Lights, camera, action: Idris Elba boost to Swahili film industry
DAR ES SALAAM (BIRD STORY AGENCY) – British actor Idris Elba plans to open a major film studio in Tanzania after holding initial talks with President Samia Suluhu Hassan.
Tanzanian’s Director of Presidential Communications, Zuhura Yunus, recently made this announcement during a media briefing session on the outcome of President Hassan’s trip to the 53rd World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“The president met with Idris Elba and his wife Sabrina, and they are keen to invest in a film studio in Tanzania,” said Yunus.
“Discussions on the project have just begun, and if successful, the project will help not only Tanzania but also Eastern and Central Africa,” she added.
Elba, who was born in Britain to a Ghanaian mother and a Sierra Leonean father, has previously spoken about his plans to help develop the film industry on the continent.
“Young Africans view me as a leader or a beacon. And I feel like I could bring something. So I’m keen to bring what I’ve learned in media and amplify it in Africa,” he told South Africa’s SA People in August last year.
And while this recent news is a shot in the arm for the country, Tanzania has worked hard over the years to package and position its film industry for international success.
Despite having low budgets and limited production skills and equipment, the country’s filmmakers have matured the local ‘bongo’ films to rival Nigeria’s Nollywood and Kenya’s Riverwood.
In September 2021, Vuta N’kuvute made history by becoming the first Tanzanian feature film to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has also been screened at various festivals in Germany, South Africa, the USA, Brazil, Switzerland and Tanzania.
The Swahili film, which tells the story of a young woman whose romance blossoms on the back of a political revolt woman during the final years of British colonial Zanzibar, won the Tanit d’Or at the prestigious Carthage Film Festival in Tunis.
It also took home four awards at the 18th edition of the Africa Movie Academy Awards, held in October 2022 in Lagos. It won the Oumarou Ganda Prize for Best Fiction at FESPACO 2021 and the Special Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival 2022.
The most significant success for the film, however, came in September 2022, when it became Tanzania’s official entry for the Oscars 2023 Academy Awards under the Best International Feature Film category.
“The future of Tanzanian cinema is finally in our hands. A wave of Swahili filmmakers is growing every day with pride, intelligence and boldness,” said Amil Shivji, the film’s co-producer.
Tanzania also saw three of its films streamed on Netflix in 2022, marking a great start in the international market. Binti, produced by Angela Ruhinda, became the first Swahili movie streamed on Netflix, followed by Bahasha and Nyara: The Kidnapping (2020), respectively.
But Tanzania’s prolific film industry did not start with the Bongo films and movies in the early 2000s.
The industry dates back to 1961 when the government of the new nation of Tanzania established the Government Film Unit in 1963, the Tanzania Film Company in 1968, and the Audio Visual Institute in 1974.
These institutions produced, distributed, and exhibited films, albeit films that propagated the Ujamaa socialist policies of president Julius Nyerere’s government.
Over the years, the government has continued to support the film industry with incentives and new regulations.
The Tanzania Film Board, in October 2022, embarked on a programme to coordinate the production of films with local strategic content featuring the country’s richness in several avenues to market the country’s attraction.
“We want a vibrant and aggressive film industry,…we are training the local producers to enhance quality, competitiveness and national identity films,” said the film board’s executive secretary, Kiagho Kilonzo.
The government also reduced filming permit fees to help filmmakers produce high-quality movies. According to the new regulations, filmmakers pay US$21 to get a filming permit, down from the previous US$215.
Non-profits like the Zanzibar International Film Festival, established in 1997, have also continued promoting Tanzania’s film industry.
The annual festival screens approximately 70 domestic and foreign productions and hosts capacity-building sessions for upcoming filmmakers, including workshops, masterclasses, debates and network events.
In a 2021 report, the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, revealed that Africa’s film and audio-visual industries could create over 20 million jobs and contribute US$20 billion to the continent’s combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Market and consumer data company Statista says that Africa produces about 5,500 films per year, of which Tanzania manages around 500 yearly.
According to the Tanzanian Minister of Culture, Arts and Sports, Mohamed Mchengerwa, the country has at least 30,000 people employed in the filmmaking business, and the entertainment and arts industry contributes at least 19.4 per cent to the economy.