Interview with Ben Zulu: Harare, July 6 2000
Kedmon Nyasha Hungwe
Department of Education
Michigan Technological University
African Movies and the Global Mainstream
We are trying to find African stories that have universal appeal, that are based on strong character and motivation.
Ben Zulu is the executive director of the African Script Development Fund (ASDF). The ASDF was formed in 1997 to promote the development of African film. Zulu has been involved with film-making in Zimbabwe since the early 1980s. The goal of this interview was to learn about the ASDF initiative in the context of Zimbabwean film-making, and to learn about the problems and prospects of film-making in Zimbabwe.
[KH] Thank you for granting me this interview. I would like to start by asking you to talk about your involvement with the ASDF and why it was formed.
[BZ] I have been involved in film for some time. Not only in Zimbabwe but regionally. You attend festivals, talk to film-makers. The question kept coming, why don't we see more of our own film? We only see them in festivals in Europe and the USA but we are not seeing them in our countries. So the problem was one of distribution. African films are not well distributed. But once we started interrogating the question of distribution we started saying to ourselves but why would people distribute bad films anyway? Because the quality of our films leaves a lot to be desired. So we started saying maybe we need to address two issues: One is, how can we improve the quality of the films that are made so that distributors can be motivated to distribute them. And secondly, how can we encourage and improve the production of African films.
So it was a question of addressing quality and increase in numbers. In 1994 we conducted a workshop at Victoria Falls. We brought in participants from Africa, and South Africa was just coming on stream at that time. SABC [the South African Broadcasting Corporation] was there, M-NET [of South Africa] was there, and some of the large distributors from South Africa were there. It was comprehensive.
[KH] So you are saying during apartheid it might not have been possible to do that?
[BZ] It would not have been possible because we didn’t even know those people. I had met some of the South Africans in my travels. We just took the initiative to invite institutional representatives. We were interested to hear from overseas distributors of film. And there was someone from California Newsreel, one of the largest distributors of African films. So we were exploring. We wanted to bring in anyone who had experience in distributing African film. Producers, exhibitors, distributors.
It was really to define our problem. It was at that point that we said, look guys, we are in trouble from a quality point of view. People investing in local films are investing in development films. They are dealing with gender. They are dealing with AIDS. So you can’t develop a sustainable industry on the basis of that.
[KH] You feel that?
[BZ] We feel that those kinds of films are not industry films. You can’t sustain them. It’s a question of, there is a problem, give me some money. All these films like Yellow Card, they are all development films. Some of the films were funded for anthropological reasons showing an aspect of Africa life that was unique and so on. Normally the people who funded those films had an academic or romantic notion of Africa. But they were not industry films. They were not making films that were a work of art and culture and would be picked up for commercial distribution so that they would build a sizeable audience. So those were the sort of aspirations we started articulating.
Then we went away for a year, back to our countries. We re-grouped again in 1995 and had a workshop which I organised and conducted with some funding from Rockefeller Foundation and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were joined by others at that time, and the group was a bit larger. And we said, what do we really need to do? So it was at that workshop that the idea of starting up a script development fund was really proposed.
The other idea was to develop a market, where on an annual basis, African products could be made available. So buyers and sellers could meet at the market. In a space which we call the market. It would be a co-production market. We assumed that there would be producers, and investors interested in good stories and if they were attracted annually to come and look for African film projects, and we institutionalize that, that would be a better way of marketing whatever little is available. That idea has been institutionalized. It is called Sithenge. So it’s a sister initiative. So the ASDF is the one that I, with a couple of other guys made a Zimbabwean driven initiative.
[KH] What is your assessment of where the ASDF is now?
[BZ] We were officially launched in 1997 at Sithenge and did not start the programme until 1998. We started off with 12 writers from Mauritius, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia. The program said you come in here and attend an intensive 2-week workshop on screen writing. You go back to your country. You write your first draft screen play, and send it in. Out of those 12, we selected 6. They came in for the second workshop and were given feedback. We discussed what problems had come up. They were helped to understand the weakness of their screen plays and were asked to go back to their countries and write a second draft. So they went back and sent the second draft. And we selected 3. At the end of the year we ended up with 3 writers.
[BZ] So it is those stories that we took to Sithenge last year just to showcase them. We try to make sure that the standard that we were pitching is high. Of those 3 stories, I think there is one that is looking like it will really go into production. It takes a bit of time to put everything together, particularly if you are trying to make a feature film.
[KH] Who might produce it?
[BZ] That is still to be determined. I think the way we are trying to make film, making film as a work of art and culture, is different from making film as a work of development or anthropology where you have funding from some University or funding from some institution. Here we are trying to find producers and investors who are actually going to make the film and say, look, this is a film that will contribute to World Cinema. And we can have professional distributors. Because we have taken that route, it’s taking more time. Because people are not sure about the product that you are offering. People will say, I’ve never seen an African film, can I give the script to my reader?
So it’s taking time to really put the budget together, even to put the team together. If we are shooting for quality we have to recruit a director, a good producer, a cast. All these people will have to understand that we are trying to make an African film that is going to be uniquely African. So you got to find people who buy into those kind of values. We think they are going to be mainstream films that are driven by good stories but at the same time we really think people have to buy into these new values we are trying to promote.
[KH] It’s an interesting distinction you are making between work of art and culture, and development films. What do you think will be the primary difference between the two approaches?
[BZ] Have you seen films that have been made here?
[KH] I have seen Yellow Card and Jit.
[BZ] Jit was made as a commercial film. Yellow Card is trying to be commercial but it is still framed as a development film. Then it becomes very difficult, for me to fully realise the story. I don’t know what you think about it. It dies. I doesn’t go anywhere. There is this young man, you are really not sure what his motivations really are. He is supposed to be aspiring to become a famous footballer, he is supposed to be after a girl. It’s trying to raise certain questions but struggles and never really achieves…
[KH] You mentioned Jit.
[BZ] That was made as an entertainment film. It was made by Michael Raeburn
[KH] Do you have information on how they raised the money?
[KH] It’s not the kind of film that is currently funded by donors, is it?
[BZ] The thing is, lets be very careful about it, I don’t want to say donors make bad films. The motivation for making donor funded films is normally educational. Films that are trying to deal with social behaviour. And because of that primary objective of trying to communicate the messages, you create characters that can actually motivate your audiences to accept those values. But you can go to a foundation that has a program that funds art and culture and you go with a film project and say, look, I am making this film, can you assist? And they give you a percentage of the budget to help you with script development, to help you to finish your editing on something like that.
Those programmes are there. It’s tough, but what we are trying to do is to say to African writers, find a story that is important to you and without any boundaries, use your talent and imagination to tell that story. There are no rules. The rules are really the ones of creativity. Just understanding that first and foremost you are an entertainer. But you are an entertainer because you tell stories that are a metaphor for life. Stories that are based on characters that are really believable. And the stories are constructed using the art form of film. Story telling in an artistic way where you are not trying to force [pause, laugh], you know, so the outcome is determined by the creative process rather than trying to force it to tell a particular message. You yourself, you bring your own experiences and your own creativity, in terms of your talent, your imagination. Discovering things as you are writing.
[KH] What market are you looking at?
[BZ] We are trying to find African stories that have universal appeal, that are based on strong character and motivation. If you look at it in terms of the conventional segmentation of the market, there are two kinds of markets. The commercial market which is Hollywood and the international distributors network which has Ster Kinekor, Rainbow and so forth. They all belong to that. Action adventure, and that kind of thing. That is what we call commercial film. But there are lots of films that compete as part of World Cinema. They are made by independent film makers particularly in Europe. These are not studio driven films. But they are films that are driven by the personal vision of those film makers. They range in genre from drama to experimental films.
The personal vision of the story teller is much more important. In America there are also independent film makers. Some of them make films that are actually picked up by the large distributors. The kind of audience we are talking about is the audience that will look at film in a discerning way. You know, I’m looking for a good story. I am looking for a film that is set in a social cultural context that is unique, that is different. But it’s a world class film. When they are commercially distributed, those films are actually called art house films.
[KH] So where do you think the ASDF initiative will fit in?
[BZ] I think we are going to contribute to World Cinema just like China is making its own films. Japan is making its own films that go on to the World Cinema. They may not be exhibited by the big studios, but I’m saying they are films that when you see at festivals people are going to say that was a great film.
[KH] What problems have your writers faced in developing scripts?
[BZ] The thing is that the film story telling is a new art form particularly to African writers. This is visual story telling as opposed to prose. You are not writing a novel. To enable a writer to develop that skill takes time. Originally we thought that in a matter of 12 months, by running three workshops with intervals of 3-4 months, starting with a writer who had never written a screen play before, we could actually end with a production-ready screenplay which we could take to producers and investors, and say guys we’ve got a screen play that’s ready for production. And people would read it and say, ‘Great, nice work.’ But we found, at the end of a year, they were still learning. It’s a craft.
So we modified our training program. We have what we call the first level, the foundation level. At the foundation level we introduce a writer to the fundamentals of screen writing, of film story telling. They start to understand the basic elements, because we are really changing the way they are looking at the world. It’s much more visual. It’s what you are seeing. It’s how you externalize what is inside your character. How you externalize the emotions. A camera can not go into someone’s head. In a novel you can say whatever you want. You can put the character in different situations and your limitation is the imagination of the reader.
But in film, I’m sorry, the audience can only work with what they see in front of them [laughing]. So it takes a certain kind of understanding for that type of story telling. And so the foundation level workshop is the level of training where we actually say, look, these are the fundamentals of screen writing. But that’s where we also screen very carefully those who have got the talent to go on to become screen writers. So it’s one way of assessing whether the person has got the talent and commitment. Because we are realizing that it takes a long time. So once a person has gone through the foundation workshop, gone away and developed their draft, he comes here, we look at it, and then we are able to determine that, yeah, this is the person we should invite to the next level, what we call the re-writing level.
Now, at the rewriting level, writers go away to their own countries, write a screen play, and come back for a two week intensive workshop, and get feedback on their story. There will be one-on-one meetings. They will be told what is working and what is not working. And they will take a lot of notes about that particular draft. But they will also be asked to pitch another three story ideas, select one, and start writing on that one. And then they go away, back to their home countries. Finish the script that they got a lot of feedback on and send it to us. And they develop the new story. And when they finish developing that story, they will send it and that’s the one that admits them to the second workshop. If the second draft is not up to our standard we don’t invite that person back. We are looking for commitment. So if it’s good enough, they come back to the second workshop. They get feedback again. They have one-on-one consultations, and pitch another story idea. So we keep them there until they have written five screen plays. Then we know that the craft has developed.
The best of those who come out of the re-writing workshop, if they have a story that we think, OK, this story can go places, we actually select that guy and push him, to what we call the third level which is the film project workshop. At that stage then we will make sure that the writer is now introduced to a professional environment where they are writing with a relationship to a director and producer. They are able to get more feedback. You know, I’m sorry we can’t shoot this. This is too expensive. They now understand how a producer thinks.
[KH] People talk about a film industry in Zimbabwe. Where are we as far as setting up a film industry?
[BZ] First of all, when you talk about a film industry you must understand that you are talking about film like you talk about agriculture, or tourism. When you say something is an industry, your answer becomes very clear. We don’t have a film industry, like we have a tourism industry, an agricultural industry. Because that means that there a people who are employed on a full-time basis, in a chain of production. Marketing and distribution and financing and investment. So where is it? We have the beginnings, people are trying, but there is no film funding in Zimbabwe. There are no Zimbabwean professionals who are working as film makers. We have an agriculture industry You can see the infrastructure and the institutions. How can you talk of a film industry?
[KH] How do you assess the prospects of moving towards a film industry?
[BZ] Services are very important. When you are shooting a film and you are a producer, you have a budget. All the people that are working for you are on contract. And the contracts are very specific. For a day’s work you will be paid so much. For everyday that you do not shoot because you couldn’t get diesel, you couldn’t get petrol nobody is going to reimburse you. So they prefer an environment where there is much more certainty. So in Zimbabwe if people feel there may disruptions due to power outage, or political violence, or lack of petrol or something like that, that is where the problem is.
[KH] I notice the past in the 1980s a lot of directors, including French directors, were shooting here. I just want to understand why they were shooting here, instead of going to French speaking countries.
[BZ] Because we have beautiful locations. We also, in terms of crew, have enough people who have worked on big productions and have very good skills. And then we have a very good banking infrastructure. People can bring in money here and know that they are not going to be dealing with weak or corrupt institutions that you see in other countries. They know that they can transfer their money here to a reputable bank. They can withdraw their money. And there are services as well. They can go and contact somebody who can feed their crew and cast. That’s what makes the industry. There are people who have worked in big productions here, who can supply those services. So there is potential. There is a base on which we can create something. Maybe film industry is too ambitious at this stage. Film budgets are very high. You have to have very good marketing and distribution plans in place in order to risk investing in a film that will cost millions of dollars and hope that you can get a return and safeguard your investment.
[KH] What are some of the problems?
[BZ] I just think that the real potential for the film industry in Zimbabwe is going to depend on the ZBC [Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, the national broadcaster]. Because, in our kind of countries, there is no way a film industry can develop without being driven by television. Television is where you make short productions. This is where your film-makers develop into film-makers of the caliber that you find in countries such as Australia. When given the opportunity to make your production for television, that is where you really hone in your skills. Film is a very expensive and risky business. You don’t want to give it to any Tom, Dick or Harry because they say I am a film-maker.
[KH] If ZBC has to play a more positive role, what kind of things should they be doing?
[BZ] What they could do is what South Africa is doing. They could have a commissioning system. What they could say to independent producers in Zimbabwe is, hey guys, come with your bids, we are going to contract you. You want to make a soap opera, here, this is the delivery date. You want to make a talk show, this is the delivery date. We give you start off money.
[KH] So that’s what is happening in South Africa?
[BZ] And in most countries where the film industry is moving some place. There are so many things you can do now with the video medium. You can have an excellent production and people like it. You can transfer that to film. This is reducing the cost of production. But you will need an institution that drives that. Make equipment available. You got to have a budget. Zimbabwean film-makers are really at a disadvantage. You are expected to hire people, and you don’t make money out of it. So the guy is a committed film-maker but he has to pay his mortgage, put food on the table for his family. You are just expecting too much, and a lot of guys will drift into other professions that really give them sustenance.
But if we are going to make it really worthwhile we must have professional film-makers and producers that can be commissioned. I really think that the national broadcaster is such an important institution and should be driving this industry if there is to be an industry. Otherwise it’s going to be ad hoc. We keep saying there is a film industry, but it’s not creating the volume. It’s not creating productions that Zimbabweans can start to look at and say these are stories that are actually telling us about ourselves. That are getting deeper and commenting on us. With characters I can live vicariously through and have insight into my world. And then we can also develop a cadre of film critics who can make the films much more meaningful to audiences. And so the whole thing opens up.
[KH] I guess one last thing I wanted to ask you, is about is your own history in film-making. How did you start?
[BZ] At college [in the United States] I was interested in literature and I had a girlfriend who was studying film. I got involved in her projects and got interested. But I majored in economics and marketing. When I finished graduate school, I had a marketing position as a marketing professional. I had to work with advertising agencies who shot commercials. I would be responsible for the budgets and they would have to come and pitch their ideas. This is what we want to do. This is how we are going to represent this product and so on. I found that I was very comfortable in that environment.
When I came back to Zimbabwe in 1982, I took up a job with Colgate Palmolive. In fact I was working for them in New York, so I came here as a transfer. I had an interest in film at that stage. I had taken a few courses before I left the United States, not thinking I would get so involved in it. When I got here I was again in a marketing area. I was a business development manager and I had a budget where I could actually develop television productions that we were sponsoring but sponsoring in such a way that we could advertise our products. So I actually approached ZBC and we put together a team. And my writer at that time is today the permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education.
[KH] Oh, Steve Chifunyise?
[BZ] Yeah, Steve had written some plays and I knew him before. So, there was Steve, and myself as the executive producer. Steve was the writer. And then there was a director who was working for ZBC at that time who had come out from Australia. A white Zimbabwean called Desmond Bishop. So we got together and we produced the first drama series just after independence, Solo naMutsai. Do you remember that?
[BZ] That was my first project. It was a 13 part series. It was a very interesting project because it really exposed me to how people see themselves when they are presented with images of themselves. I remember, in the early episodes, some women coming to my office from Mbare [a low income suburb in Harare] to say, “We don’t like what happened in the last episode. We almost destroyed our television.” They were taking it literally. It was very interesting. Steve would do about three episodes and we would have a script conference, where we discussed issues like, this idea is not working, this character is not very interesting. Or, would you go and rewrite this?
[BZ] Then I did a three part drama series, written by Kumbirai Tsodzo. It was called Babamunini Francis. I produced those three episodes. Colgate Palmolive products were heavily advertised during the series. That was really the end of my work in television production. And I went for a couple of years without being really involved. I occasionally went for short courses and I continued to be interested.
[BZ] In 1989, I think, this guy John Riber, came to Zimbabwe and produced, with Olley Maruma, Consequences. He decided that he was going to stay here and wanted to develop as a film-maker, making films to deal with development. In 1998 I left Colgate Palmolive and I joined the University of Zimbabwe and I taught in the business programme. I also started a consulting company. John Riber approached me and said, look, your name has been mentioned by several people. Can we work together? And we set up MFD [Media For Development Trust] And I became executive director. And we developed, starting with Neria, and then More Time, and then Everyone’s Child. And after Everyone’s Child, I decided to move on.
[KH] I did not know that you were connected to Solo na Mutsai and Babamunini Francis.
[BZ] If you remember those were not development kind of films. They were just stories. So I’ve gone full circle, because I’ve gone back to what I really believe in.
[BZ] This is what I always wanted.
[KH] Thank you so much. This was really interesting.