Writing Art History Since 2002

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To tell the world a positive story regarding creative endeavours in Zimbabwe is challenging right now. The expectations of impending tragedy and starvation are just too compelling; we strain to hear the screams of torture rather than the scrape of the palette knife.

Nonetheless, undaunted as usual, Zimbabweans follow Sisyphus, their ruling mythological muse. While in Harare recently, I came across just such an example of obstinate stone rolling.

Last year a young team of maverick filmmakers completed Zimbabwe’s first-ever, full-length, animated children’s feature. It’s called The Legend of the Sky Kingdom and stars nothing but conglomerates of discarded junk. In a joint effort between street artists, dedicated filmmakers and the director Roger Hawkins, the characters, sets and props were fashioned utilising the African tradition of trash heap art — hence the term “junkmation”.

Art director Menali Da Silva and her team of street artists, Weston Muronzi and Edson Manjekeye, set about creating the entire cast as well as the sets from society’s throwaways. They created their children’s characters, Lucky, Italiano, Badza and Blockhead, from bottletops, lunch boxes, crocodile clips and spoons. The leading man has an egg whisk for a hand and a coffee mug for a head. Hyenas’ bodies are made from scrubbing brushes, vultures fly on old sacks and Scaramouch the Scary Baboon is nothing but squash balls, tennis balls and footballs.

Zimbabwe could be an outdoor filmmaker’s paradise. It boasts temperate weather most of the year, a host of talented local actors and dazzling natural settings. Ironic then, that the only film to be produced in Zimbabwe within the last three years was shot indoors and constructed from urban garbage?

“Most of the movies done here over the last 20 years have been development type films, ie films funded by the international donor community,” asserts Hawkins. “Films such as Neria, Yellow Card, Everyone’s Child, have tended to be movies with a message. We set out to do something uniquely African, speaking from Africa, rather than at it.”

Sky Kingdom was totally independent and privately funded by producer Phil Cunningham who generates his income from selling prepacked eggs and chickens. But this is no ordinary chicken man. Before moving into film, Cunningham wrote the original children’s story of Sky Kingdom, and has in the past published books on Alexandrian history. Journalists will no doubt scoff at the handy reference to Chicken Run, but when you compare the budgets, it’s definitely a worthwhile angle. Chicken Run cost its producers around US$42-million, whereas Sky Kingdom’s price tag was closer to US$400 000.

Hawkins, despite starting out with a BSc in Agriculture, had a string of teaching, musical and advertising jobs before Sky Kingdom. He learned most about film from working on a BBC documentary about AIDS education, shot in Zimbabwe.

“I did a Charlize Theron;” says Hawkins. “I convinced Phil to do the movie while we were chatting in a bank queue. It was a case of once in, forever indentured, an intense project which took three years of painstaking accuracy and logistical ingenuity.”

The technical difficulties overcome were not quite on the level of Werner Hertzog’s jungle operatics, but incredible nonetheless.

“Since there is no film lab in Zimbabwe, I had to shoot the whole thing on digital and then race down to South Africa to have it transferred to celluloid,” says Hawkins. Due to budget constraints, an entire camera motion-control unit had to be created on site, using parts of an electric gate, tape measures, bicycle chains and lengths of 6mm bar. The country suffered power cuts regularly, so the team set up a generator, only to be foiled for days at a time by fuel shortages.

There were in excess of 12 scene changes, each one a conglomerate work of art, with names such as the Valley of Complacency, the Baobab Plains and the Monkey Forest, which took 600 metres of different types of rope, 220-floor mops and 50 bottle brushes, all painted in vivid hues.

By now it’s clear the story of its conception is admirable but is the film any good? At the time of this interview, only short pieces were available for viewing, because of an edit to tighten up the plotline, but by all accounts, it has surpassed expectations.

“The greatest problems we faced were characters with little facial expression. We had to give them a soul and tie them into a tight screenplay. The animator Brent Dawes did a great job on the first count, but a second edit was needed to perfect the overall structure,” says Hawkins. Dawes has achieved an uncanny grace of movement and warm idiosyncratic temperaments for each of the characters, despite the limitations of the raw material. It has a similar slightly claustrophobic feel to the cult stop-animated feature The Adventures of Tom Thumb. The textural integrity and colour values of the movie feel totally unique. Attention to detail is maintained throughout and all effects were done on camera, including a very ambitious underwater scene.

Since release, The Legend of the Sky Kingdom has collected the fifth prize at the prestigious SICAF world animation festival in Seoul. It’s also caught the attention of the Tsar of Southern African film, Anant Singh, producer of over 20 international releases, including Cry The Beloved Country. He’s currently negotiating worldwide release.

The plot of the movie is thematically akin to the current Nemo/Shrek type adventure epics: the central characters face deception, fear, desolation, and through sheer grit, humour and bravery reach their destination. Italiano, Badza and Blockhead escape from a subterranean Underground City and set out on their epic journey in search of the title’s Sky Kingdom and the mythical Prince Ariel. The premise is simply “be steadfast in your intentions and you can achieve your goals”, something young Zimbabweans need oft-repeated at this time in their history. The filmmakers’ story itself is a panegyric to the creative potential of the country, just as it serves as a quiet prayer to those in power for the space to let it flourish.

Gordon Glyn-Jones is a Zimbabwean writer who lives and works in London

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