Some Notes from the Zanzibar International Film Festival


The most important event of the day was a little trip to the Music Academy. I walked right in and asked if I could play, later explaining that I was with the festival. The instrumentation of the group was very telling about Zanzibar and is a good segway into a little local history. The islands that comprise Zanzibar were once the center of a slave trade between East Africa and the Arab, Persian, and Indian worlds. While Europe and the New World were gathering slaves from West Africa, Asia was taking them from the East. While this was not good for those who were enslaved, it led to a very interesting convergence of cultures here in Zanzibar. The eastern influences were very apparent in the band I played with today. There was an oud player, which is a stringed instrument mostly associated with the Middle East, and at the same time there was a calabash in the percussion section, usually used in continental African music. The songs we played reflected both Middle Eastern and mainland African tastes, alternating between snaky Persian tonalities and jumpy African beats. My thoughts are now flowing about what I’d like to perform at the closing ceremony. I’ll be sure to report more on that later as things materialize.

Some films I’ve caught or glimpsed so far cover subjects including the global movement against South African Apartheid, the struggle for financial independence among females in developing countries, and the Tanzanian first lady even personally introduced a film about the rates of and reasons for mortality among pregnant women across the world, including the USA, Tanzania, Bangladesh, and Guatemala.

There have also been films which aren’t so easily assigned a “subject.” One film asked Tanzanians to describe what they pictured when they thought of a European “living room.” Many people mentioned paint on the walls, windows which looked out onto gardens, furniture, televisions, etc. An American film called Ana’s Playground really caught my attention. It seemed to imagine American child soldiers in a post-apocalyptic urban setting…


Today I went back to the Music Academy and rehearsed with Hassan the Oud player and Chalo the Ganoonist. Oud we already discussed yesterday, but the Ganoon is like a harp that sits on your lap.

We started rehearsing for the performance at the ZIFF award ceremony. I thought it would be cool to do a worldwide folk hit that has different names in different languages. In Turkish, they call it Uskudar, and in Yiddish it is called Der Terk in America. In fact, people from western China all the way to immigrant communities in New York claim the song as their own, and they even play the song in Zanzibar! The three of us came up with a nice little rendition of the song. I’m sure it would’ve been a hit at the ceremony, but we later realized that Chalo and Hassan would be out of town that night! So I was back to the drawing board for what to perform at the award ceremony…

Films I saw today included a murder mystery set in the African immigrant community in Canada and a documentary about a little known community of former African slaves living in India. Most relevant to me, was a film that incorporated street performance in Kenya. A group there was putting on plays that educate people in the slums about HIV, and the film included live footage of these productions, plus cinematic departures from the performances.


For a few of us, the first half of today was ideal to take a little break from ZIFF and the bustling Stone Town. So I was joined for a trip to the beach in southeast Zanzibar by Bruce and Margorie. Bruce is a cinema professor at a university in Trinidad and made a documentary about the Amish community in Belize. Margorie works for an arts organization in South Africa that helped fund ZIFF. Both of them were great company, and we enjoyed some time at the beach,  despite some cloudy weather that is rare for Zanzibar. The beach here is certainly beautiful with water that is clear or blue instead of the brown waters of northeast USA!

We returned to Stone Town in the afternoon, and I had a rehearsal with Roger. It was suggested that I perform with him at the award ceremony instead of Hassan and Chalo who would unfortunately be out of town. Roger was the second place contestant in the most recent season for the Tanzanian equivalent of American Idol. His style is much like contemporary American R&B but with Swahili lyrics. I think we’ll have fun performing together. Though it would still be cool to also use my first idea of performing Uskudar/Der Terk in America/whatever else the song is called.


Today marked the beginning of the ZIFF festival forum, a conference of about forty festival organizers from across Africa. I am not sure why I was invited to this particular event, since I have never organized a festival in my life. Nonetheless, I did my best to offer input when I could, and I found it interesting. We discussed the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing African film, music, and art festivals. One strength is the ability to reach audiences who would not otherwise have access to these events, whereas in Europe and the US audiences can be full of people who are somehow connected to the entertainment industry. A weakness that people were concerned about is in the field of management and organization, which is a well known drawback in many industries in Africa. One threat that I hadn’t thought about was censorship. At the ZIFF festival, every single film had to be approved by the government censorship board, which routinely rejects films, mostly for sexual content.

I had to leave in the middle of the day for the first screening of Rwanda 15. It was held in a grandiose white structure called the House of Wonders, which was built in 1883 as a palace for the Sultan Barghash. I am not so interested in seeing the film again and again, because I am often very self-critical. But I’m definitely confident about the quality of the film and the music in it, despite budget shortages.

After the screening, I made it back to the conference just in time for lunch and tea!

My filmmaking partner, Daddy Ruhorahoza, got into town today, and we spent the evening discussing future plans.


Today I was feeling a little sick, so was unable to attend day two of the ZIFF forum, which was a little upsetting. But it was important to get some rest, because I had to perform at the award ceremony in the evening.  Daddy and others would later fill me in on what I missed anyway.

In the afternoon, I made it out to a press conference, where Daddy and I were to answer questions about the film.  For me, the most interesting part was when someone asked me if it is hard to learn a musical instrument! (The press conference was open to questions from both the public and journalists, and this question was posed by a teenage girl.)

Finally that evening came the ZIFF closing ceremony, Roger and I opened the event with a couple of his songs. Later, I came on stage by myself, and performed Der Terk in America/Uskudar unaccompanied.  Other performers included breakdancers and a children’s fashion show.

Films that won awards included the Kenyan science fiction. Also, the street theater film about HIV won a few awards. Perhaps, Rwanda 15 will have better luck next time. In style and subject matter, it is a drastic departure from this year’s award winning films at ZIFF.

When I went back to my hotel this evening, I was greeted very enthusiastically by the receptionist, “Congregations Mr. Jeremy! Congregations!” He meant “Congratulations.”  The award ceremony had been televised, so he’d watched my performance.


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