Amil Shivji is currently a 21-year-old Filmmaking student at York University in Canada. As a native of Tanzania, Amil has plans to work with film in East Africa, particularly with films that contain conscious messages. We caught up with him to ask him about his ideas and recommendations…
1. Compared to newspapers and radio, what is about films that interests you?
Motion. The movement of images invokes a billion different emotions and allows varied perceptions. And at the same time a frame carries the power of a newspaper and the sound of a radio station. Juxtaposition of shots or certain image sequences tell an entire story and the best part is that it’s very personal. When I watch a film, I feel like I am having a conversation with the filmmaker. The shots are fragments of his/her visualization of the story and I am offered an insight into the filmmaker’s imagination. As opposed to newspaper and radio where I would be reading words or hearing sounds, film is less straightforward. But don’t get me wrong, I still think other mediums have very important roles to play in the media industry. Since primary school, writing was always something I enjoyed doing, from poetry to short stories. I interned at a local newspaper during Secondary school and really enjoyed the journalistic experience, however I always wished my readers could SEE what I was writing because the images played out so beautifully in my mind and I felt I was not doing justice to them but trying to write them out. Images let you do that! Films offer people the chance to relate to the stories displayed on the screen and for the first time ‘watch’ their lives. As Lenin said ‘of all the arts, cinema is the most important’ because it allows you to overtly see and question the mechanics of society that are displayed on screen.
2. When we talked informally back in Dar-es-Salaam last summer, you were interested in continuing your work in film in Tanzania in the long-term. What kind of films are you interested in making in Tanzania?
Good films! My interest in filmmaking was the lovechild of media and activism. In our country (and continent) it is impossible to continue with your daily activities and not witness the extreme social and economic divisions unless you consciously choose to. Film gives the pathway for change. The same role that other media forms play in disseminating information/news, film does it except with so much more attention, thus allowing infinite possibilities in story telling. The stories I would like to tell are about the flaws and inequalities in our society and the necessity for change. A lot of people have told me I should be making documentaries, which I have done in the past and will definitely take up in the future, but I believe fictional films can play the same if not an even a more powerful role. Encapsulating the audience in 90 minutes of what they see everyday but do not stop to think why it is so. Fictional films allow us to see where 74 year old Mzee Mgeni goes after he has finished selling karanga on the side of the street, allows us to hear the conversations on all three buses he takes to get home and most importantly it allows us to get an insight into Mzee Mgeni’s world and why he has to struggle harder than the hundreds of customers who come and buy karanga from him every night.
3. Considering that it has become really easy to publish videos on the Internet, do you think this will help or hinder professional film makers such as yourself?
Help of course. Distribution is the biggest factor when it comes to filmmaking in Africa. There are extremely few distributors in the entire continent. That’s why many good African films end up playing at Cannes Film Festival or Sundance Film Festival while no one in Africa will actually see them. Now local filmmakers can upload their work online via YouTube or Vimeo and it can be easily accessed by many people. I do put my work up online and love the feedback I get from fellow Africans that would not have been possible if I just sent it to some festival in the West. African films have to be watched by Africans themselves, putting up films online won’t solve the problem but will definitely allow more people in the continent to access them.
4. Are there any particular films you would recommend?
There are lots of films I would recommend. An amazing African film that everyone must see is ‘Bamako’, recently we had a screening at UDSM and there was not one seat left empty! It’s a wonderful Malian film that puts the WB and IMF on trial in the backyard of a local resident’s home in Bamako. Generally I love films from the 60s especially Cuban films and the films that came out of Italian neorealist movement in the 40s. These films addressed the social reality post WWII and the disintegration of society due to war and greed. The list could go on, the important factor is films that address social reality, make a comment on it and call for change!
5. In comparison to our neighbors whose citizens have begun projects like Kuweni Serious, what would you suggest to other young aspiring film makers in Tanzania?
Be honest to our culture and life. We have to tell our own stories and not try and adapt Hollywood/Bollywood stories in Kiswahili. The strongest part of a film is its story and it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a 25,000 dollar camera and a 100-man crew. It’s about what you want to say in your film. I have seen great films shot on cell phones. For our purposes, the revolutionary message that the film carries is the most important aspect, through this we can develop cinematic technique based on the film concept. For example, Ousmane Sembene the father of African filmmaking, would break all the technical film ‘rules’ in his films that addressed neo-colonialism and imperialist influence on Africa. He did this to challenge the idea of western filmmaking as ‘good filmmaking’. His films such as Black girl (1966) or Xala (1975), are highly acclaimed all over the world.
Though we will probably be seeing him soon, Vijana FM thanks Amil for his time and responses! His current projects can be found on his YouTube channel. You can contact Amil on amil_shivji (at) hotmail (dot) com.