Tanzanian Dream

'Bongoland' travels from East Africa to the Central Standard

Standing at a scanty bar in the back of a drab reception hall, novice filmmaker Josiah Kibira refuses to despair as he awaits the long-overdue Tanzanian ambassador to the U.S., Andrew Daraja. Some of Kibira's fellow Twin Cities Tanzanians have already left the basement of the Knights of Columbus in Crystal; others continue to mill about, sipping Heinekens and chatting in their native Swahili, perhaps lamenting that, even by East African standards, three hours is a long time to wait.

Kibira had intended to screen portions of his debut feature Bongoland for the touring ambassador and the dwindling welcoming party comprised primarily of Tanzanian Minnesotans. As the tall, lithe East African leans back on the bar, however, the evening's entertainment--a local Tanzanian marimba band--has already begun to play, as if the ceremony is nearly over. But just then the stout ambassador makes a gusto-filled entrance with his small entourage and quickly apologizes for his tardiness, which he attributes to a stalled plane in Florida.

Soon enough, a scene from Kibira's locally produced film (the dialogue is mostly in Swahili) appears on a small screen at the front of the room. Set in a stylish Minneapolis restaurant, the scene centers on Juma (Mukama Morandi), a young Tanzanian immigrant, and Rachel (Laura Wangsness), his American girlfriend. When Juma's credit card is repeatedly rejected as payment for the bill, he hides out in the john with the waiter, a Tanzanian compatriot who brazenly shrugs off Juma's pleas and chides him for his gross stupidity.

Trying to get over: Mukama Morandi in 'Bongoland'
Kibira Films
Trying to get over: Mukama Morandi in 'Bongoland'

The sequence draws whoops and laughing fits from the crowd, and even the visibly exhausted ambassador tips his head back to reveal a wide grin. It's a scene that many African expatriates recognize from their own past struggles to make it in a dog-eat-dog culture.

"Many [Africans and immigrants] are still mesmerized by this American dream," says Kibira, who began filming Bongoland in the Twin Cities nearly a year ago. (The movie will have its local premiere at the Weisman Art Museum on September 19 as part of the Central Standard Film Festival.) "In Tanzania, people believe that if you make it to the States, everything is set for you. We are trying to break that perception. With this film, we ask, Would you rather be a well-fed slave or a hungry man?"

Bongoland follows the excruciating journey of Juma, an illegal African immigrant whose manly pride gives way to fallen dreams and self-destruction. With every conflict, the part-time dishwasher faces the threat of deportation; bounced checks and maxed-out credit cards pile up alongside eviction notices as his bitter life comes to be defined by the next bottle of beer, the next friend to push away amid fighting words.

While the dialogue in Bongoland often falls flat, the crux of the film lies between the characters of Juma and Rachel, neither of whom can overcome the cultural misperceptions and class barriers that divide them. Juma, his life growing more dire by the day, soon begins to question why he ever came to America, and why he and his compatriots hustle and slave to stay away from their deprived homeland. (The theme is echoed throughout the film's outstanding soundtrack, which includes songs by the Tanzanian-turned-Twin Cities reggae veteran Innocent, and his elder Rasta compatriot, the late Justin Kalikawe.)

Kibira's film bears some resemblance to Dirty Pretty Things, Stephen Frears's jarring tale of immigrants in London. But with a cast of seven Tanzanians and five Americans, many of whom doubled as crewmembers, the micro-budgeted Bongoland doesn't purport to be anything more than a first-time amateur effort. Indeed, poor sound recording, continuity flaws, and paper-thin acting overshadow the movie's finer moments.

"I knew from the beginning that we were just playing [at] making a film," says Kibira. "But I'm not so worried about all the technical aspects. At the reception, everybody was getting into it and [the ambassador] was excited. People are more entertained when they see themselves reflected in film--in their own language."

Bongoland's ironic title refers to a slang name for Tanzania's commercial capital of Dar es Salaam. As bongo means "head" in Swahili, the mixed-tongue moniker alludes to the streets where one must use his wits to survive. That seems an understatement given that every year hundreds of thousands of the nation's most impoverished rural citizens flock to its sprawling city beside the Indian Ocean in hopes of fighting for a fiscal trickle from one of the world's most impoverished economies. It's no wonder that as such a nation has become increasingly inundated with American media, its youth worship the likes of Tupac Shakur and Jay-Z.

"English is taking over in Tanzania," says Kibira. "The culture itself is being eroded. I feel sad when I see some secondhand American soap opera on TV there. There are so many people who speak Swahili. So why isn't there exposure in film?"

The 43-year-old Kibira first envisioned Bongoland about four years ago, drawing the scenario from his experiences living down and out in the Midwest. Now married with two children, Kibira, who first came to the U.S. in 1982, recalls how he struggled to get a decent job even after he had earned an MBA with honors. (He now works for Best Buy as a software technician.)

"This [Central Standard screening] is a big step," he says. "But I know how difficult it is to get distribution. I just hope that I can show this film to audiences who will really appreciate it. I need to bring it to Tanzania."

 
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