On 1 June 2020, Cook Off, a Zimbabwean-made feature film, had its debut on Netflix, the first time a picture from the country was showcased on the streaming platform. The date is a significant one for Tomas Lutuli Brickhill, the film’s director and scriptwriter.
“That had some meaning,” he told New Frame in an interview on Zoom. On 1 June 2015, exactly five years before Cook Off’s premiere, the iconic venue Book Café, founded by his father Paul, shut down. By the time Book Café closed, it had become one of Zimbabwe’s important cultural institutions. It was at once a meeting place, Harare’s hippest hangout spot and a host of poetry events. It was a music venue too, with scores of musicians – including Oliver Mtukudzi, Chiwoniso Maraire, Tumi and The Volume, Bheki Khoza, Mandla Mlangeni and Mpumi Mcata – passing through to perform or hang out.
As is apparent in the name, the place was also a bookshop. You could get CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary, Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Terence Ranger’s historical works, Yvonne Vera and Dambudzo Marechera’s fiction, and Steve Bantu Biko’s political treatises.
The mention of Book Café – the venue with the low roof and walls covered in bright graffiti on the corner of 5th and Samora Machel avenues – isn’t gratuitous. Without the connections Brickhill made, and the relationships he built at the spot he inherited from his father, he might not have made the film.
A number of the people who feature in the film – including the poet Chirikure Chirikure, guitarist Sylent Nqo, bassist Pablo Nakappa and comedian Michael Kudakwashe – were regulars at the venue, either to perform, to take in the music or just to have a drink. These connections were important in a film made on a small budget of $8 000 (about R120 000 in 2017).
When New Frame interviewed him, Brickhill said all the crew and cast hadn’t yet been paid. “We had to make a contract with people and say, ‘Look, what’s your fee to come and do costumes, camera, [acting] on the film? You are signing this contract, but you are not getting paid until we sell the film. If we don’t sell the film, you are never going to get paid.’”
Brickhill says it was not that difficult to convince those involved because they read the script and said, “Wow, this looks exciting.” This willingness to do work without pay is a reflection of the precarious state of the arts in Zimbabwe. Many were out of work. “If you have another paying job, then fine.”
It is doubtful, however, that the actors agreed to be on set only because the script was good, and that they were out of work when the film was shot. There was another reason. Most of the goodwill the black Zimbabwean arts public have for the director derives from the social and political capital wielded by his family. The Brickhills – brothers Paul (Tomas’ father) and Jeremy – refused to serve in the Rhodesian army when all whites were required to. They instead joined the Joshua Nkomo-led Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu),where they served in its liberation army, Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (Zipra), close collaborators of the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
From reality to imagination and ingenuity
Brickhill had the idea of making the film when he worked on the set of the Zimbabwean cooking reality show, Battle of the Chefs Harare, in 2016. “That’s when I wrote the script, inspired by the idea of the show.” Early on, he already had the title Cook Off, and so wanted food and the culinary in general, besides the cooking competition which undergirds the film, to be a motif of the narrative. In Cook Off, people are cooking at home, or seated around a table eating, or standing in a line to buy sadza (pap) and meat at the cheap eating places dotted around Harare.
It is a feel-good film that features Anesu (Tendaiishe Chitima) in the lead role; she is a single mom who works as a cook at an eating place in Harare where the main fare is sadza and meat. Because her son Tapiwa (Eugene Zimbudzi) enjoys his mother’s cooking (away from the dictatorship of sadza, Anesu is more experimental at home, trying out a variety of other dishes). Tapiwa and Anesu’s grandmother (played by the matriarch of Zimbabwean film, Jesesi Mungoshi) then decide to enter her name in a cooking competition. Even though along the way she meets adversity, including the shenanigans of a fellow competitor and a mother deeply disappointed by the choices Anesu made when still a teenager, the lead actress emerges triumphant at the end.
The film, a solid piece of work, shows Zimbabwean ingenuity at play, the ability to stand tall in the face of ill winds blown by fate.
Some viewers have, however, complained about the stilted dialogue in English, especially at the dining table at Anesu’s family house in the Harare ghetto of Budiriro and, at the film’s end, when Anesu and her mother have the talk. In these delicate moments, vulnerable even, the language Shona would have been a more natural language to use, able to fully convey meaning and pathos. But as these dining room table conversations are not really central to the plot, this is a tangential issue to Cook Off.
The difficulty of film making in Zimbabwe
Cook Off is Brickhill’s first feature length as director after working for years on most aspects of the film production process – camera, sound and lighting. “Making a film is a difficult process,” he says. Everywhere filmmaking is difficult, but in Zimbabwe, now two decades into an economic and political crisis, it is doubly so. It is not made easy by the fact that most people who worked on Zimbabwean films such as Neria (in which Mungoshi played the lead role), Flame and Yellow Card either died or left Zimbabwe for exile at the beginning of the present crisis.
Some of these Zimbabwean exiles had the invaluable experience of working on South African-set Hollywood productions such as Cry Freedom, A World Apart and The Power of One. These films, because of apartheid, could not be shot in South Africa. A similarity in city planning between some Zimbabwean and South African cities in the 1980s and 1990s meant South African films were shot in Zimbabwe. But with the end of apartheid, opportunities to squat in the shadow of its neighbour came to an end. The Zimbabwean film industry had to stand on its own – and then the crisis happened.
Brickhill was still a youth in the era in which some of these movies were made (he was an extra, a Rhodesian soldier, in the film Flame) and holds strong opinions: “The budgets of films being made seemed to be increasing. By the time we got to Yellow Card, that was the end of the era of development films.”
Development films were a genre of donor-funded films made with a social theme such as teenage pregnancy, HIV/Aids or drug abuse in mind. The model could never be sustainable, dependent as it was on the whims and agendas of Western donor agencies. The impulses of that era, especially in a country like Zimbabwe starved of investors, still animate the film industry. “That’s how you make money to make a film [by centring a social issue]. In terms of killing your creativity,” Brickhill observed, “there is no better way.”
Brickhill partnered with Zimbabwean filmmaker Joe Njagu, the film’s producer, because he noticed that Njagu’s films, Lobola and The Gentleman, were at their core enjoyable. “The way he was trying to tell stories was first and foremost [driven by the idea] that it had to be entertaining, and then you can always throw in some social issues.”
Sizing up the task ahead of him, Brickhill deadpanned, “We are starting from ground zero.” The crew went through black outs, a cash crisis, water cuts and doing some shots of the film as Robert Mugabe was being toppled by his generals in the November 2017 coup. Considering this and the lovely finished product they delivered, Brickhill and the rest of Zimbabwe’s film industry are certainly no longer on ground zero.
Update, 14 July 2020: Since this interview, the producers of Cook Off have begun receiving the first income from sales and dispersing these to the cast and crew.