Desperately Seeking Tsitsi: A Conversation with Tsitsi Dangarembga

Tsitsi Dangarembga‘s outstanding book Nervous Conditions won the Commonwealth Prize in 1989. In this interview with Christopher J. Lee, Dangarembga speaks about her provocative short film Mother’s Day, her life in Germany as a film student, the state of the creative industry in Zimbabwe, and dancing dwarfs.


Long, long ago, in a land far, far away, a gentle mother was butchered, stewed, and eaten by her husband. It was a time of drought. The land was dry. No maize grew. There were no animals to slaughter for food. The mother and her family were hungrier than Hansel and Gretel. The family had nothing to eat, only termites, which were hoarded by the selfish father. Soon the father grew tired of their small, crunchy bodies. He wanted meat. And he began to imagine how delicious the mother would taste.

One day, after the mother had shamed him into going out to hunt for food, the selfish father trudged into the dry brush that had been a forest and built a cunning trap, a pit dug in to a clearing. He lured the mother into the forest with the promise of food for her and the children. Suddenly the ground fell away from her feet. Her body was pierced here and there by spears the father had fixed to the bottom of the pit.

The father licked his lips at the thought of the gentle mother’s delicious flesh. He tried to hoist her body from the pit, but even in death the mother was very stubborn. Her body would not budge. The father called for his children to come and help him pry her body from the trap. The sad, hungry children peered over the edge of the pit at their mother’s body. Their love for her was equalled only by their fear of their selfish father, and so they sang to their mother, pleading with her to move. Their sad voices reached her, even in death, and her body relaxed and with a grunt the father lifted her free of the pit. When the sad children and the selfish father arrived home, the gentle mother would not let her body be carried any further. The gentle mother was dead but still determined: she did not wish to become a meal for her husband. But the children, ever fearful, pleaded with their beautiful voices. She relented.

Working more quickly now, warmed by the fire, the father sharpened his stone knife again and again, but the blade would not pierce the mothers broken body.  Again he threatened the children and again they sang. “Oh please mother, let your flesh be cut,” they cried. And the knife slipped easily thorough her skin.

The father eyed the cut-up pieces of his wife’s body hungrily and stuffed them into the pot. He watched and watched but the water would not come to a boil, and when he tested the mother’s flesh for doneness the meat was nearly raw. Once more he asked the children to lend their voices to his cause, and at last the water frothed and gurgled, and the mother’s flesh turned to mouth-watering meat.

Finally the selfish father had his meal. He ate and ate, tearing into the meat as his children sat watching, singing even then to help him satisfy his hunger. Then another voice joined the chorus. At first it seemed as if the father himself was doing the singing. But the selfish father hated to sing. Soon the children recognized the voice of their gentle mother, growing louder as her husband finished his gruesome meal. Suddenly she burst through the selfish father’s distended stomach, whole and happy to be alive. She quietly joined her children by the hearth, where she sat and told them a story about … long, long ago.

This, more or less, is the story of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s latest film, Mother’s Day, an ambitious and rewarding thirty minute short complete with cannibalism, mise en abyme, and an ensemble of dancing termite people. The Shona title Kare Kare Zvako, is the traditional preamble to Shona oral tales: Long, long ago. And true to form, the film is based on a grimmer-than-Grimm Shona folktale-though the character of the mother, gracefully played by Consolata Ngwena, is also inspired by the Icelandic singer Bjork’s character in Lars von Trier’s death penalty musical, Dancer in the Dark. Dangarembga’s film made its American debut at the Sundance film festival in January of 2005, leading one reviewer to call it “the damndest thing I’ve seen in some time.”

Tsitsi Dangarembga is best known not as a filmmaker but as a novelist – indeed, one of the best-read writers in African literature. She published her first novel, Nervous Conditions, with a small feminist press in 1988. Set in colonial Rhodesia, the book was the coming-of-age story of a precocious and tenacious teenaged girl, Tambudzai, who leaves the drudgery of life in her small village for an education at the missionary school run by her uncle only to find that she has traded one system of oppression for another. At once insider and outsider, Tambu’s tale of innocence lost never seems childish; it is a feminist story told through a teenager’s apolitical voice. It was the first time such a perspective had made it into print-Dangarembga was Zimbabwe’s first black female novelist-and she became a literary celebrity on three continents.

But even as her book was making its way into the canon, Dangarembga had bid farewell to literature. In 1989, the same year she won the Commonwealth Prize for Nervous Conditions, she moved to Germany to attend film school. She would spend over a decade in Berlin, where she worked on several low-budget, high-yield movies, including Everyone’s Child (I996, director) and Neria (1993, story), the largest-grossing film in Zimbabwean history.

In 2000 she returned to Harare with her husband Olaf Koschke. Together they run Nyerai Films, a production company she founded in the early L990S. She is committed to investigating and promoting a distinctively Southern African film style–a commitment borne out in her use of Shona as a film language, as well as an extensive roster of Zimbabwean collaborators, including the poet Chirikuri Chirikuri and singer Prudence Katomeni-Mbofana.

Mother’s Day, the first fruit of those labours, is being released on DVD fall 200 6, courtesy of the National Geographic Company. This is also the year, remarkably enough, of the second coming of Tambu. Eighteen years after Nervous Conditions, a new novel is out in the United Kingdom this summer. The Book of Not is being published by Ayebia, the Oxford based imprint founded by Becky Ayebia Clarke, formerly of the Heinemann African Writers Series. It is a sequel to Nervous Conditions, the story of Tambu’s education at the Young Ladies’ College of the Sacred Heart as the liberation struggle shakes the foundations of colonial Rhodesia. There is talk, too, of a feature-length film version of Nervous Conditions itself.

Dangarembga lives in suburban Harare with her husband and their three children. The production offices for Nyerai Films are adjacent to her home, and it was there, in her editing room, that we sat down for tea and conversation.



CHRlSTOPHER JOON-HAI LEE:  What happened to you? Nervous Conditions came out in 1988. Where have you been for the last fifteen years?

TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: [She laughs.] In Germany. I went to Germany for film school in 1989, and I graduated in 1997.

CJL: So you lived there for eight years?

TD: Longer, because I met my husband there and my children were born in Berlin. We couldn’t come back immediately. We had to arrange for the whole family to return, so we didn’t actually get back to Zimbabwe until 2000.

CJL: Given the success of Nervous Conditions, why did you decide to go off to film school?

TD: It wasn’t successful when I decided to go! [They laugh.]

CJL: But the book won the Commonwealth Prize in 1989, the year after it came out in Britain.

TD: I changed careers before that happened. If success had come earlier  I might have kept to writing, I think.

CJL: And why Germany?

TD: Because you didn’t have to pay at that particular school. It was the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin, and they actually paid me to attend, as a foreign student. They thought the interaction with aspiring African filmmakers would be good for German filmmakers as well. When I was applying, just before the Wall came down, there were two big schools-one in Munich, which people said was more commercial, and the one in Berlin, which was more experimental. I think that’s why I was able to get into that school. I did the entrance examination from here.

CJL: Had you studied German?

TD: W ell, no, actually, I hadn’t. I took a two-week crash course here before the exam, which had to be done in German. And the test was horrific, but they didn’t seem to mind that I spent two hours longer than everyone else, writing my script and looking things up in my dictionary.

CJL: Were there many Zimbabweans in Berlin?

TD: Not many. [She laughs.]

CJL: Was it hard for you in Germany?

TD: It wasn’t easy. There were one or two people at the school w ho I really got on well with. But filmmaking is teamwork-you need to have a group, of people around you that you can rely on. That’s what I like about it, being around people-whereas writing is a very lonely process. But I didn’t have an entry point into the community in Berlin, so it was difficult for me to make films in that environment. It was a good experience, in a way, because I’m aware of how important it is to give young filmmakers the opportunity to experiment in their own environment, where they have connections.

CJL: I know you were very involved with theatre here in Harare. You’d written and directed plays. Did that have anything to do with your interest in film?

TD: No, I had been writing for the stage and acting but once I left the University of Zimbabwe there wasn’t much scope. After I went to Berlin, a theatre movement did in fact develop here, but I missed that. What got me into film was the publication of Nervous Conditions.

C JL: How old were you when it came out? Twenty-five?

TD:  I was twenty-five when I wrote the book. That was during my first year at the University of Zimbabwe, studying psychology. But I was twenty-nine when it was published. I was approached by Mark Kaplan, a film-maker who has read the novel in England. He moved to Harare to start a production house- Capricorn Video Unit- and he asked me in would work with him. That’s how I got into film. The first project we did was on land reform, actually.

CJL: A documentary.

TD: Yes. There had been various land reform projects and the donors who had been sponsoring them wanted a video-something they could show to their boards, that kind of thing. So I went out to Chapinga, Mutare, down to Matabeleland, to see how the various projects were getting on. I really enjoyed that experience.

CJL: Did you feel constrained, artistically?

TD: Well, I like documentary filmmaking because you get to learn about things you wouldn’t have exposure to otherwise. And you meet people who have lifestyles and perspectives completely different from yours. But the film was very “development-oriented.” At about that same time the Media for Development Trust asked me to write the story for Neria, which was a feature film-though it, too, was very development-oriented. These films are very much in a classical mould, where they try to follow one character and the time frame is Linear. I think the difference between a documentary and a feature is less pronounced here than it should be; some Zimbabwean features might as well have been documentaries. In fact they may have been more successful if they had been documentaries.  In any case I went to film school in order to see how I would approach things more artistically.

CJL: What was the curriculum in Berlin like?

TD: It was a mix of theory and practice, with a strong emphasis on film history. There was a five-year formal course of instruction, and then a practical year, in which students produced their graduation films. I wasn’t able to raise money for the project I had in mind, but luckily the Media for Development Trust asked me to direct, one of their productions. I was able to present that film as my graduation project, and I was pleased that I managed to graduate with distinction. That was Everyone’s Child, about AIDS orphans.

CJL: I’m afraid I haven’t seen it.

TD: Please don’t. It was really one of those NGO, “teach the people how to behave”-type things, and I needed work, and I needed to graduate, so I did it. But it’s not the kind of thing I like to do.

CJL: Did they teach African films?

TD: No. It would be my dream come true to organize a seminar on African film there- and it would have been a success too! I tried to get an African film festival going in Berlin. Or rather, we tried to get more African films screened at the BerIinale, the international film festival. I organized a group called Camera Africa, and we picketed one year and handed out flyers and stickers and the like for several years running. I don’t think it did much good, though it did make me unpopular with the film establishment.

CJL: What filmmakers influenced you?

TD: Lars von Trier had a big impact on me.  Less the early work; which seemed a bit too deliberately provocative. But Dancer in the Dark really smote me, the way it combined music and a very heavy theme. That had a lot of resonance with some of the folktales we have here in Zimbabwe, very grotesque stories that have these catchy songs that people relate to. Kare Kare ZlIlIko, or Mother’s Day, as we’re calling it in English, is inspired by Dancer in the Dark.

CJL: It’s interesting that a movie about the death penalty inspired, perversely, by The Sound of Music should have led you to think about African folktales.

TD: Well, I think such connections are made at an emotional rather than intellectual level. But intellectually, I was and am very interested in the idea of using local forms and trying co put that into film. I remember seeing an Angolan film called Nelista, where you had different levels of reality, switching between the story and reality. I must have seen that in 1992.

CJL: In Germany?

TD: At the House of World Cultures in Berlin. That was where you could see African films. And that film definitely stuck in my mind. You found a similar malleability of form in Mozambican film. They try to incorporate African forms of narrative. If you look at West African filmmaking, which has been so influenced by French filmmaking

CJL: Like Ousmane Sembene?

TD: Yes, all those people. I don’t think they play with the form as much. It’s more about the content. The griot often appears, but that doesn’t affect the structure of the film. I remember a film by the Malian director Adama Drabo, TaaJe Fanga . It’s a comedy based on a Dogon tale in which the women of the village take over, reversing traditional gender roles. I found it interesting, but not formally. The form of much recent West African film is more European.

When you go to film school, you are told you have to focus on your one character, and the narrative has to proceed in a certain way -and if it doesn’t, it’s wrong. You’re actually taught this. So it’s very difficult to break out of that way of thinking and explore new forms.

CLJ: Well, in Mother’s Day the main character sings a kind of R&B song while being dismembered by her greedy husband. What’s the origin of this story? How did it come to you?

TD: I heard that story from my grandmother, and also from a cousin who was much older than me. A male cousin who used to tell us stories. And it stuck in my mind-it’s just so grotesque. I’ve always wondered about this man who eats his wife, and I never found an explanation.

CJL: The theme of drought and famine is also prevalent. Was there a particular reason for the telling of this story?

TD: I’m not sure. I know that we did have them when I was young, but I can’t remember whether I heard the story during a drought. I don’t think so, because it has morals that go beyond drought. What is a human being allowed to do? No matter what the pressures are. W at are you allowed to do and what are you not allowed to do?

This is definitely an African Story, you know. There are -folktales from other parts of the world, but they are not like this. The song is quite interesting, too. In a traditional film musical, the song is just used to enhance the atmosphere. It begins in one place in the narrative and it ends, and you are in the same place. Whereas in a lot of African folktales, the song moves you forward.  It’s actually part of the narrative.

CJL: It struck me that there are some parallels between Mother’s Day and your first novel. The child’s perspective on adult situations, and the privilege you give to that perspective. But also the gendered perspective-and the cannibalism scene! You’re clearly taking a stereotype about Africans and critiquing it, but there’s also something about it that reminded me of Nyasha, the anorexic cousin in Nervous Conditions-the relationship between hunger and the body and male authority.

TD: I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but yes, you’re the second person to point that out to me. That is really funny. I am very concerned with the body-how it stays together, or doesn’t stay together, this kind of thing. That was clearly part of my fascination with the folktale, but I wasn’t conscious of it. I never thought, “Cannibalisml” [She laughs.] The stuff I am working on now in prose is very much in that direction, too. I suppose being female you really can’t get away from it. It’s what you wear … your whole image is so important, so one way or another it’s going to be a theme I think. And also being black is another thing, you know? Your body becomes a big theme.

CJL: Do you think this kind of perspective is exclusively Western?

TD: Well, I think women in all societies have been concerned with their beauty. Men too. But where and when does that concern become pathological or obsessive?

I’m thinking of the 1960s and that very extreme figure of womanhood that it produced: tall, slim, perpetually childlike proportions. I think that’s definitely Western; it certainly isn’t an African notion of beauty. I belong to the Women Filmmakers Organization here, and one of the main things we do is put on a film festival where we show films with women in leading roles, so that we can critique how women are presented.

CJL: How often has that taken place?

TD: Once a year. This year is the third edition. We also do seminars on women’s rights and how women can project their voices and their narratives.

CJL: Is this connected to the women writers group that you were also involved in?

TD: Last year they partnered with the filmmakers for one of the seminars. There are all sorts of groups, you know.

CJL: Zimbabwe seems to be exceptional in that regard, with all the writing groups and the Zimbabwe International Book Festival.

TD: Writing definitely has a status attached to it. Over the years we have produced writers who are well known in literary circles, internationally, which helps. And women have become more .vociferous about wanting to state their points of view. Women join writing groups because of the kind of pressures they face, which tend to keep them from writing. Often, they function as support groups, as well as professional groups. The group I belong to began among friends.

CJL: What is its name?

TD: [She laughs.] We had to get a name this year so that we could make a grant application. So we called ourselves the Zimbabwe Women’s Word Circle. Otherwise we just meet once a month and people read what they’ve been working on, get criticism. There’s also the official Zimbabwe Women Writers. And the Women Filmmakers Organization, which I belong to as well.

CJL: What is the membership in the film group like?

TD: At the moment we have about nine. We’ve had up to fifteen, twenty, but it varies.

CJL: Are they all professionally trained?

TD: No, we have very few professionally trained filmmakers. A lot of them are people who have done media studies at university.

CJL: What’s the racial composition of these groups?

TD: Well, as with my women writers group, I’m the only black Zimbabwean. There’s also one Zimbabwean women of Asian heritage.

CJL: How representative is that of feminism here, in general? In Nervous Conditions there is a feminist perspective clearly defined by local circumstances.

TD: Well, feminism is a big term, you know. I don’t know whether I would call it that myself. What I would say is that there is definitely a consciousness on the part of women in Zimbabwe of the need to be able to step out and take space. Whether we want to be identified with something that sounds militant, as feminism does, I don’t know. And I think the approach toward men and toward traditional forms of patriarchy is often not as militant as you might find in feminisms in other parts of the world, although we are very conscious of patriarchy.

CJL: Why is that?

TD: I think it’s because we are also conscious of other oppressions. You know, if you haven’t experienced those other oppressions you’re bound to think that the oppression you have experienced is the worst. But if you have experienced a range of oppressions, then you may rank them. You may find that some are equal. But you are certainly not oblivious to the fact that there is more than one oppression in the world.

CJL: Can you talk about politics at all? You returned to Zimbabwe the same year that the ruling party lost the referendum on the constitution, a period when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change became a formidable political power in the cities and President Mugabe’s controversial land reform program started. Has the changing political situation impacted you as an artist? What’s changed, for you, since the late 1980s?

TD: I am glad to be home. You know, I am older, so I am much more aware of the responsibility one has to produce Literature that brings some kind of positive spirit into the community. Everyone has their rage, but I think you have to mould it and work it until you get to something that’s more positively human. In a situation like we have in Zimbabwe at the moment, it is very difficult to do that. The conflicts are so glaring and the emotions are so high-the tendency is just to let loose. And so I’m finding it very difficult, actually, to mould my subject matter into something satisfying-something that is positive, what I would say is positively human. So I find that a big challenge at the moment in Zimbabwe: having to confront certain issues that are real, which include these various oppressions that we have experienced by virtue of being a certain kind of person in a certain kind of country at a certain point in time.

CJL: I thought it was interesting that Mother’s Day doesn’t seem to take place in any definite time period. One could argue that it takes place in the pre-colonial past, but at the same time it clearly resonates with contemporary themes. W as that your intention? Nervous Conditions was situated at a definite historical moment.

TD: Human themes, I think, are human themes. I think that’s the unfortunate thing: we don’t actually seem to be moving forward. I don’t know when this story was first told in this part of the world. It could be centuries ago or it could be ten thousand years ago. Unfortunately, one can still relate to it. This idea of greed, that I’m allowed to do whatever I want to satisfy my appetite-

CJL:  It seems contemporary!

TD: Absolutely. [She laughs.]I thought it was quite appropriate, but then as I say, it’s sad that we don’t seem to be moving beyond these things. That a story of that nature still has such resonance today.

CJL: Mother’s Day is only half an hour long. Are you planning on doing a full length feature in the future?

TD: Mother’s Day is actually part of a three-story folklore cycle that’s going to add up to a 90-minute evening\ entertainment. I’ve written the script for the next one, which is again pretty weird and involves eating. [She laughs.) And the third story is about a man who wants a wife and can’t get one, so he goes to the spirit medium. I’m hoping to get them financed. It depends on when Nervous Conditions happens.

CJL: There’s a film version of Nervous Conditions in the works?

TD: Definitely. I actually have something approaching a script now, which I’m very happy with, and some money from the European Union. But not enough to make the film; so I’m trying to raise the rest of the money.

CJL: Do you want to film Nervous Conditions yourself?

TD: Yes. I have to, actually-the money I’ve got so far is mine on the condition that I do it.

CJL: Have you found it easier to get international funding for Nervous Conditions, rather than your other projects?

TD: You would have thought so. But film people are very narrow-minded. And they’re also very snobbish in a strange way, you know? If it’s got to do with literature, it can’t make a good film, unless it’s the accepted canon. In which case, they have to make it into a film.

CJL: Like Sense and Sensibility or Portrait of a Lady.

TD: Exactly. So I’m hoping that we can start looking at more African adaptations, as well. We have to celebrate our own achievements, so if somebody’s written a good novel, why can’t it be celebrated by adapting it to a different medium? I don’t see why we can’t do that for our literature.

CJL: I think there has been an adaptation ofAchebe’s Things Fall Apart in Nigeria. A Nollywood style production, in fact. Is that the sort of development you’re looking for?

TD: I’m not looking for Nollywood, here. Our literature can supply us with good stories.

CJL: In adapting Nervous Conditions for the screen, were you tempted to take any liberties with the text? Have you revised anything or tried to do anything differently, with-what, twenty years of hindsight?

TD: I’ve been through various ways of treating it. I tried to flesh it out differently at first, but it didn’t actually work. So now I’ve got a way that sticks to the novel. I think I’ve managed to get back to that child’s perspective. When I was younger, I found it restricting, because I so wanted to find other voices. One reason why I didn’t mind being away from prose for so long is that I wanted to get away from this child’s voice, you know? I think one novel in a child’s voice is enough. [She laughs.] The novel that I’m working on now is very different from Nervous Conditions. But now that I have developed a more mature voice, I think, I don’t feel restricted. I’m comfortable using a child’s voice in a particular case and another voice somewhere else.

CJL: It’s sort of amazing that you’re only now working on your second novel. I wonder if you found the success of your first book oppressive, in a way. Have you felt a particular burden with Nervous Conditions?

TD: Absolutely. It’s been absolutely awful. This is why I haven’t been talking about it, and why I say I won’t go to literary events until I’ve written something else.

CJL: SO what is your working life like now? Do you write every day?

TD: I try to, but I don’t always manage It. Especially when I’m shooting. And lately I have just been shooting. You know, it’s my bread and butter. Life is very difficult tor artists in Zimbabwe at the moment, unless you have a lot of work out there, earning royalties for you. And I’ve had a terrible time with the Women’s Press, my British publisher, even just getting royalties for my one book. Seal Press in America has been fantastic, but my UK publisher was taken over. It’s no longer a women’s publishing house. And that was very demoralizing-to do all this work and then have people take the fruits of your labor. But I’m sorting it out.

It’s better since I’ve been back here, though. I found it impossible to write in Germany. I had the same problem I mentioned earlier about making films-not having connections or points of engagement with my environment. For me, at least, I need that to be able to focus. The whole flavor of life needs to come into what you are writing, and I found that that I was absorbing a completely different context. It was very difficult to put that flavor in and feel that it was sufficiently authentic. And of course I was at film school, so I wasn’t interacting with other writers. The working conditions were always difficult, too. I didn’t have my own room. I had to work in the same office where my husband had his editing equipment. So that didn’t work either, just from the point of view of concentration. Whereas once I got back here, I had my own space.. .

I’m really happy with things here. I’ve been writing a lot and its all together. And I’m really glad that I have this other medium. My husband and I have a production house, Nyerai Films. Nyerai means “contemplate” in Shona, but it was also my grandmother’s name. The idea is to promote different dimensions in films, not this linear storytelling that you have from Hollywood, where you don’t have to think. I like film because I approach it in a more intellectual way. I am conscious that this, too, is an art form, a style of narrative that I can play with.

CJL: Could you talk more about the relationship between the two media? Do you approach writing a novel differently from making a film? Do some stories lend themselves more to one medium than another?

TD: I think so. Stories often present themselves to me in one form or the other, and I enjoy the process of exploration, finding out what works and what doesn’t, in whatever medium. Like Mother’s Day: I wouldn’t sit down with that story and try and make a literary piece out of it. That’s part of the challenge with adapting Nervous Conditions. People always say, “Oh, this is going to make for a great film,” but the book is all about the inner life of a young girl, you know? It’s very difficult to translate to the screen. Though I think I’ve cracked that nut too, now. [She laughs.]

CJL: Do you think the novel is better at getting at the interior life?

TD: Definitely. That’s what I like about the novel. I think film is more limiting, because it takes place in real time. Even if you put multiple layers of time in, you still have to do it in ninety minutes or whatever. With a novel, if someone has forgotten something they can flip back. They can stop and think about things that they don’t understand, whereas in a film it’s got to be simple enough for aperson to get it the first time. That’s a limitation of the medium, I think.

CJL: So what are film’s strengths?

TD: The fact that you can take it in more easily. There is a spectacle aspect to it, and everyone likes spectacle, you know? And actually this is something else that I find very interesting about film: how do you make that spectacle?  Different cultures have different ideas about it. And I want to present a spectacle that is grounded in local culture but that is accessible to other people. A film has to travel-you can’t spend all that money for the, what, 500,000 people in Zimbabwe who are going to see the film. So, it’s actually quite a challenge, and I enjoy it.

CJL: So how do you prioritize these two concerns-the global and the local? Or do you have to?

TD: With Mothers Day, I definitely did. You know, at my farewell dinner in Germany, I sat with a filmmaker, a young woman with a Nigerian father and a Welsh mother, and we talked about our problems in trying to represent something that we could relate to, you know? That’s when the idea came to me to use this woman in this particular story, a woman who triumphs over being eaten. The ultimate fate! [She laughs.] I have been looking at how other cultures have developed distinctive characteristics in their cinemas: Bollywood, China, Dogme, West Afrlca. And I tried to be aware of the problems that can arise–stereotypes, overt social messages, that kind of thing.

I was looking for a subject that would be strange enough and different enough to grab people’s attention. The right kind of spectacle. I think there’s a lot to be explored, still, in the area of myth and folktales. And I think that by using that kind of subject matter we can discover things that might be useful in developing a distinctive regional filmmaking.

CJL: What do you think about the state off filmmaking in Southern Africa? Or in Africa in general?

TD: I’m glad that West African filmmaking, especially Francophone, has developed the way it has. You can recognize it as a body of work now, as belonging to a particular West African school of filmaking. We need that. We can critique it, we can like this or dislike that, but the important thing is that it exists. Of course, the reason it exists is that they have all this money from France.

CJL: What do you like about Francophone West African cinema?

TD: I like being able to watch African people doing their thing, people who look like me in some significant way, whose body language is similar to mine, whose social conditions are a lot like mine. I like the aesthetic sense of those films, too. That’s not something that we have paid a lot of attention to in southern Africa, excepting Portuguese language cinema. We Anglophone Africans seem to be more intent on packing in the content at the expense of visual poetry.

CJL: What about Bollywood?

TD: I admire any body of work that is not main-stream that has gone on to constitute itself as a viable cinematic enterprise. What I’m most interested in is- is how did they do it? Creatively and economically-where did the expertise come from? And can we do the same thing here? Bollywood encouraged me to use music and dance, as I did in Mother’s Day.

CJL: W hat is it that appeals to you about Dogme?

TD: The idea of making filmmaking accessible-keeping it on the ground, rather than going off on flights of technical sensationalism. Intellectually, I’m interested in the questions that Dogme tries to answer: how to make a film that looks good while still being affordable.

CJL: Dogme certainly styles itself as the opposite of Hollywood.

TD: You can’t make films without money, and there hasn’t been much money for filmmaking in this part of the world, apart from the development-type stuff we were talking about earlier. You can get money for documentaries. I’ve done a lot of them: On the Border, about the landmines left over from the liberation struggle; Elephant People, about the ivory trade; Hard Earth, about land reform. Hard Earth was a bit more interesting as a film, because it wasn’t so linear. I had more fun with that one.

The problem is money. We only got 30,000 Euros to make Mother’s Day, so I had to put a lot of my own money into it to get it made. But it was do or die-I had to get something made, I’ve got to show people that there are new directions we can be exploring. You can’t develop a character without playing around, making mistakes, getting it wrong, seeing what works and what doesn’t-but film is so expensive that we don’t really have that kind of leeway. It’s such a shame that there is money in South Africa-the film that are being made there seem so derivative. I haven’t seen many things that are trying to break new ground. And that’s a shame, because the imitation can’t be better than the original, you know? We’ll just have to wait and see whether things change in South Africa. I hope so.

It goes in phases. There is a new generation coming up here. And I have to say, I think that the 10caJ content policy is helping. If the only thing you see on television is Santa Barbara , how are you going to develop your own ideas, out of your own context? That’s not what’s in your head.

CJL:  Something like three quarters of the programming on state television has to be made in Zimbabwe, right?

TD: It’s like with that poet, Phillis Wheatley. You know, the African American poet: her idiom and her images had nothing to do with her. When she wrote her poetry, her idiom and her images were not specific to her, because the language that she had been given for her poetry was a language that did not incorporate her. That’s a whole process of learning, to incorporate yourself in the representation that you make. It’s not easy. And for people who’ve never been in that situation, it’s hard to understand how difficult it is to get rid of what for you is the Other. To actually make yourself happen in your representation is really quite a process. [She laughs.] I think we are beginning to do it in Zimbabwe. The trouble is, we don’t have much money. But maybe it’s for the best; maybe when your means are so restricted, you have to be that much more creative to make things happen. W e’ll see.

CJL: Speaking of creativity and restrictions, would you consider making a Dogme film?

TD: I thought I did. I think Mother’s Day fulfills the principles of Dogme- Zimbabwean Dogme-though perhaps the originators of the movement might not agree. Still, I can’t rule out doing it again-using the same, or different, Dogme principles on a different production, should the content suggest it. But that film hasn’t come to me yet.

CJL: Dogme 95 was founded to counter “certain tendencies” in film. If you were to start your own film movement in Africa, what tendencies in contemporary cinema-African, American, or European-would you seek to counter?

TD: I don’t want to counter anything. I want to bring something into being. We make films from time to time here in Zimbabwe, but what we do does not constitute an industry. I would like to be a part of an industry that makes money; and provides employment and also manages to be playful and experimental in nature. I’m looking for us to create our own national, regional cinema.

CJL: Do you feel connected to other African filmmakers?

TD: Since I’ve been back in Zimbabwe, I’ve been off the circuit-on purpose, really, so I can concentrate on producing new work. But I did get to know a number of filmmakers, African and European, when I lived in Berlin.

CJL: Which African filmmakers?

TD: Well, I met Jean-Marie Teno, the Cameroonian filmmaker. I actually felt very connected to a number of people from Congo. There’s a guy named Mwcze Ngangura, who made Pieces d’Identites [Identity Pieces], which is one of my favorite films. When I was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-I was there for a semester in 2001 showed Pieces d’Identities. It’s about Congo, about a chief whose daughter has gone to study medicine in Belgium and then disappear~, so he resolves to go look for her. And he holds this meeting in the village, and the village circle says, “You can’t go to Belgium, you don’t have enough money to send a whole entourage, and it’s just not appropriate for you to go on your own.” But he goes anyway, and the “identity piece” is actually his royal regalia, which the Belgians won’t let into the country. It’s so funny. [She laughs.] When r showed this to my class, there was a Zimbabwean woman who got so upset. In the discussion afterward, she asked, “How could they show him doing that) H e should have gone with his entourage, with all the pomp and splendor of a chief” This is what people expect but then when it actually happens, they get annoyed as well. That’s what I like about film. I think people react to films at a very emotional level; the intellectual analysis comes later. And I enjoy going through that process with people, incorporating the intellectual analysis with the emotion. Probably because I went through that myself at film school.

CJL: Did you manage to connect with writers while you were in Germany?

TD:  Unfortunately, no. In Germany there are “writers” and there are “African writers.” And I was never invited to a literary event, except maybe the Frankfurt Book Fair- but then only as a an ‘’ African Writer. ‘’

CJL: Do you have a problem with that? Being termed an “African writer”?

TD: Well, I have a problem with segregation. I mean, if am an African person at a meeting of writers I don’t have a problem. But if the writers meet and the African writers are supposed to g-o to their own special “African Events,” I have a problem. And that’s how it was in Germany.

CJL: Don’t you find that that happens everywhere, though? In Britain and the States, for example? It seem like publishers assign every African country one writer to represent it. The way Zakes Mda is being marketed as the voice of post-apartheid South Africa …

TD: You know, I think that happens anyway. Often you have the writer of the moment, but that’s just the commercial aspect. That’s how capitalism functions, isn’t it? What I worry about is when that kind of tendency manifests among writers, in the profession at large, among the people who administer the arts. And I think that happens.

CJL: Who are your peers today, do you think? Do you feel a kinship with any particular African writers?

TD: In Zimbabwe? Chenjerai Hove and Chirikure Chirikure are two people I get along with very well. You know, writers are different people, and you get on with some and not with others.

CJL: What about Yvonne Vera, who passed away last year? She was certainly marketed in the States as the voice of post-liberation Zimbabwe-or at least, of contemporary Zimbabwean womanhood. She emerged during the period that you were away from literature. Did you have a relationship with her?

TD: Absolutely not. No, we never met. I think our styles are completely different, you know? So I don’t know that we would have had much common ground.

CJL: It’s true that your styles are strikingly different.

TD: I find that the person I tend to relate to the most, as I grow older-which is very interesting, because when I first read his writing just couldn’t relate to it at all-is Dambudzo Marechera.

CJL: Marechera died in, what, 1987?

TD: I find it so sad that he isn’t here now. I think I would enjoy talking to him I was talking about rage before you know, there’s that famous story of him throwing plates at the Guardian’s literary editor, at the ceremony where he was being awarded the Guardian’ s fiction prize. When I was younger, I thought, “My God, how could anyone behave like that?” But I think as one gets older and more in touch with one’s emotions-and less appalled by them one can look at those times of rage and understand them. And understand that one has to use them, you know? And not let them use you. I think it’s unfortunate that someone like Dambudzo did not get to that point, where he could use his rage on his own behalf rather than be used. So actually, secretly, very secretly [she laughs], I would say that he is the writer that I identify with most now.


First published in Transition Issue 96 (Soft Skull Press, 2006)

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One Response to “Desperately Seeking Tsitsi: A Conversation with Tsitsi Dangarembga”
  1. Craig Brown 23 January 2013 at 4:48 pm #

    Wow this was a very interesting and insightful interview! 2 thumbs up 😀