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The Look of Zimbabwean Cinema
A thousand apologies for interrupting what had become a regular column for the Zimbabwean film makers fraternity at home and abroad. My excuse is that I fell victim to the "Metropolitan Police" ransom-ware, the consequences of leaving my computer on for days and denying the anti-virus the opportunity to update itself. My C-Drive is completely useless now, and I forked out nearly £500 to recover files that date from 2008 when I bought that computer. Time to buy a new PC.
In the meantime, let's talk about The Set and The Location.
I know I said I would focus on acting and directing, but this installment is about an aspect of film making that I think Zimbabwean film makers would do well to improve upon. These are the Set and the Location. Should I begin by explaining what these are? Probably. It's not going to do me any harm to do so, so here goes; A set is is the scenery of the film, what we are seeing when we watch the film. Sets are constructed. Set Construction is a separate discipline in film making. The Set Construction people answer to a Set Designer or Production Designer or Art Director, who works with the Director to design the "look" of the film.
A Location is the place where the film is shot or produced in part. A Location is not the same as the Set. Parts of Cry Freedom (1987) were shot on location in Mabvuku, Harare. Those particular scenes were set in Soweto, South Africa c1977. The TV series Tropical Heat (1991-1993) is set in Florida, but it was shot on location in South Africa, Mexico and Israel. In other words, the two (set and location) do not need to be the same or related.
Set Designing therefore entails coming up with an idea or concept of what the location ought to look like for filming. As a discipline, Set Designing has been largely ignored in the production of most films that have come out of Zimbabwe lately. It has become one of those aspects of film making that has fallen victim to this erroneous belief among many Zimbabwean film-makers that a good film can still be made by cutting corners. The proof of this is in the films themselves.
The importance of "look" in Cinema
I have said it in previous articles that a movie is a story told through pictures. The set is as much an intergral part of those pictures as the actors. One of the defining features of Gothic literature is that the set, usally an ancient house that has been the scene of events leading to the story's plot, is as much a character as people. The same can be said of cinema; each set works with the action and dialogue to tell the story.
Let me throw in some examples. In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, we see a lot of darkness and gloom. This is the film in which the Empire scores major victories against the Rebel Alliance, but that only happens in the end. But, before they score these major victories, we see the Empire boys giving the Rebel Alliance a really hard time. Since the film intends to sympathise with the Rebels, we the audience are also meant to see the film in terms of gloom. In Return of the Jedi, everything shines. Even the Empire, ruled as it is by the Dark Side of the Force, has gleaming floors, polished helmets etc, prompting a review writer to wonder if the Empire had celebrated the routing of the Rebel Alliance by opening a huge bottle of Windoline!! In other words, what was meant to be still a hard time for the Rebel Alliance did not quite reflect in the set. Pun not intended.
An example closer to home: Vengeance is Mine ( Tawanda Gunda, 2000) I had a minor role in this short film, which can be seen on youtube. Because I know Tawanda, and everyone else who worked on the film, I had ample opportunity to get involved behind the scenes. I can tell you that every set was built under the guidance of a set designer, in this case the talented Chikonzero Chazunguza. I took part in the putting together of the office scene I am in, which was shot at Production Services, Mazoe Street.
Like any other aspect of film-making, talent and ambition is just the half of it. Training is essential. Chazunguza is an accomplished artist, having gone to the Institute of Pictorial Arts in Bulgaria, and has taught at universities and colleges, so it was a great privilege to have him impart his skills to such a brilliantly-made movie as Vengeance is Mine. There are specialized courses that a Production Designer, Set Designer or Set Builder can take, ranging from a summer course to a BA (Honours) degree. And, like other disciplines, you can build a reputation and get an award etc.
In discussions with Zimbabwean film makers, it emerges that set design and locations are two aspects of production that are virtually ignored. On a low-budget, these two items do look like the sort that can be dispensed with. Well, actually, they can't and the evidence is in the really bad movies that are being churned out lately.
Can a Zimbabwean low-budget movie afford set construction?
Yes, it can.
Here in the UK, I have worked on productions where we went around picking up abandoned furniture or stuff from the charity shops for use in set-building. Wooden boards with wallpaper pasted to them look very much like the interior walls of an English house. All of these can be had for cheap, or, in the case of stuff picked up from the streets, nothing at all.
So, how come most of you aren't doing it?
By the way, if you see someone who looks like me on the odd British TV show over the next few months, don't speculate....it is me!!!