The creative space in Zimbabwe has been witnessing tremendous growth over the past decade. Artistic inspiration has flowed from one generation to the other, creating a new class of resourceful entrepreneurs, storytellers, and entertainers.
Despite experiencing growth, some sectors of the arts have been hampered by many factors, not least among them, the issue of underfunding and lack of resources. Film and television stakeholders have arguably taken the full brunt of the downturns and mixed fortunes.
However, the challenges have not deterred the new school of creatives who have taken it upon themselves to carry the torch and run with the vision. Our Person of the Week is one such visionary who has found ways to adapt, innovate, and bring the stories to the people.
Filmmaker Sydney Taivavashe has managed to grab the attention of an audience that is understandably nostalgic about the golden era of Zimbabwean films such as Yellow Card, Neria, Jit, and More Time.
Taivavashe wrote and directed the award-winning anti-poaching movie Gonarezhou last year and is already working on another potential blockbuster titled A Township Story.
The Masvingo-born filmmaker discovered the wonders of filmmaking at a young age, where he had to also cope with the death of his parents. Part of his storytelling perspective was gleaned from exposure to various environments and attending no less than 7 schools because of the circumstances life had dealt him.
“My parents died when I very young so my childhood was mostly moving from family to family till I was 18 when I decided to take filmmaking seriously. It all started when I was mesmerized by a film ribbon from an old projector. The frames on the film left an indelible mark in my head and I then decided to create something similar for myself. This gave birth to my filmmaking journey.” said the 29-year old filmmaker.
The bug caught from there on and he started learning more about the craft whilst honing his skills. Taivavashe cites two Zimbabwean veteran filmmakers as his inspiration and is influenced by the cinematic style of Hollywood icons such as Martin Scorcese and David Fincher.
“I’m inspired by Tsitsi Dangarembga, who is a pioneer in the industry from the very early days. The other person is Joe Njagu; I was watching his films when I had nothing under my belt and he showed me that it’s possible. As for artistic influences, I look to international directors Fincher, Scorsese, James Cameron, and Quentin Tarantino.”
Sydney’s filmography includes productions such as the 2014 NAMA nominated film, Through the Night, which he made on a budget of just $300, while aged 22. He ranks it as one of his favorite career moments but went a step further by winning the NAMA Award in 2017 for Seiko.
“I still remember the feeling of being nominated and winning a national award such as NAMA for my works. It is encouraging to get that recognition and, to date, I rate winning a PAFF award in Hollywood for Gonarezhou as a very surreal experience. Being nominated and winning as well as being there to receive the award in the USA was special,” he said.
Taivavashe’s best work to date is undoubtedly the blockbuster Gonarezhou starring Eddie Sandifolo, Tendai Chitima, and singer Tamy Moyo. The film follows the story of a character called Zulu who gets sucked into the dangerous illegal underworld of elephant poaching.
The film was mainly shot on location at Gonarezhou National Park and was hailed for raising awareness on a critical issue in such an engaging manner.
Gonarezhou overcame some budget constraints before going on to release to critical acclaim. The film also bagged an award at the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) in Hollywood, but just how did Taivavashe come up with the idea?
“I read an article about 300 Elephants that were killed using Cyanide in 2013 and it triggered my curiosity into poaching and the dangers thereof. I wondered what drove people to cruelly kill animals, especially rhinos and elephants?” said Taivavashe.
“The discovery blew my mind and, I wondered how many other people who, like me, were ignorant about this issue. So I decided to bring my voice to the awareness call. I started working on a script that would address the effects and consequences of poaching, as well as striking a conversation on poaching among the general population.”
Making the film proved to be a challenging but empowering process for Taivavashe and his crew. He explained some of the challenges they had to overcome to pull a star-studded and talented cast to bring the story to life.
“If a story is appealing in its content, it’s easier to pitch and get people on board. It was a matter of knocking on doors and negotiating payment plans. We didn’t have the budget so the only difficult thing was to try and convince them to act then we pay them later,” he said.
“Filmmaking is an expensive venture, production of a movie needs collaboration not only from the production houses but from the corporate world too. The private sector seems to be ignorant of the opportunities presented to their products by filmmaking. Take, for instance, iPhones and Audi brands became popular through product placement in films,” he added.
The curious case of the arts sector in Zimbabwe is one that has played out over many years despite spirited efforts from the stakeholders. The challenges have led others to suggest that there is no film industry in practice but rather a film community at the moment.
Taivavashe bemoaned the general lack of support for the creative sector which he feels has hampered the efforts to break into global markets at a consistent scale.
“We still a long way to go because the government doesn’t take the arts seriously I think. It always feels like we’re on our own. I’m aware of the efforts but they’re not enough to make us competitive at the international level. We should look and learn from South Africa and Nigerian film industries and see how they are doing, then we can start talking meaningful conversations,” he said.
All those challenges have not dampened the determination of the rising filmmaker. At the moment, he is working on two international collaborations.
“We partnered with a French film production company called Sustainable Film Fund for a Zimbabwe-France production titled Little Naledi. The second one is titled A Township Story and on this, we partnered with a Nigerian film producer. Mr. Ibidolapo Ajayi has the highest rated Nigerian film currently showing on Netflix called Coming From Insanity. The film will be a Zimbabwe-Nigeria production and, we have more works to come in the future.”
Sydney Taivavashe has written his name in Zimbabwean film history and shown a penchant to create a platform for young talent to shine and take the industry forward. The talented writer and director shared some of the words and values which he lives by in his career.
“On every project, I always ask myself what story I’m telling the world? In the creative zone, we might drink and party a lot. However, we complement that with prayer and meditation. God is always on our lips.”