Tanzanian feature film Vuta N’kuvute (Swahili for tug of war) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 46th edition. It is based on an adaptation of Adam Shafi’s 1950s romantic political drama novel — a high school set book — with the same title and is the first Bongo film to be featured at the festival.
The romantic story happens in the background of British rule and local militancy in the struggle for political liberation. The film was shot entirely in Stone Town.
Director Amil Shivji said he wanted to get a Tanzanian story on big screen and that, “the novel spoke to me personally as someone who traces their heritage to Zanzibar and has absolute love for the culture of the Coast.”
“Shafi’s writing style is very descriptive and transported me almost immediately to that time period. It was such an exciting time for a story to be told.”
Working on it for his thesis while pursuing a Master’s degree in Film Production at York University, he was inspired to do more than just a short film from the novel ‘Vuta N’Kuvute’.
He says rereading Shafi’s phenomenal Vuta N’kuvute inspired him to complete the script of another film, T-Junction, but also gave him a new mission, one to see his novel become a film.
“After completing my coursework in Toronto, I moved to Zanzibar to begin research and pre-production at the Zanzibar International Film Festival in 2018.
''I had a coffee with producer and friend, Steven Markovitz, who had read the short script and was keen on collaborating.”
The two decided to focus on writing a feature-length script and shoot the full film.
Shivji worked for over five weeks researching on 1950s Zanzibar, drawing inspiration from interviews with Zanzibaris, late night walks through alleyways, experiencing the cultural Taarab music and hanging out with music groups at their weekly rehearsals just opposite his apartment.
With the script finished in 2018, they pitched at different international festivals and raised various grants to finance the production.
“While living in Zanzibar, I saw my script move from the source material to eventually represent my contemporary experiences through Shafi’s characters,” he says, because a growing number of Swahili films had done little to bridge the significant gap between what’s being made and its portrayal of reality.
Shivji linked up with fellow writer, Zaka Henry, to deconstruct the novel, chapter by chapter to unearth the soul of the story.
“We discussed the characters we liked, the ones we didn’t and subplots, allowing me to draw up a basic blueprint for what the script would look like,” said Shivji. Shafi’s writing is descriptive, and Shivji felt this was the kind of story he wanted to see on the screen.
“I couldn’t think of a better way to reflect and make a comment about our present without digging into our past,” he adds.
But the production work was not all rosy.
“Although we found solutions to the many problems that would pop up on set, without systems in place including crew, production services, resources we quite often found ourselves having to make compromises,” he said.
Shivji is optimistic that East Africa’s film industry will evolve into a sustainable and diversified space for talent and crew, with more genres and a hybrid of storytelling.
“Most importantly, I want to see a new and refreshing cinematic language spearheaded by our own Swahili speaking filmmakers to represent our stories and narratives on screen,” says Shivji.
Vuta N’kuvute also premieres at the Fespaco in Burkina Faso later this month.