Tapiwa Gambura bought her very first camera just over a year ago, with money raised from working three jobs. Eleven months later, she would walk on stage to collect a cheque of $2500 – a cash prize for winning the “Real Stories By Real People” award with her documentary film, Redefining the Road, at the Jozi Film Festival. ‘It was surreal,’ eighteen year old Tapiwa tells me, ‘walking onstage and collecting my enormous cheque such as I’d only ever seen in Hollywood movies, and thinking: I, a regular Zimbabwean girl, seventeen at the time, with absolutely nothing special about her but a tiny camera…could do that?’
Though this feat made her an award-winning filmmaker, Tapiwa had already achieved quality accolades. She was the May 2018 winner of Kalahari Review’s Igby Prize for Nonfiction. This parallels with her artistic trajectory, which began with writing, before a drift into photography and film. ‘My journey began with a pen. I loved writing, and I still do write, but one big challenge that I came across was that literacy, particularly in Zimbabwe, is dropping at a really high rate, because the economic situation is just disabling a lot of people from attending school. It therefore seemed counterproductive, to me, to write things that people wouldn’t even be able to read. I thus turned to film to challenge the class struggles that affected literacy, and to make my work more widely accessible.’
All of her films, from the debut – Bvudzi (on hair and femininity) to her latest, Redefining the Road – which focuses on the life of a bus conductor Miriam Kadaira – have had women at their centre, and have grappled, in some way or other, with identity. From her dorm room on the campus of the African Leadership Academy, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, Tapiwa answered my questions about these themes and other things pertinent to her visual artistry.
What is it about ‘identity’ that holds a fascination for you?
It informs a big part of my work because I think it is one of the most fragile aspects that we have as human beings. It’s the cause of a lot of conflicts; it’s just a space fraught with so much friction because one’s personal sense of self and sense of being are dictated a lot by the things that inform who you are.
How do you personally grapple with any aspects of identity?
I think that particularly as a Black, African woman there are so many things that have been said about my identity and how I should be. It’s things like patriarchy imposed upon my identity, white supremacy imposed on my identity, class differences – especially in Zimbabwe – on my identity. I think we’re dealing with a lot of that and I’ve been on this quest to discover myself and who I really am, authentically. Even more particularly in my case, there’s so much about being a young Black African woman and it’s difficult to unpack. It’s definitely a source of tension, questioning and insecurity as well. For example, when I go home, I’m a woman and when I’m in South Africa I’m Zimbabwean and a woman. And I am at risk all the time. All of these are things that I have to constantly grapple with.
You’ve mentioned that making Redefining the Road changed you. Please speak a bit more about this process?
I haven’t really deconstructed what the film changed about me, but it definitely brought about several realisations. One major thing was the way that I perceived film, African films and my creation of them. For a long time, I had wanted to create something new because African art has continuously been exploited. As an artist and a creator, I had always thought that I needed to create new things; to come out with these insanely fictitious concepts that are beautiful, not realising that there are non-fiction elements of this continent that are beautiful, and I don’t always need to create the story; I sometimes just need to deliver it. This brings up another thing about my role as a creator: it’s not always [about] creating things but creating space for people and their stories.
… And then this made you an award-winning filmmaker. Tell us about the Jozi Film Festival, and what that has meant to your career.
I think it’s still the most surreal experiences that I’ve had in my life. It definitely validated a lot of the concerns that I had with my own filmmaking. I have a lot of room to grow, but it allowed me to see that my growth exists, and that it spoke truth to my filmmaking journey and to the perceptions that film is just a hobby. It solidified to me and my family that film is something that I can live with and be sustained by, while doing things for my continent and our people. So, I can’t even put into words what the experience was like, because I’m still trying to process what it means to me. But it’s great. And it also means that I can buy better equipment to make way better films in the future.
Can you share anything about your next film project?
I want my films to be solely, or, at least primarily, female in creation and production. A lot of the time, women find themselves in front of the screen but never actually making the films. So, with this next film I do know that it’s going to be completely female-produced and composed. That also means that it’s probably going to be just me behind the camera and editing the work. I want to focus on the politics around womanhood in Zimbabwe, because, I think there’s so much there to unpack. And that’s as much as I can tell you. My mom is helping out a lot with that. She is great.
I once caught your frustrated expression about the institutional bureaucracy you had to traverse before you had a film approved. It reminded me of author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga expressing similar frustrations at the Zimbabwean state, with regard to her filmmaking. Can you speak a little bit about that reality for Zimbabwean artists?
Zimbabwe is in such a difficult place, politically, and political instability always finds itself becoming more stringent and somewhat dictatorial towards artists and what they’re creating. I remember just before I left Zimbabwe for South Africa, one of my favorite playwrights and filmmakers, Daves Guzha, was arrested for screening a film without a permit from the censorship board. Those are the kind of challenges that a lot of visual artists have to face in Zimbabwe. It’s just scary how our minds are being effectively policed as well. All of it makes me fear a lot for this profession, and for other young people who want to get into it. There are economic barriers in the Zimbabwe film industry, which means that some of our greatest literary and visual figures are not able to sustain themselves through their artistic careers, and then you have the political aspect, where you could get arrested for speaking out too much, or for screening something that borders on critical social commentary. That’s just scary. There were points where I just wanted to give up with Redefining the Road. It was such a difficult process censorship.
Speaking of Tsitsi Dangarembga, there are parallels that I draw between yours and her artistic careers, both of you being Zimbabwean women, writers and filmmakers whose work centre women. In some ways, in fact, I read your work as being in conversation with hers. What would you say to that; and what has her work meant to you as a much younger Zimbabwean woman who writes and makes films?
I’m very honoured that you say that there are parallels between our work, because she is my absolute role model. She is the first ever Zimbabwean author I read. It was her book, Nervous Conditions. I was completely moved. It was just such a beautiful experience to read African Zimbabwean literature again, because it was one so deeply relatable in a way that some of my favourite authors were at the time; like J. K. Rowling – who now I think is great but is not my epicentre anymore. Tsitsi’s work was just so raw and beautiful and so heart breaking. I think I’m inspired a lot by her observations of mental health, womanhood, urban life and how they’re linked with colonialism. I’m also deeply inspired by her because women are continually erased from history, and she’s one woman who hasn’t been effectively erased from Zimbabwe’s history. Her work means to me that we exist. She’s a kind of a lighthouse in the midst of an art scene that seems like it’s drowning, within a country that also seems like it’s drowning. I’m continuously reminded by her that it can be done. It’s just so beautiful to have her existing. She keeps me going a lot of the times.
All images and videos supplied by Tapiwa Gambura.