Road To Zanzibar

The Zanzibar Film Festival reflects the African island's position as a cross-cultural hub

 It begins with passionate cries from the African crowd when the Palestinian musician strums his ancient Arabic instrument. A classical composer and master oud player, Khaled Jubran hails from war-torn Ramallah, and has journeyed over the Indian Ocean to perform on a small tropical island just off the East African coast: Zanzibar.

In an open-air amphitheater made of stone, once a military fort used by Omani Arabs to defend against Portuguese invaders, Jubran plays with spellbinding intensity. So enthralled by the romantic sounds of his lutelike instrument, the audience at this point can perhaps hardly fathom that his concert is only the beginning of two weeks of revelry including music and theater performances and hundreds of film screenings.

So it is at the fifth annual Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), which held its opening-night gala in late June. Sometime after Jubran's evocative performance, the gala showcased a screening of Lumumba, the historical drama based on the short reign of the Congo prime minister who was assassinated in a Belgian/CIA-aided military coup in 1961. (The film opened locally at Oak Street Cinema last December.)

House of Wonders: the Zanzibar International Film Festival's ancient Beit-el-Ajaib
Javed Jafferji
House of Wonders: the Zanzibar International Film Festival's ancient Beit-el-Ajaib

The combination of a film set in the heart of the African continent and music born amid the volatile climate of the Middle East reflects the island's longtime position as a cross-cultural hub in the Indian Ocean. A semiautonomous state in union with the Republic of Tanzania, Zanzibar has been under Arabic influence for hundreds of years, ruled by an Omani sultan until a bloody revolution in 1964. Not surprisingly, the continuing Arab presence has found its way into the film competition lineup, which includes two Iranian features that explore the human condition: Under the Skin of the City, which observes the struggle between "progress" and repression in 21st-century Iran; and Under the Moonlight, which dares to mix comedy and drama in the frank tale of a doubt-riddled young seminarian.

But the film that superseded almost any in recent memory was the lyrical, exquisitely photographed The Name of the River--which, hailing from India, and paying elaborate homage to Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, more than pleased local Indian audiences. (Indians still dominate the merchant classes in several African countries, especially those with a former British colonial presence such as Tanzania.) Anyone can enjoy this sprawling film about the travels of two actors, although, for those not familiar with Indian history, literature, cinema, and religion, it may seem about as comprehensible as a Bollywood adaptation of a James Joyce novel.

Familiar African themes run through the festival as well. Given the number of African gigs around town, it wasn't surprising to see several compelling documentaries on musicians, the standout of which--Femi Kuti: What's Going On--focused on the son of Afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti. A Red Ribbon Around My House from South Africa concerns an HIV-positive activist and mother in Soweto, and it's an example of the many short docs and narrative films, performances, and speeches that carry AIDS-awareness messages throughout the ZIFF.

Like Lumumba, other African historical and political features receive top billing here. With a cast of nonprofessional Rwandan actors, 100 Days chronicles the 1994 Hutu genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. While British director Nick Hughes has clearly made an important film, he relies on too many conventions of the horror genre while failing to explain the longstanding social and political forces behind the genocide. For ill-informed Western audiences, the end result may not move far beyond that of most Western media depictions of the atrocity, which seemed to characterize it as just another tribal slaughter in Africa.


So what exactly is an international film festival doing in an all-Islamic, formerly Marxist state where most people live on less than $300 a year? After all, the film industry in Tanzania is nonexistent, and almost all of the Indian-run cinemas nationwide have shut down in recent years with the influx of VCRs and bootleg videos.

Since the mid-Eighties, however, Zanzibar has been transformed into a tourist hotspot, welcoming a slew of foreign developers, luxury hotel owners, and tour operators. For hundreds of years before then, the landscape had been romanticized by countless explorers and writers: endless white sand beaches leading into sapphire-blue waters and stretches of coral reef; scattered Arabic ruins and palaces that testify to the island's rich yet tragic history; a labyrinth of narrow streets and exotic architecture in the seaside capital of Zanzibar Town.

Spearheaded by an American entrepreneur along with local Zanzibaris in 1997, the ZIFF can be seen as a direct outgrowth of tourist development. To date, besides screening films and attracting first-rate musical talent from across the continent and beyond, the ZIFF provides workshops for musicians, women's groups, and aspiring filmmakers and other artists, as well as educational activities in 16 villages of the two main islands. And if funding from numerous European embassies and NGOs continues to increase, the festival will only expand.

So: Ready to book your flight for next year's subequatorial brouhaha? Perhaps we should first acknowledge the downside to unchecked Western tourism and development in the little haven under Allah. Even beyond the gaudy tourist shops and packs of penniless, abrasive street hawkers, Zanzibar Town's pollution, drunkenness, drug abuse, prostitution, and theft have soared in recent years. With its numerous Italian-owned beach resorts, whose rooms are rarely full, but whose business never goes under, Zanzibar has allegedly developed a reputation among the Italian mob as a convenient money- and drug-laundering point.

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