Road To Zanzibar

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

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.)

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But the film that superseded almost any in recent memory was the lyrical, exquisitely photographed The Name of the River--which, hailing from India, and paying elaborate homage to Bengali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.

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.

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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