‘Films to fall asleep to’: Are development agencies derailing the film industry in Tanzania?

Smooth camera work. Masterful writing. Clear audio. Linear narratives. There are plenty of people who watch Hollywood films and think that their local films could look and feel more like the productions that grace movie theatres across the United States. Many point to African filmmakers lacking training, funds, and equipment as the major impediments to the “development” of African film industries. But what happens when western development agencies offer said training, funds, and equipment in exchange for carrying development messaging?

Tanzania’s film industry is an example of the uneasy relationship between African popular culture and Western development agendas.  Swahili films, or “bongo films” have started to become popular within the last decade or so. There are over 25,000 video shops renting out DVDs, and over 10,000 video vendors that publicly screen films.  At least 10 films are produced each week, or roughly 500 films are produced per year, and despite poor sound, shoddy lighting, and undertrained filmmakers, bongo films are becoming increasingly popular in Tanzania and among the Tanzanian diaspora.

A few days ago at Columbia University in New York City, I went to a lecture by Claudia Böhme, a professor at the University of Leipzig in Germany, titled “Swahiliwood? The Appropriation of East African Film Productions By Development.” Böhme’s main argument was that development interests are meddling with the Tanzanian film industry and distribution markets with little regard for the aesthetic preferences and cultural sensibilities of Tanzanian audiences.

As the films become more and more popular, they also attract foreign filmmakers and organizations who see in these productions a potential for a global film market, especially spreading development messages through their networks,.

She referred to these efforts as a “ model of humanitarian Tarzanism,” and that the slickly produced development films reminiscent of Hollywood films are guilty of “aesthetic intrusion.” Even the name, “Swahiliwood” was a label created by outside development agencies, not from local audiences.

Organizations such as Media for Development International (MFDI) provide training, equipment, and funding to Tanzanian filmmakers in exchange for carrying development messaging.  MFDI  receives support from donor agencies such as Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Ford Foundation, USAID, Kellogg Foundation,  CDC, DFID, SIDA, and the John T. Macarthur Foundation, to name a few.  MFDI produced kiswahili development films such as Siri Ya Mtungi,  Yellow Card, and Chumo.

Here is a Youtube trailer for “Siri Ya Mtungi,” produced by MFDI on Youtube:

Here’s a trailer for “Chumo”:

In contrast, here‘s a link to the full movie for “Point of No Return Part 1,” a local, (non development) independent film.

The differences in production values are immediately obvious.

But back to the politics of the development film industry. In a promotional video for MFDI Tanzania, MFDI-TZ director John Riber spoke about the nascent Tanzanian film industry:

Our particular interests are the potential of this industry to deliver social messages … we use communication to inform, educate people around social themes, public health primarily. We are interested in developing this industry as a cultural expression, as a potential to employ people.

Riber emphasizes the desire to ensure that the development films are widely seen.

We want to work with this local industry who already have a distribution system in place, popular film stands—we want to use this network to deliver messages on health awareness. But I think our  most important contribution at the end of the day is building the capacity of the industry from a technical point of view.

The way the development films address social issues conflict with how the local film industry addresses them. “There is permanent and persistent sex talk in the series, totally opposite to the local films. [The local films] address this but in less overt ways and ambiguous use of image and dialogue.”

In her research, Boehme observed that the development agencies were overly concerned for the technical aspects of the film, rather than concern with whether the performances of the characters would be received as authentic. Additionally, western-funded development films tend to have slower narrative paces, with actors taking turns speaking to one other instead of over one another.

Vincensia Shule, a filmmaker and lecturer and researcher on film and theatre studies at the University of Dar es Salaam, argues that from an economic standpoint, western funded development films financially destabilize the Tanzanian film industry. “Perhaps [there have been] about 5 donor films in the last 3 years, but their total production budgets can be equivalent to almost 100 Kiswahili films,” Shule says.

Normal film production costs between 15 to 20 million tsh. Then these donors are funding almost 50 million to 100 million for production of one video and sell to distributors for 10 million or less.  They sell less copies and distributors prefer to buy from them rather than the big five (local production companies).  What kind of buisiness is it? How about our audiences who are interested in our stories and not developmental messages—are we being fair to them?

What about audiences? It is unclear whether the development agencies undertake surveys to investigate whether Tanzanian audiences actually enjoy and demand films made in the Western style, much less whether or not the films have had any impact on public health. Studies have shown that media for development projects often fail to connect with their intended targets.

In the case of Tanzania, the high budget development films are regarded as boring by Tanzanian audiences. They have earned the nickname among some as “films to fall asleep” (in Swahili: filamu za kusinzia). During a home screening session of development films, Bohme remarked that her Tanzanian hosts preferred to fast forward through the DVDs, and then finally asked, “Can we watch something else?”


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