Tanzania and Nollywood

Yvone Cherry and Stephen Kanumba as the couple in She Is My Sister

There are only a handful of Tanzanian films produced each year and few of these are screened outside the festival circuit. As a consequence, I’ve never seen one. When the British had colonies in Africa their policy was to offer training in making documentaries and instructional films. One consequence of this in East Africa is a general lack of commercial, entertainment-based filmmaking. Something similar was also the case in West Africa, but in Nigeria and Ghana an alternative, highly populist, video cinema movement began in the 1980s. ‘Nollywood’ now claims to be the world’s third biggest film industry after India and the US, with hundreds of cheap video films produced each year.

Nollywood has now spread to East Africa and I was fortunate to be given a VCD of a joint Tanzanian/Nigerian production entitled She Is My Sister (2007). This follows a previous joint venture Dar 2 Lagos (2007). I was given She Is My Sister because it is performed mostly in English. Most Tanzanian cultural products use Swahili but in this case three of the leads are Nigerian (as is the director) so English may simply have been more convenient. However, I’m not sure how that would affect the potential market for the film.

VCD is the preferred format for cheap film distribution in South and South East Asia and I’ve also noticed them in the Middle East, so it’s no surprise to find films on VCD in Africa as well. The image quality on my computer is not great, but it is watchable. There are two discs in the box and the total film length is around 74 minutes with 6 minutes of trailers on Disc 1.

She Is My Sister is recognisable as a melodrama in terms of its plot and exaggerated acting style. To deal with the stylistic features first, there is little to say. The film is presented in a standard TV ratio of 4:3. There are a couple of establishing shots of streets in Dar es Salaam, but otherwise the film is composed in medium shot, like a television soap opera, with occasional close-ups and occasional tableaux to show characters in their surroundings as in the shot of the couple with their new furniture above. The overall style is quite constrained compared to the trailers for other productions. (The trailers are highly wrought with flash edits and zooms, but this may simply be a trailer style.) Overall, the camerawork and editing is competent, although some shots are held for far too long. (At the beginning of the film we have to watch nearly every passenger get off a long distance coach before we meet the first significant character.)

Far more interesting is the overall narrative. This is in part a universal morality tale. Melodrama has often been an important mode for exploring social relationships at times of major societal change — such as in Europe in the 19th century. She Is My Sister focuses on a young woman, Rose, from a rural village who gets to university and then is able to get a job/open a business selling imported electronics goods. This all happens before the narrative begins and we see her return to her village where she finds her childhood sweetheart who she takes back to the city and introduces to her girlfriends. The ‘country bumpkin’, Danny, turns out to be very good at running the shop and before long the couple are married with a small child. Danny, played by Steven Kanumba who also wrote the script and seems to be one of Tanzania’s successful young stars, also becomes very attractive to Rose’s friend Flora. Flora is a repugnant character, an uber bitch played with relish by Nigerian actress Nkiru Silvanus. When she steals Danny, Rose’s whole life falls apart.

The plot is very thin and there are few surprises. The only narrative device of note is the use of flashback so that at the beginning Rose’s sister arrives in the city for a visit and discovers Rose no longer lives in a ‘gated mansion’, but is now in a squalid back street apartment. Rose then tells her the story . . . It is the elements of the narrative that are interesting. The rural/city contrast is often represented by an opposition of cunning v. authenticity and here the couple from the country are corrupted by the city lifestyle. The woman has an education, but she has been seduced by material gain and may lose everything when her man succumbs to the sophisticated woman. As in many of the Nollywood films, there is a second part to the story according to the title at the end of the film which warns us to “Watch out for She Is My Sister 2″. Perhaps Rose fights back?

Tanzania is a poor country, but most of the action in this film takes place in a world of flatscreen TVs, gated houses, servants and expensively decorated rooms. There is clearly an aspirational lifestyle being offered. The film has an 18 certificate, but there is no overt sexuality or graphic violence. Perhaps the immorality alone is enough to get this rating? Tanzania has strong Christian and Muslim communities. I don’t know if this has had an impact on certification. There is a hint of possible domestic violence, but nothing like what is evident in the Swahili language films trailed on the VCD in which violence, mainly but not always by men towards women, seems to be a common feature.

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