Tapping Deep into Original African Stories: A Dialogue with Florence Mkinga

TAPPING DEEP INTO ORIGINAL AFRICAN STORIES

A DIALOGUE WITH FLORENCE MKINGA

Florence Mkinga was born in Moshi district in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Currently, she is the Chairperson of Tanzania Film Lab and an independent film and commercial video production designer with a degree in Theatre and Film from the University of Dodoma. She owns an emerging production company called Univeso Arts.

After graduating, she moved to Dar-es-Salaam and began her career as a film writer and director, where her short film Ngoma was listed as one of the top selections for the European Youth Film Festival Tanzania 2017.

Her works as a production designer include the Television series Mwantumu, which is aired on Maisha Magic Bongo via DSTV. She has worked with prestigious companies such as Air Tanzania and TTCL as an advert creative designer, writer and director. In 2016, she was part of the renowned Maisha Film Lab.

Elelwani Netshifhire

BY ELELWANI NETSHIFHIRE

This conversation takes place between sunny Venda, South Africa and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Elelwani: I have just watched your film Ngoma, and it is one of the most exceptional, successful short films I have seen coming from your country. It is beautiful, well told, one that I relate to in many ways.

What inspired you to make this film?

Florence: Such a wonderful compliment, thank you. I made Ngoma as an up-and-coming filmmaker, it was part of the European Youth Film Initiative. They had a call-out for filmmakers to apply for the filmmaking workshop here in Tanzania and I was one of the two female filmmakers out of thirty who applied. They selected a total of ten of us to produce our films, holding all key roles individually, and in the end I was one of the top five. We had to go with their agenda, which was ‘population growth’, thereafter you derive a story in any manner you see fit as a filmmaker. You basically had to choose an area you like to speak about concerning population growth.

I then went with what seems to be a negative approach because the story was relevant for me. As a film school graduate, I was impacted by the competition that comes with seeking employment. That is what the film is essentially about. I wanted to tell a story that has a different angle of our lives. I was motivated to write Ngoma because it is not only relevant to me but to my community at large.

I have my own ways of telling stories. Ngoma is just one of the many African-orientated stories that I focus on. I see myself as a community-based filmmaker because my stories are simply about where I come from and my people. There is a room for deep unique African stories that needs to be heard by everyone around the world. 

Ngoma is just one of the many African-orientated stories that I focus on. I see myself as a community-based filmmaker because my stories are simply about where I come from and my people.

Elelwani: Congratulations on the milestone you achieved with Ngoma. I am glad it reached such a height. I also love how you interpreted the given theme and weaved in your own experiences in a way that speaks for many other people. 

What are the challenges of practicing in the film industry in Dar es Salaam? 

Florence: Our industry is very male-dominated, just like any other, I suppose. When I was in film school I was the only girl in the class and there was no other girl in two classes ahead. Post-studies, when I got into production, there were still few women. Even then, they held roles that are stereotypically associated with women, never key players. Finding a female DoP or director is difficult. So there is lack of respect from male counterparts to what you can do as woman director. 

Elelwani: That seems to be a general perception across Africa. I had an interview with a Cameroonian filmmaker last week and she mentioned something along those lines. Besides these gender dynamics, what else affects the creative process at large, in your space?

Florence: The problem is that families do not encourage creative careers to begin with here. I will use myself as an example. My father did not give me the go-ahead to study film, so it has been a battle, a war for me to be where I am today. The whole family simply did not believe I would make money or be somebody they can depend on. 

I have seen many dreams deferred because of family perspectives. Even the ones who are self-taught are discouraged to be in the film industry.

Our challenges are many; social, economic, you name it. Here are a few examples: 

As a filmmaker in Tanzania, you will not be accepted as you are. You cannot be considered fit to direct if you are not a man. You really have to fight for your space. It is difficult to be respected as a woman director; you need to at least be more masculine to earn some respect. 

We also have difficulties getting government and individuals to understand filmmaking as business that can contribute to tax too. It is not taken as anything beyond passion. We lack government support, in terms of feasible licenses for locations etc. We also don’t have policy, but we are currently rectifying that. 

Tanzania needs skilled and specialized filmmakers, which will definitely help our industry to be better. 

There is also a rapid increase of foreign films translated into Swahili, thus most filmmakers don’t want to produce original films because everyone goes for the dubbed work. This leaves creators in a very difficult situation. Piracy is also scavenging us as filmmakers. 

Elelwani: That is a mouthful! Again, you are dealing with challenges that are affecting our continent at large. There is so much to unpack here. Seeing that there is policy being implemented just shows you are heading towards a direction that will make your film industry more functional, formalized.

I agree that having people who are specialized puts the industry and what is being created on a level of its own. 

You are thriving in an industry that seems to have so many odds against you, but here’s to paving the way!

What keeps you going when faced with so much adversity; gender discrimination, and parents not being supportive for this venture? 

Florence: The gender discrimination is real, as far back as film school days. I was always pushed for acting, make up, art directing, and no one would let me touch a camera because I am a woman. It has been a journey full of obstacles. 

The story about my father not accepting filmmaking as career is a movie itself.  For the longest time, he though I had applied for law school. My father believed in me so much he wouldn’t check my exact applications but he would brag about his daughter, a future lawyer everywhere he went. So much that he just paid for first semester fees believing that I am studying law. Meanwhile I had followed my passion. Only when I had to produce a short film and needed money I had to come clean and tell my father the truth. It was chaotic. He withdrew his support, and that remains the most difficult time in my life as I had to be self-sufficient throughout my studies, until my supervisor intervened and spoke to my father in my final years.

It was shortly after I made Ngoma that I received a call from my father saying he is proud of me. He has now seen this journey as a viable path, and it brings tears to my eyes. 

Elelwani: I am touched by your story, it has got me teary-eyed. It is unbelievable how we can have such shared experiences from worlds apart; this shows that Africa is one. I am a stranger who is proud of your journey and truly glad you were able to have this conversation with me.

I can only imagine what it is like to have your only parent finally coming around and accepting your vision. Ngoma shows your capability; you can rise up as someone with an authentic voice. I look forward to more community-based original works from you. 

Since women are discouraged to even study filmmaking, is there some for of initiative you are part of or know of that encourages women to tell their stories? 

Florence: Yes. Three years ago, I started an organization called Tanzania Film Lab, where we provide workshops and screenings that favor women. We choose more women intentionally for these workshops. 

Elelwani: That is the way to go, Florence! As they say, “lift as you rise”. 

What do you think can be done to get your people to love original content over translated  works? 

Florence: As filmmakers, we should strive to make really good films. What we produce really matters, and we should have a gaze focused on our top audience, then the message can spread to the bottom of the chain. We need a fresh marketing vision for our local market. 

Elelwani: I couldn’t agree with you more there, fresh ideas and marketing will shape our sector in Africa. 

Thank you for taking me through your journey, l am looking forward to more works from you! 

Elelwani Netshifhire

Elelwani Netshifhire is a filmmaker, writer & director armed with technical skill sets.  She is the founder of Thase Media and believes in utilizing any medium possible.  Her latest available short film, Story Of A Baked Brownie, won various awards and was later featured on CNN Inside Africa.

ELELWANI NETSHIFHIRE

INTERVIEWER FOR FILMMAKING

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