When Zimbabweans talk about the greatest films ever made in their country, they almost always refer to the 1990’s decade. This decade produced Neria (1992), which is probably Zimbabwe’s highest grossing movie of all time. Other notable movies from this period include More Time (1993), Everyone’s Child (1996), Flame (1996), and Yellow Card (2000). Older people may also recall Jit (1990) with a lot of fondness. But they will seldom mention movies from the 2000’s, and if they do, it’s usually with a lot of criticism. That’s because they don’t really make them like they used to.
‘Zollywood,’ often referred to as Zimbabwe’s ‘film industry,’ is the source of most of the newer movies. Just from the name, it’s easy to tell that it’s modeled after Nollywood, its more prolific Nigerian counterpart. Many of the filmmakers are based in the UK, a country with a large population of diasporan Zimbabweans. As such, a significant number of the films contain UK diasporan themes. However, there are some that are entirely based on experiences from Zimbabwe. Whatever types of films the ‘industry’ has produced, they have been met with mixed reviews from Zimbabweans.
One of the main sources of criticism against Zollywood films is that they don’t measure up to the 1990’s decade. There is some truth in this claim. Most of the 1990’s movies generally had better funding, a lot of which came from Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). The NGO funding meant that the films were required to deliver to deliver strong social messages, particularly about AIDS, children’s rights and women’s rights. As a result, most of the productions tended to be highly moving films. Zollywood movies have moved on from this era, and have ventured into less weighty themes such as romantic love. Some have even tried Hollywood-style action films. Therefore, they are different from the 1990’s films in a way. However, the movies tend to be lower budget. And that is not their only shortcoming.
I will use the example of a popular Zollywood movie to highlight some of the negatives and positives within Zollywood films. This movie “Nomatter What” has a classic romantic love premise: a poor guy is in love with a beautiful girl; a player comes along and snatches her; a tussle then follows (I don’t want to give the movie away, in case you want to watch it). I should say, even though the story is pretty cliché, it is still developed well – at least for the first half of the movie. After that, it suffers the fate of many Zollywood movies. It turns into a basic drama sketch. In particular, there is the doctor scene (this is not really a spoiler) where some surprise ‘plan’ is executed. The scene is unrealistic and carelessly breaks the standard real life rule of doctor-patient confidentiality. I am not being picky – this scene is simply an easy way out of an otherwise well-developed plot. The subsequent ending is just too rushed and just leaves the viewer unsatisfied.
The acting is actually not bad – in fact better than most Zollywood movies I have seen. One of the main issues, though, is language. Again, it is less of an issue in this movie than in the other ones. The actors expend a lot of energy trying to properly sound out English words, thus taking away from the actual acting (‘body movement,’ as some internet armchair critics call it). In fact, this problem runs back to the heyday period. Many of the great movies from the 1990’s faced the same problem. Perhaps it was the production quality, and generally better acting, that concealed this shortfall. Zollywood may do better by getting actors/actresses who are more comfortable with English, or at least mix it in with other local languages, just like we actually do in real life. Interestingly, Zimbabweans generally have better English accents than most Africans; however, Nollywood still does better than us in that aspect. That is because their actors are comfortable even with their particularly thick accents. This allows them to apply more of their effort to body language and less to trying to speak well.
While the sound in this movie is again a little better than in its counterparts, it is still lacking. In particular, the restaurant scene has a lot of echoing, and does not sound like a restaurant at all. The extras do speak a little, but it’s still generally quiet, and it gives the film a school-drama feel. There is definitely more work to be done with the sound. However, the music choices in the movie are pretty good. It does use quite a few non-Zimbabwean tracks, a deviation from the legacy of 1990’s movies, which tended to use a few local tracks. In fact, some of the local tracks used in the films became hits. These include Oliver Mtukudzi’s “Neria” and Chiwoniso Maraire’s “Everyone’s Child.” Nonetheless, because of the nature of the stories that Zollywood films tell, it is perfectly understandable that they use tracks by foreign artists like Celine Dion and Marc Anthony.
I still found some positives in Nomatter What. The characters were more interesting than expected. Tendai, who would usually be a super charming, quiet and overly emotional guy, is actually quite different. He is controlling and short-tempered – not exactly a prince charming. This for me was a step away from the norm, which was great. The same applies to Thandi’s best friend, who is quite thoughtful and less predictable than she would be in another movie. The story itself is one that Zimbabwean college and university students can easily identify with, which is always a good thing. The story does spiral into a bland sketch, but it really starts off on the right foot.
In the end, people will always want to compare Zollywood movies with Neria and other yesteryear classics. While the comparison may be unfair, it is important that newer filmmakers learn from the greats of the nineties. However, they should still be given credit for working with more constrained budgets, and for getting our movie industry going. This should not excuse complacency, however. Better acting is needed, and we need to make better decisions about choice of language in films. Also, it might be worthwhile to give a little more thought to some of the story lines. Some of them are intriguing, but many of them are still amateurish. Originality is needed. Also, we must remember that quality is better than quantity. With all that in mind, I believe we can do much better. Yes, kudos to Zollywood, but we urge you to aim higher.