Zimbabwe's Cinematic Arts: Language, Power, Identity

Zimbabwe's Cinematic Arts: Language, Power, Identity

by Katrina Daly Thompson


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This timely book reflects on discourses of identity that pervade local talk and texts in Zimbabwe, a nation beset by political and economic crisis. As she explores questions of culture that play out in broadly accessible local and foreign film and television, Katrina Daly Thompson shows how viewers interpret these media and how they impact everyday life, language use, and thinking about community. She offers a unique understanding of how media reflect and contribute to Zimbabwean culture, language, and ethnicity.

Indiana University Press

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253006462
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/10/2012
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 9.20(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Katrina Daly Thompson is Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics and an affiliated faculty member in African Studies, the Center for the Study of Women, and Islamic Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Indiana University Press

Read an Excerpt

Zimbabwe's Cinematic Arts

Language, Power, Identity

By Katrina Daly Thompson

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Katrina Daly Thompson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00651-6


A Crisis of Representation

We're in a crisis. Zimbabwe as a nation, as an emerging new nation, needs to find its identity.

—Actor Edgar Langeveldt speaking at the Book Café in Harare, 8 August 2001

One evening each week in a Shona village in Chiweshe Communal Lands in northeast Zimbabwe, Mrs. Jaunda gathers up her five children and walks down the dusty road to her neighbor's yard. There they join some thirty adults and children in the kicheni, a round kitchen building still smoky from the family's supper. Gathered around the fireplace, instead of participating in their usual conversation and storytelling, the group is fixated on a small black-and-white television powered by a car battery, enjoying Mvengemvenge, a program of Zimbabwean music videos. They raucously comment on the latest songs, comparing preferences for one performer over another, laughing, and occasionally imitating a dance move. The shows they watch, and their talk about them, are discourse.

In a high-density suburb of Kadoma, a small city near the center of Zimbabwe, Mrs. Kaseke turns on the television in the living room as soon as she wakes up in the morning, and it stays on all day. She and her daughters catch snippets of Oprah, children's cartoons, and music videos while they polish the floors, prepare meals, and fold laundry. When Mr. Kaseke comes home from work, he sits in front of the TV and catches up with his family on the day's events, the children's progress at school, and news brought by visitors who happened by. The television drowns out the sounds of similar conversations in their neighbors' homes. The parents eat their evening meal in front of the TV, having their own quiet conversation while their four children eat at the dining room table. During and after dinner, they watch the evening news. Mrs. Kaseke watches the Ndebele news, Mr. Kaseke watches the Shona news, and the children join them to watch the English news. Later, the whole family watches the American soap Days of Our Lives while taking care of other tasks. The children do their homework, Mr. Kaseke reads the newspaper, and Mrs. Kaseke makes doilies that she will later sell. The older children stay up talking and watching TV until the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation shuts down after midnight. The shows they watch, and their talk about them, are discourse.

In Mablereign, a low-density suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, two teenage boys rent Eddie Murphy's Coming to America (1988) on video and watch it on their large color television. They talk with surprise and amusement about the film's representation of Africa as a place where elephants and other wild animals roam the grounds of the palace where Murphy's character grows up, and they are fascinated but somewhat bewildered by the comic representation of African Americans in the film. The family's domestic worker, who does not speak English, watches without paying full attention, and occasionally the boys translate or explain to her a few funny lines. Later that evening, while the boys do their homework in another room, she watches the Shona news and "local drama" while chatting with the boys' mother, both women savoring some relaxation after their work-filled days. The movies and shows they watch, and their talk about them, are discourse.

In 1996 I lived with these three families while studying Shona language and culture and Zimbabwean literature. I developed a strong interest in Zimbabwean written literature, but I realized that the people with whom I lived had almost no experience of it. In contrast, the cinematic arts played an important part in their lives and their conversations, even when the availability of electricity, leisure time, and disposable income limited their access to the programs and films they enjoyed so much. Through cinematic texts, they accessed locally produced and international discourse about the world; in conversation about what they watched, they not only interpreted such discourse but also created their own.

Four years later, in 2000, I returned to conduct fieldwork in Zimbabwe on the cinematic arts. I spent nine months watching television and films with these and other families, working with Africa Film & TV magazine and with a mobile cinema project that showed films to audiences in low-income high-density areas, and talking with people about their experiences of the country's cinematic culture. I spoke with filmmakers, producers, broadcasters, actors, festival directors, distributors, writers, government officials, and most importantly, ordinary people who watch films and TV—Shona villagers in Chiweshe, Shona and Ndebele speakers in Kadoma, and (mostly Shona) residents of Chitungwiza, Glen Norah, and Mbare, Harare's largest and poorest suburbs. Put into cultural context, these conversations can help us understand how Zimbabwean identity is being made. In contrast to the public discourse on foreign versus local cultures to be found in government publications, print media, and public debates among scholars and artists, viewers suggest that foreign and local elements are inextricably intertwined. The analysis of texts and talk about local and foreign cinematic arts becomes a lens for addressing questions of identity and belonging, questions that are central not only to Zimbabweans' experience of film and television but also to their representation in these media and by their government.

Overwording: A Problematic History

This book examines the many conversations that arise from Zimbabwean cinematic arts, the key people who engage in them, and what they say about what it means to be Zimbabwean. My analysis is based on fieldwork undertaken in 2001, the year a restrictive broadcasting services act was passed that defined and elevated a prejudice against foreignness into law. I offer case studies of viewers talking and writing about various cinematic texts. These texts include imported and locally made TV programming in various genres, films made in Zimbabwe by diverse crews, and films and TV programs in indigenous languages as well as in English. The analysis reveals both continuities and ruptures between government discourse and the talk of viewers who are ordinary Zimbabweans. Government discourse pathologizes foreign images; viewers articulate a much more complex and varied stance toward foreign and local cultures.

A central argument of this book is that the category local is not an a priori one into which a person, a cultural object, or practice automatically falls. Imported artifacts pervade Zimbabwe's culture because of its history of British and South African settlers and more recent globalization: British tea-drinking, street names, and educational structure; Chinese restaurants; Hindu temples; and Kentucky Fried Chicken are just a few examples. These elements originated elsewhere, but most Zimbabweans no longer consider them foreign. Instead, they are parts of everyday life, not indigenous but nevertheless local. They demonstrate Arjun Appadurai's claim that "at least as rapidly as forces from various metropolises are brought into new societies they tend to become indigenized in one or another way." Imported cinematic texts such as Coming to America, Oprah, or CNN news are often similarly indigenized, simultaneously both foreign and part of a local culture. Particular films or TV programs are not inherently or essentially local or foreign, no matter their sites of production or consumption. Instead, they become local (or don't) through the talk and writing of those who produce, consume, critique, and legislate them.

The indigenization, or local mediation, of foreign media resources by both filmmakers and viewers has been documented in numerous countries where U.S. programming dominates. For example, in Trinidad in the early 1990s, people scheduled their days around viewing The Young and the Restless and used the program to construct their identities as global consumers. In the Philippines, filmmakers adopted studio, star, and genre systems, as well as iconography, from Hollywood cinema, but retained local melodramatic traditions and ideological values. In Israel, viewers critically analyzed Dallas and used it as a conversational resource across ethnic lines. Despite claims that American programming is imperializing the world, research continues to show that viewers the world over use such programming in unintended and complex ways. Such programming may begin as foreign, but it often becomes local through viewers' discourse.

Similarly, in Zimbabwean public discourse, culture is often framed in terms of a foreign vs. local dichotomy, while in practice most cultural elements are better understood as both foreign and local. Regardless of the definitions of foreign and local used, both foreign and local films and TV programs are produced, legislated, distributed, viewed, discussed, and enjoyed in the country by both foreign and local people. In fact, viewers are more accepting of foreign elements on television than in any other media. Moreover, an individual film or TV program, and even an individual filmmaker, might be considered foreign by some Zimbabweans and local by others, depending on the criteria used to define these fluid terms.

The categories of foreign and local applied to cinematic texts and other media are part of a broader Zimbabwean discourse marked by dichotomies that divide rural from urban people, blacks from whites, citizens from aliens, and those loyal to the ruling party from those who seek democratic change. These dichotomies are central to discourse in Zimbabwe and yet also extremely slippery.

The centrality of the foreign/local dichotomy to Zimbabwean discourse is reflected in the frequency with which foreign and local cultural elements are discussed in public forums. Foreign and local have become what critical discourse analyst Norman Fairclough calls "culturally salient 'keywords.'" A diverse vocabulary has developed to encompass these contrasted terms through a process of overwording, "a sign of intense preoccupation with a particular ideology."

Thomas Turino, in a study of the discourse of globalism, shows that through "the highly redundant juxtaposition of a particular set of terms"—in this case foreign/local, colonial/independent, white/black, modern/traditional, urban/rural—"within public discourse across a variety of fields," over time "strong indexical relations are established between the paired terms such that one can come to replace the other," so that words like foreign and colonial are used as equivalents. For example, on 13 April 2000, the Financial Gazette, a Zimbabwean newspaper, reported that President Robert Mugabe called Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai a "puppet of the British." In doing so, he associated his opponent not only with foreign funding but also specifically with the former colonial power. Winning public acceptance for a unilateral definition of the ideal Zimbabwean serves Mugabe's interests. In speech after speech, and through state-owned newspapers and TV programs that endlessly quote him, he decries the West, Britain, foreigners, whites, the opposition, and the independent press. Analysis of how similar labels were used in pre-independence discourse illustrates the extent to which his rhetoric has been ironically "colonized" by these words' histories. Moreover, attention to the ways in which filmmakers and viewers resist the dominant meanings of these words suggests that Mugabe's hegemony is far from complete.

Historically, the dichotomy between foreign and local emerged when the country was still Southern Rhodesia (1901–65). Diana Jeater's work on the politics of translation between English and Shona in the early twentieth century demonstrates how both indigenous people and white settlers referred to one another using variants of these terms. For example, English-language texts for white audiences referred to local people as natives, but in the Shona translations natives was rendered as vatema, "black people." Whereas Shona speakers at that time referred to themselves simply as vanhu, "people," the colonial translation imposed "a skin color–based categorization of peoples that was not found at all in indigenous modes of thought." Similarly, in translations whites named themselves with a Shona term borrowed from Nguni, varumbi, which meant "bosses," while Shona speakers referred to whites as mabvakure, "those who come from somewhere else," emphasizing their foreignness. Translation and naming are linked with ideologies of class, race, difference, and social context.

The term alien offers another example. Alien was frequently used both in the realm of politics and in filmmaking to describe other African locales beyond the country's or region's borders. For example, the settler government distinguished between Africans indigenous to the country and "alien natives," Africans coming from neighboring countries, who in fact constituted the majority of the African population until the 1950s in the capital, Salisbury (now Harare). It was not just people who were considered alien, but also film locales and films themselves. For example, when the Central African Film Unit (CAFU) was screening films in Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and Nyasaland (now Malawi) from 1948 to 1963, it labeled those produced outside of the Central African Federation as alien, finding that "films with an alien setting were usually less popular" and "alien to Central African concerns." One can surmise that "Central African concerns" were the concerns of the settler government, not those of the indigenous peoples they governed. In contrast to the term local, alien suggests not only foreignness but also strangeness, inappropriateness, and even threat.

Uses of the label alien in different contexts reveal how the word was applied in contradictory ways. For example, during minority rule, cultural nationalists argued that "the vernaculars were 'alien' and had been appropriated by Europeans," becoming more "colonial" than English. In contrast to the alien vernaculars, English was seen as the language of local economic advancement and even, during the war of liberation, the language of revolution, because "guerrillas came from different linguistic groups and English was the only language that they could use amongst themselves and with those from the organisations that were funding the liberation movement." This example shows that conceptions of alienness led to a language policy that favors English, which impacts the languages used in the cinematic arts.

While alien typically referred to foreignness within Southern Rhodesia, the term overseas was used for more distant foreign locales. In British English, overseas has historically referred to "anywhere unspecifically not in 'U.K.'" In Rhodesian English its meaning was even broader: beyond Africa, usually in Europe or the United States. Louis Nell, a producer for the CAFU in the 1940s, writes proudly about Geoffrey Mangin's color travel promotion documentaries, Wish You Were Here and Fairest Africa, as "the first Southern Rhodesian films to obtain cinema release in South Africa and overseas." While overseas was mostly a neutral term, already overseas film industries were having a negative effect on filmmaking within the country: cinemas in Southern Rhodesia would not show locally made films such as Mangin's because "their agreements with their overseas distributors did not allow them to screen films from any other source." Such agreements continued to impact film distribution in cinemas in 2001.


Excerpted from Zimbabwe's Cinematic Arts by Katrina Daly Thompson. Copyright © 2013 Katrina Daly Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Cultural Identity in Discourse
1. A Crisis of Representation
2. Cinematic Arts before the 2001 Broadcasting Services Act: Two Decades of Trying to Build a Nation
3. Authorship and Identities: What Makes a Film "Local"?
4. Changing the Channel: Using the Foreign to Critique the Local
5. Power, Citizenship, and Local Content: A Critical Reading of the Broadcasting Services Act
6. Language as a Form of Social Change: Public Debate in Local Languages
Conclusion: Possibilities for Democratic Change

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What People are Saying About This

University of Cape Town - Lucia Saks

A welcome corrective to the lack of serious scholarship in this area and of interest to a variety of disciplines, in particular, communication studies, ethnic and area studies, and media and cultural studies.

Clemson University - James Burns

A nuanced and convincing approach to evaluating the role of media in shaping African identities.

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