The Swahiliwood sceptics

A class with the Ghetto Film Project, Uganda
A class with the Ghetto Film Project, Uganda

Seeing a TV set when boarding a long-distance bus in Tanzania usually made my heart sink. The music videos or the homegrown melodramas – the ones that take 10 minutes to tell you that our main character is upset, or one minute to show someone pulling into a driveway – never seemed to make those twelve-hour journeys pass more quickly.

So I understood Nes’s point, when I sat in on one of his classes in the slums of Uganda (I’ve written about that, here): be more subtle. To illustrate, the Ugandan filmmaker showed two shorts: powerful films with almost no dialogue that told a whole story without spelling it out. Western-made films, of course.

But I wonder now what he’d make of the critique, on Africa is a Country, of how the Western film industry is muscling in on (in this case) Tanzanian culture. Hollywood does sell – at least the guys flogging pirate DVDs outside Dar es Salaam’s shopping malls suggest that’s the case – but it’s the donor-funded movies, though Hollywood-influenced and highly polished, that have become known by locals as “films to fall asleep to”.

Cultural imperialism is, of course, nothing new. It’s when the perpetrators are development agencies – government, UN or NGO donors – that we should worry. The author of the current critique claims that programmes like MFDI, aiming to educate citizens about things like gender equality or malaria while building up the local filmmaking industry are not only not working (because viewers switch off) – they are also destabilising a fragile local industry with their inflated budgets (the budget of the 5 or so donor films in the last 3 years is apparently equivalent to almost 100 Tanzanian films). The “Swahiliwood” now being nurtured by donors – the term itself was coined by outsiders, not Tanzanians – is not authentic, it seems.

Now, if such films do succeed in changing attitudes – meaning ultimately, girls get to stay in school, perhaps, or young people learn about using condoms – might this “aesthetic intrusion” be worth it? There are numerous programmes worldwide that insist on the impact of film (or other means of storytelling) as a means of raising awareness; I don’t know of a conclusive evidence base to say what works, but presumably it has been seen to work enough for donors to keep funding such things.

And what about the other benefits to the film industry – the raised profile of Tanzanian film abroad, professional training of young actors and crew, and even the equipment that gets left in their hands when the development-messaging film is done – might all of this counter the negative impact on some fledgling production companies that would have little chance of surviving anyway?

Finally, donor-funded projects can outlive external support to become locally driven. The Kibera Film School  in Nairobi’s biggest slum still gets funding from Europe, but is now under Kenyan management and attracting fee-paying students from across Africa, suggesting a bright future. The African Slum Journal, also in Nairobi, now sells its products – two video reports each month covering news from the slums – to the Dutch foundation that originally helped set it up, and the reporters also do corporate and documentary video. When such organisations function well, might they be able to reclaim the lost cultural territory, and make their films their own?

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