True stories — the untold stories

Here’s a little fact that many may not know: one of the oldest known films based on true events concerns Zimbabwe.

On May 8, 1899, the Empress Theatre in London’s Earls Court started showing “Major Wilson’s Last Stand”, a silent film about the Shangani Patrol that tried to track down King Lobengula back in December 1893 at the start of the British colonisation of Zimbabwe.

Joseph Rosenthal and the Warwick Trading Company Limited were to subsequently distribute “Major Wilson’s Last Stand” for £3 a copy, taking it all the way to New Zealand.

Here is another interesting fact: Peter Lobengula — the son of King Lobengula — played the role of the monarch in the film. Needless to say, this was an attempt to capture Allan Wilson’s ill-fated adventure in a light favourable to colonial British political sensibilities.

And who can blame a film-maker for shaping the world in his/her own image?

But today we hardly see films based on real events coming out of Zimbabwe, we do not see historical narratives tapping into audiences that have proven time and again that they will pay to watch such productions.

The 1996 movie “Flame” is was based on the liberation struggle, and what a hit that was. Moses Matanda has done his bit with the “Chinhoyi Seven”, a movie about the 1996 Battle of Chinhoyi.

Apart from that, there is little by way of historical narrative in local cinema.

Apart from the rich material provided by the liberation struggle, there is much more to work with: think of the Masendeke-Chidhumo reign of terror; or the fast-track reclamation of commercial farms at the turn of the millennium; or the inspirational and heartbreaking journey of the Warriors under Fabisch; or the rise and demise of the Bundu Boys.

Award-winning film-maker Munya Chidzonga, however, says there are obstacles to making such movies.

“You have to understand that period pieces are very expensive to make and need resources, which we don’t have at the moment. Let’s say you want to make a film based on the Ndebele Kingdom during the time of Lobengula; we are talking about recreating 19th century Zimbabwe and that will be very demanding.

“I have come across a script based on the book ‘Karikoga Gumi Remiseve’ and there was also another one which centred on the life of the infamous Chidhumo among several other themes.

“Basically it is not a matter of filmmakers not wanting to make these movies, but as much as they would want to, it is very difficult to put resources together to pull off such projects,” Chidzonga says.

“The stories are there and I am sure as the industry grows and we have enough capacity to come up with proper production budgets and advanced expertise, these stories will be told.”

Film-maker Nakai Tsuro concurs.

“Making a film based on true events is like doing a documentary where you are supposed to recreate as much detail as possible but then that tends to be very expensive.

“This is why we end up doing contemporary fiction where we can easily improvise and play around with the whole filming process in order to fit our budgets.”

Nick Zemura, another stalwart of the local cinema, says there are other obstacles.

“If you want to tell the story of a character like Tongogara, you have to do it in the context of the people that were around him but then finding the people who are willing to open up is very difficult so your film will just die on the script. I actually want to make films based on our own heroes but I am yet to come across anyone who is willing to share their story.”

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