production of feature film. It continues to sponsor a limited programme of film through the Ministry of Information’s Production Services. These are mostly short documentaries of a cultural and educational nature. The production unit has faced severe budgetary constraints and has not made a significant impact locally.

With the failure of the government project, the initiative has now been seized by independent film makers sponsored by foreign donors. The primary thrust of this initiative is message, rather than profit. The agenda is broadly defined in terms of international development. This new initiative is mostly informed by what is termed the "rights-based approach to development" which differs from the old approach to development, where the needs of the developing country population were too often defined by government officials or international institutions without any consultations with the people on whose behalf they claimed to act. (FCO & DFID, 1999, p. 15).

The promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law has formed an increasingly important dimension to the policies of bilateral donors and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the European Union (Ferguson, 1999; Häusermann, 1998). Among the rights articulated by donors are labour rights, protecting the rights of vulnerable groups (women and children), and more recently the relation between HIV/AIDS and human rights. In particular, the Beijing Women’s Conference of 1995, provided an important impetus for the rights of women by confirming women’s rights as an essential basis for sustainable development. The high profile given to these rights have been reflected in the themes of film narratives that have been sponsored by Western donors in Zimbabwe.

The best known films produced by donor funded filmmakers in the 1990s are Neria, and Flame, both of which address the problem of women’s rights. Both have been very successful in Zimbabwe and won international awards. Flame was selected for the prestigious Director’s Fortnight’s at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996 and was awarded the Organisation of African Unity special prize at the Southern African Film festival in the same year. Also included in this output are Consequences (a film on the problem of teenage pregnancy), Everyone’s Child (a film on the problem of child abuse, HIV/AIDS, and orphans), More Time (an HIV/AIDS film), Keep on Knocking (a film on the history of the trade union movement in Zimbabwe). The release of a film on the human rights abuses by Zimbabwe army in the province of Matebeleland is imminent.

The narratives for these films are in line with emergent donor priorities for a rights-based approach to development. Film production has been funded by individual governments as well as multilateral institutions such as the EU. The film Flame, for example, was supported by the European Union to the tune of Z$3 million. Funds for film projects have been channelled through Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

Co-operation with NGOs is an integral part of the rights-based approach to development. The 1990s have witnessed the rapid rise of NGOs in Zimbabwe as donor funded agents of change and development. Western donors have become increasingly disenchanted with the role of the state as partner in development. In a recent influential report, the Government of Zimbabwe has been described as
"weakened by a combination of weak macro-economic management, the state’s incapacity to respond to pressure for more transparency in governance and the growing impact of globalisation on state control of policymaking" (Raftopoulous, Hawkins, Amonor-Wilks, 1998, p. 80).
The prescription for these problems has been identified as political reform and empowerment of disadvantaged groups.

As a basis for political renewal, an effective national response to global order, the state will need to provide more political space for democratic debate, and popular empowerment and participation." (Raftopoulous, Hawkins, Amonor-Wilks, 1998, p. 80). Donors have recognised that working through NGOs may create political problems in their relations with Third World governments. As an example, films that promote political reform or give voices to oppressed or disadvantaged groups may create a political backlash. Some donors have considered this problem. As the British government has put it, this means that we might channel political support and development assistance through local and international NGOs to promote human rights and to encourage the prospect of political reform. At the same time we can maintain staunch criticism of the ruling regimes and their record on human rights violations. (FCO & DFID, 1999, p. 22)

The debate on donor aid has on occasions become quite heated, fuelled by the linkage between human rights and foreign aid that has characterised donor-recipient relations in the post-Cold War era. Donor support for film has not escaped this controversy. The film Flame is a case in point. The controversy was fuelled by the War Veterans, the State controlled press, and some senior civil servants in the Ministry of Information. Projects with no clear political content have also been affected. In 1988 the then Minister of Health (Brig. Felix Muchemwa), stopped the production of a donor funded HIV/AIDS film (Hungwe, 1992). The film which was to be directed by Edwina Spicer, was stopped days before shooting commenced, ostensibly to protect the image of Zimbabwe as a healthy AIDS free country.

Some film makers have voiced some disquiet over the the influence of donors on film narrative. As Tsitsi Dangarembga (Dangarembga, 1999) has put it, film requires money to make, and "those who do not have the money are debarred from making film" She raised questions about the "gate-keeping" role of donors, who favoured some directors over others, and some narratives over others. Although she had directed the film Everyone’s child, she had yet to find her own unfettered voice as a film-maker. "Everyone’s child is not the film I wanted to make. I didn’t want to make another AIDS film on Africa. I was not empowered to make the narrative that I wanted to make."

The donor funded film agenda has achieved some positive results by breaking taboos, for example on the rights of women, HIV/AIDS, and political repression. However, as Dangarembga puts it, "only certain kinds of taboos are broken. Other taboos that would empower the peoples of colour are not broken." She protested that the dominant narrative form on Africa cast the continent and its people as a problem. There are concerns that Western dominated donor organisations might inhibit the growth of local capacity in film-making. There is no guarantee that NGO-directed film projects can find the authentic voice of the oppressed and disadvantaged groups. Some of them may in fact represent institutional self-interest at the expense of local development.

These problems make it clear that we have yet to achieve a satisfactory agenda for a rights-based approach to development through film. Creating film narratives that tackle this agenda effectively will require both money as well as courage, as the experiences with the film Flame have shown.


Film-making over the last 50 years has been dominated by an evolving post-Second World War agenda for development in the former colonies. Local racial politics that precipitated the war of liberation produced a particularly reprehensible brand of war propaganda films. The agenda has been primarily controlled by outsiders, and in particular the West, initially by Britain as the colonial powers, and as we come to the close of the 20th Century, by multilateral and bilateral donor agencies.

The rights-based agenda is political and ideological. Its educational goal is to raise consciousness, and mobilise people for action. There are tensions inherent in such an agenda. The controversy surrounding Flame is one example of this. The film was vigorously opposed by some males as a distortion of the war history of the Zimbabwe. The controversial aspect of the film was that it gave voice to the experiences of female ex-combatants, some of whom had been sexually abused during the war. The film survived the harsh criticism from some sections of the War Veterans association, the Sunday Mail, and the then Director of Information.

To its credit, the Zimbabwe government, as a whole, supported the film and provided logistical support through the airforce. The story of Flame suggests that there is no one monolithic Government of Zimbabwe view. There are ongoing debates, and at various points, some points of view gain ascendancy over others. This is a hopeful sign for the future of democratic participation in the construction of film narrative.

The promotion of a rights-based developmental framework in Zimbabwe is in many ways welcome. However the debate has yet to be completely flung open. There are taboo areas for both donors, local audiences, and the state. For donors, the challenge is to go beyond a framework that blames under-development on the deficiencies of the citizens or the state.

It is necessary to also critically examine the assumptions in the global system of economic and political relations and how these can be regulated in such a way as to foster development in poor countries. As of now, the unit of analysis remains the isolated state. If the rights-based agenda is taken to its logical conclusion, we should also see film narratives that seek to raise consciousness about the problem of development from a global perspective, directed to local as well as foreign audiences that have a stake in the development of Zimbabwe and other poor countries.

In conclusion, in the fifty years under review, an international developmental agenda that has largely motivated the development of film in Zimbabwe. The politics of that agenda have evolved over that time. Changes in narrative have therefore occurred over time, reflecting changing interests and relations, and shifting geopolitical interests.


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  2. Dangarembga, T. The Art of Film: Breaking Taboos. Notes on talk presented at the Book Café, Harare, 5 August, 1999.

  3. Ferguson, C. Global Social Policy Principles: Human Rights and Social Justice. London, Department for International Development, 1998

  4. F[oreign] and C[ommonwealth] O[ffice] & D[epartment for I[international] D[evelopment], (1999), Human Rights Annual Report 1999. London: Stationery Office.

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  11. Izod, A. The film in native development. Radio talk, 1950

  12. Nell, L. Images of Yesteryear: Film-making in Central Africa. Collins Harper, 1998

  13. Peet, S. Interview with Stephen Peet. Harare, 18 January 1988.

  14. Raftopoulous, B. Hawkins, T. & Amonor-Wilks. Human Development Report, Zimbabwe 1998. Harare: UNDP, Poverty Reduction Forum & IDS, 1998.

  15. Smyth, R. The British Colonial Film Unit and Sub-Saharan Africa, 1939-1945. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 8, 1988.

  16. Smyth, R. The Central African Film Unit’s Images of Empire. 1948-1963. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 3, 1983.

  17. So, A. Y. Social Change and Development. Harare, London, SAGE, 1990.


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© 1999-2003 Dr. Kedmon Hungwe
Last modified 14 November 2003

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