The brave female voices at Zanzibar International Film Festival 2016

Saturday August 6 2016

From left, Nassra J. Mohammed who lobbied the

From left, Nassra J. Mohammed who lobbied the government to have girls in Zanzibar allowed to play football as part of the education curriculum; Producer of Leeches Payal Sethi. The movie is about forced marriages in India; and Ikal Angelei in the documentary Sea Change. These women’s fight for justice is admirable and Zanzibar International Film Festival did a commendable job in shining a light on their works. PHOTOS | CAROLINE ULIWA 

By Caroline Uliwa

This year’s Zanzibar International Film Festival featured films that tell the stories of brave women dealing with issues ranging from forced marriage to poaching. But the issues aside, it is the determination and resilience of these women to change either their situations or that of others that is commendable.

The films tell the stories of environmental attorney Thuli Brilliance Makama and social activists Ikal Angelei and Nassra J Mohammed. Then there is film director Payal Sethi, who tells a powerful story of forced marriages in Hyderabad, India in the short film Leeches. These women’s fight for justice is admirable and ZIFF did a commendable job in shining a light on their works.

Take for example the film Zanzibar Soccer Dreams, which tells the story of what is now Zanzibar’s national women’s football team.

The film is set on the island of Zanzibar where, against the backdrop of conservative Islamic culture, Feiruz Ally Amiri and Nassra J Mohammed decided to pursue football, a game they loved. Despite the religious leaders’ and society decreeing it a man’s game back in the 1980s, they formed an all-female team called Women’s Fighters FC.

Their defiance of societal norms for the love of the game piqued the interest of Florence Ayisi, a visiting professor from the UK, who is a native of Cameroon. She was moved by their story and shot a documentary titled Zanzibar Soccer Queens back in 2007. The documentary featured in a number of international film festivals, got rave reviews and landed the team an invite to Germany courtesy of the German national women’s team.

“What kept us going despite the social taboos and discrimination was our love for the game. It’s in our blood; when you love something, you stick with it. We have had successes with this game, we’ve travelled to many countries. For the young girls who love the game, I know there are many challenges and it is not easy to persuade parents to let go of their beliefs and let young women enjoy football. But what the parents need to realise is that football for girls isn’t a bad thing because when a teenager, boy or girl, participates in sport, they avoid getting caught up in street activities that waste their time or put their future in danger. They attend practice where they take part in a lot of physical training and are too exhausted to indulge in harmful habits as their minds are focused on the positive things in life,” said Feiruz Ally Amiri.

Zanzibar Soccer Dreams, which was screened at ZIFF, is a follow-up on this earlier documentary focusing on the efforts of Nassra J. Mohammed, who is the current head coach of the Tanzania national women’s team Twiga Stars.

Ms Mohammed lobbied the government of Zanzibar to include football training for girls, as part of the curriculum. It proved to be a long fight and she had been at it for over 20 years and finally in 2010, the Zanzibar government approved football training for girls as part of the curriculum.

“I was very happy because when the sport wasn’t formalised for girls in schools, there was no formal training for female sports teachers like me. Since it was formalised, we now have the chance to participate in coaching seminars,” said Mgeni Suleiman Abdallah, a football coach at Langoni Primary School in rural Zanzibar.

The British Council sponsored female teachers to attend the Women Leadership in Sports Dar seminar, and she has been teaching and coaching young girls for six years now. In that time, there has been considerable progress and so unlike in the footage of the film, the girls now wear tracksuits during field training.

The documentary shows an inter-school football tournament for girls, the first of its kind on the island, with parents in attendance to cheer on the girls.

It is heart-warming to see the journey of the girls and their teachers and it’s obvious that bigger things are in the offing, simply because of the humble and persistent efforts of Women Fighters FC and Nassra J Mohammed.

Sea Change

The construction of the controversial Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia on the Omo River, is the focus of the documentary Sea Change, which celebrates the persistence of one woman with an issue that affects the survival of communities.

Produced by John Antonelli, it is the story of a Ikal Angelei, from Turkana County in northern Kenya, a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize 2012 and founder of Friends of Turkana a movement registered in 2009. The documentary follows Angelei’s efforts to protect the endangered ecosystem of the Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world.

The Omo River and Lake Turkana, which co-exist in the same ecosystem, are the sole source of livelihood for a range of communities stretching from Ethiopia to Kenya — namely the Samburu, El Molo, Turkana, Rendille, Gabra and Dassanach from Kenya; the Dassanach, the Mursi, Nyangatom, Bodi, and Hamar from Ethiopia, making up an estimated 250,000 people whose lives are in peril if the lake and river are interfered with.

Sea Change seeks to show what will probably be one of the biggest dangers to the survival of communities in this part of East Africa — as the project goes on despite the warnings hydrologists and experts for years.

Initially Angelei’s Friends of Turkana got a hearing from concerned organisations on the dangers of the dam construction with the help of the UN World Heritage Committee and it resulted in the African Development Bank and European Investment Bank pulling out of the deal of funding of Gibe II Dam.

The World Bank pulled out too but later caved in and funded the credit for a major transmission line to the dam. Together with the funding from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the dam construction is almost complete.

In an interview with Christina M. Ruso of Yale Education, Angelei said: “In terms of the water table in the region, it is a dry area, so we depend on groundwater, because we can’t depend on the rainfall. But with the lake receding, the water table around the lake is going down. It dramatically affects the groundwater across the basin. So even people who are not naturally fishermen or directly dependant on the lake depend on the groundwater for survival.”

Sea Change helps put a human face to the dangers of the dam, the likes of the a resilient and self-reliable at groups that have survived their tough environment for aeons,” said Richard Leakey, current chair of the Kenya Wildlife Service board, who was a mentor to Angelei. Leakey is the one who asked Angelei to come back to Kenya from the US to lend a voice to her people. Dr Leakey features in Sea Change.

Sea Change was first aired publicly in East Africa at the ZIFF festival and it is the kind of documentary that every East African should watch and learn the perils of environmental degradation on the lives of communities.

‘Leeches’

The short film Leeches was shot in Hyderabad, India, by director Payal Sethi. It follows a young Muslim woman in Hyderabad (played by Preeti Golacha), who learns that her deaf and dumb sister is about to be married off to a stranger from a country in the Middle East.

She realises all is not well and plots to save her sister. And her instincts are proved right, as it turns out that the arranged marriage is a “contract marriage.”

Also know as “mutah” marriages, the contract marriages exploit a tradition in Hyderabad where when a girl reaches puberty, the mother puts up a white flag on the house to alert would-be suitors. However, unscrupulous women from other cities come to Hyderabad’s poor neighbourhoods and make friends with the mothers of young girls and tell them of men who are willing to marry these girls and offer them better lives.

The mostly illiterate mothers sign marriage papers on behalf of their girls but the reality is that these young girls are trafficked to the city and sold to men from the Middle East who “marry them” and take them back to the Middle East where they basically live as sex slaves. These girls are eventually abandoned and with no legal papers, they end up living on the streets as prostitutes.

The film is unorthodox in its portrayal of a strong female lead character in this deeply conservative and poverty-stricken world. “It was very uncomfortable for me to talk to these women who are very conservative in this old city, so I asked Jameela Nishat, who is the head of a non-governmental organisation called Shaheen Women’s Resource, to help with the research for the film,” said director Sethi in an interview after the screening of the film.

The film, though it is about a grave issue, was still very entertaining to watch, as the cast, particularly Golacha, gave a lively performance. The film brought out the human suffering rather than dwell on the facts of “contract marriages.”

Unfair Game

This documentary recounts the horrors of poaching not just for the animals but also for villagers who either get involved in the illegal trade to survive or are victimised simply on suspicion of abetting the trade. Directed by American John Antonelli, the film has footage from the late 1990s till last year, shot in the game reserves of Swaziland and Zambia as well a bit from the DR Congo.

The film highlights the story of Thuli Makama. In Swaziland, large areas are protected as game reserves or parks.

A private company, Big Game Parks (BGP), which is owned and operated by the Reilly family, manages three of these protected areas, including the Hlane Royal National Park. Ms Makama has been fighting a legal battle to try to file a case with the government to ensure that game protection laws in Swaziland are administered by a government ministry, not a private company BGP. Game rangers from BGP threaten, bully and even kill villagers with no due process on mere “poaching allegations.”

Ms Makama has not yet succeeded in filing her case but she’s slowly gaining international support, and in 2010 she won the Goldman Prize from the Goldman Environmental Foundation for her fight for the rights of the Swazi people who are being harassed on their own land by a private company.

Mr Antonelli said they have twice tried, unsuccessfully, to screen the film in Swaziland. He also said that during filming, he was summoned by the police commissioner for questioning. In fact, when he was done shooting, they wanted to confiscate the films but he had already sent the tapes out of the country.

He tried to arrange for a private screening and was denied a licence. Ms Makama also advised him not to travel to Swaziland because he risked being jailed.