“I believe in the power of film to transform political events,” says Simon Bright, co-founder of Afrika Eye Film Festival. “There’s a misrepresentation of Africa in the media. The best way to understand the continent’s complexity and diversity is to hear from its film makers.”
Picking highlights from the Afrika Eye Film Festival programme cannot do it justice. But here’s a taste: The Fade tracks four haircuts by four Afro-hair barbers; In Footsteps of the Emperor, Benjamin Zephaniah traces Haile Selassie’s five years in Bath; Kinshasa Symphony looks at the only symphony orchestra in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo; State of Mind focuses on healing trauma in that same country. From Senegal comes La Pirogue which premiered at Cannes. And there’s workshops for children, two seminars, and an interactive live connection with Nairobi.
Afrika Eye Film Festival is a landmark in Bristol’s film calendar but, appropriately, its genesis was Africa. Co-founders, husband and wife Simon Bright and Ingrid Sinclair, began their film careers in Zimbabwe in the late 1980s.
Ingrid was born in Weston-super-Mare. After studying in Bristol and South Africa, Ingrid moved to Zimbabwe where she met Simon in 1985. Simon had grown up in then Rhodesia where his mother was under surveillance from the Rhodesian secret police for teaching in a black school. In 1968, Simon’s mother moved the family to Britain.
In 1984, Simon Bright returned to his childhood home to work for the Minister of Agriculture. “I wanted to be part of helping the country. I made training films for peasant farmers showing how to increase productivity, and would drive 300km down dirt tracks to show them – no film exists without distribution.”
Zimbabwe’s first and present leader, Robert Mugabe, started as a sharing-caring socialist. “Zimbabwe was a model of development which has never been matched,” says Simon Bright. “In four years we achieved a 1,400 % increase in peasant production.”
This period of prosperity was disrupted by two tragedies. South Africa, hanging on to the last vestiges of white supremacy, waged war on its newly-independent neighbours. And Robert Mugabe began putting personal power before his country.
Film shapes history
Simon Bright and Ingrid Sinclair co-founded Zimmedia in the late-1980s. One example is of its varied productions is Flame directed by Ingrid Sinclair showing women’s role in the Zimbabwean liberation.
But the war at Zimbabwe’s borders dominated. Simon Bright says: “A lot of the anti apartheid films showed Blacks as victims of Apartheid oppression. The front-line states such as Angola and Mozambique and Zimbabwe were seen as poverty stricken countries. I wanted to show what was really happening on the battle ground, and how Africans were standing up to apartheid South Africa.”
His front-line filmmaking played its part in shaping history. Simon Bright was invited to shoot footage of the 1988 South Africa’s military defeat at Cuito Cuanavale by the Angolan military, supported by the Cuban airforce. It was screened on Channel 4 a few days before peace negotiations in London began.
“South Africa had been trying for 20 years to invade Angola and now finally its armies were conclusively defeated as my film showed. South Africa’s war was not going to succeed, and this change of perception was reflected in the London negotiations,” he says.
Nelson Mandela was freed two years later in 1990, and the war ended. Peace came too late for Zimbabwe, now in the grip of another madness, this time at the hand of its own leader, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe was becoming increasingly dictatorial, violently suppressing any opposition.
In 2003, Simon Bright and Ingrid Sinclair left Harare for Bristol with their teenage children. On a return visit to Zimbabwe, Simon Bright was imprisoned for 68 hours, suspected of making a film he had not made. Released with legal help, he returned to the UK to re-start his film career. He is one person of the 25% of Zimbabweans forced to live outside their own country.
With Zimbabwe’s elections next March, the world waits: will Robert Mugabe try again to violently intimidate voters? In his recent documentary, Robert Mugabe…What Happened?, Simon Bright aims to show the world how ordinary Zimbabweans need safety to vote, and the election results to be respected.
It’s another example of the potential power of film to transform history.
Afrika Eye Film Festival 9 – 11 November at the Watershed