Road To Zanzibar

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

Tensions between local orthodox Muslim communities and businesses continue to exacerbate the aforementioned activities. A bar and a guesthouse, both frequented nightly by prostitutes from mainland Tanzania, were both bombed last year. The pipe-bomb-style blasts injured only a few workers, and were popularly dismissed as confined incidents committed by young street toughs. Nevertheless, one of the targets, the New Happy Bar, is right around the corner from two luxury hotels, where inhabitants can easily spend more in a night than most Zanzibaris earn in a year. With a cheap lodge quartered above it, the aptly named New Happy regularly attracts more prostitutes than genuine patrons. Oddly enough, the squalid watering hole is not only leased by the nation's ruling party, but is located next door to the former home of Tippu Tipp, the most infamous slave trader in East African history. (Zanzibar was for many years the economic center of the joint East African slave and ivory trade, which didn't end until the late 19th Century.)

The brighter side of Omani history and influence in Zanzibar is well-documented in a series of short documentaries at this year's ZIFF. In fact, all of the venues for the fest are former Omani residences or strongholds. Besides the military fort where Jubran played, another main venue is the late-19th-century-era Beit el-Ajaib, or House of Wonders, a palace-turned-museum.

It's not immediately clear how the ZIFF fits into the overall picture of tourism and development. Local government officials haven't voiced much support for the endeavor, while some have expressed worries that it will grow into a Caribbean-like stomping ground for Western tourists. Amid ever-increasing globalization, it's the Zanzibars of the world that are undergoing the most dramatic cultural and economic shifts. Certainly, some Zanzibar government officials get nervous when they see their people react so enthusiastically to an organization run in part by foreigners--not to mention one that dispenses information about condoms and AIDS in remote fishing villages. It was a pleasant surprise, however, to discover that the sprawling cultural event is not only all-inclusive and catered to local audiences, but also seems to have a positive influence on the island economy.

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

Zanzbaris always outnumber tourists at each venue, whether they're watching pensive Iranian films, dancing to Congo-inspired rumba bands, or eating fresh seafood in the public space between the House of Wonders and the seafront. What's more, the ZIFF regularly acts as a catalyst for fruitful cultural exchanges. For example, a post-screening panel discussion of Lumumba led many African viewers to question the film's historical thoroughness as well as its use of Hollywood-style narrative tropes in place of African ones. Yet, as the former Congo prime minister is still considered a great pan-African martyr here, the introduction of the French actor who portrays him, Eric Ebouaney (who's also the festival's guest of honor), was greeted with raucous cheers and undying chants of "Lumumba!"

The many workshops between local and international artists--from master classes for women documentary filmmakers to lectures on intellectual property rights--have further established enduring dialogues. Jubran, the Palestinian composer and musician, expresses his delight with the festivities.

"It was my first real time in Africa, and I had no idea what to expect," he says. "It's been very good. The Zanzibaris have no training: They only know how to play the oud by heart. Yet they have such an eagerness to [learn], and they play with much compassion."

After Jubran finishes a second performance later in the week, he leans into the microphone and softly utters asante, the Swahili word for "thank you." When he exits the stage, the crowd continues to applaud. After another week of workshops here, Jubran plans on returning to Ramallah, where several of his neighbors' homes have been destroyed in recent Israeli-Palestinian skirmishes.

"Somehow I know I must have hope, even though I don't know if I can find it," says Jubran, rubbing his hands over his stocky arms and chest. "If I do find hope, I would like to think I can give a little of it to Zanzibar as well."

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