The cast and crew of Zimbabwe’s first feature-length film to be featured on Netflix —Cook-Off — were recent guests on Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube’s (TVN) talk show In Conversation with Trevor where they spoke about their amazing journey to the top.
Film director Tomas Luthuli Brickhill (TB) and producer Joe Njagu (JN) spoke on the hurdles they had to overcome to produce the film on a limited budget and with limited support.
The film’s lead actors Tendaiishe Chitima (TC) and Tendai “Tehn Diamond” Nguni (TN) shared insights into their experiences working on the production. Below are excerpts from the interview.
TVN: Joe Njagu, you are the producer, you have done a number of things, you have six films under your belt, you have an international award. Talk to me briefly about the journey you have had as a film producer based in Harare.
JN: It hasn’t been an easy one coming from a background where in Zimbabwe we don’t have an industry to talk about.
We’re a little film community where different individuals are running around doing different things.
It’s been a journey where as a filmmaker I remember my first production Lobola, where it was the realisation to myself and the guy who produced it, Rufaro Kaseke, said let’s try and do something to build an industry because Zimbabwe was coming from an era where there was a film industry as they call it, but I don’t believe, it was an industry.
It was almost like a basket situation where film was used as a medium for communication.
Look at productions like Neria where the film is about, let’s say, a new law about inheritance, so we need the message to get to the people.
So, they will throw in a whole lot of millions of dollars because it was used as a medium of communication to spread messages to the masses.
When the funding stopped, when the NGOs left, then it all died and there was no industry to talk about.
It wasn’t commercialised, so there was no continuity.
This was a realisation that there is a big job to be done, like it’s a big road to walk.
So we made Lobola. I could say Lobola was probably the first commercial attempt, a trial to bring about a commercial industry and we successfully pulled through because we managed to push like 100 000 DVDs, and got it into the cinema.
There was still Rainbow Cinema and it’s just been this road of knowing that we need to keep on pushing until we get to a level where we can say, we have an industry.
I’ve known Tomas for a very long time and we’ve always been talking about collaboration, like this whole individualism, we can’t really pull through because it’s like I’m just doing this on my own with one hand, but if it’s two hands, if it’s three hands coming together, we can create magic.
So Cook Off is like a big prime example of what can be done if we put our hands together and collaborate, come together and see how best we can try and take it from a film community to a film industry.
TN: How is Cook Off often compared to the other works you have done before?
JN: With any works, in our industry, we have a saying that, you are only as good as your last, and with film, you keep learning.
So from the way I made it from 2010 making Lobola to now, the stuff I’ve learnt throughout the journey, and putting into the next production automatically the next production becomes better than the first production because automatically, you are growing and you are learning.
You keep learning as a filmmaker and every work we put in, we put our best in it and we correct the mistakes that we made previously.
TVN: So you get better with each outing as it were?
JN: Exactly, exactly.
TVN: Tomas, let me move over to you. You are a Prince Edward boy, who went to study at the Surrey Institute of Design and Art and Cook Off is actually your debut piece of work, talk to me about that journey.
TB: Well, for me, it’s been a long journey to get to making my first feature film, but obviously, since I’ve been working in film and television for quite a long time in the UK, I was a professional sound recorder for a while that is where I learnt camera and lighting skills and very much in terms of my personal journey.
I was keen to kind of try to learn as much as I could about the different departments that you have on a film set to really be able to put myself in a position of power when I finally got to direct my first film, that I really understood what every person’s role was and how the whole team came together.
So, in terms of writing and directing, I’ve actually written a couple of scripts before that, but you know, actually getting a film to the point where you are now going into production and making a film, that is also a challenge in itself.
So, yes, I have had other scripts that I’ve worked on and other projects, but there was something about Cook Off, about the script that really captivated people, which made other filmmakers, Joe included, keen to say, like it actually, let’s work together, we can make this film.
TN What is that something?
TB: You see, I think often it’s difficult in terms of the structures that Joe was talking about, that we lack because we don’t have a film industry, like in Hollywood. It’s not like someone, even if there is a famous writer, it’s not like they just write a script and then they send it along and someone says, ooh great, let’s make that film.
You know people will look at it and read it and there will be multiple drafts of the scripts before you get to a point where you say, this project is ready to go.
So, I think now, with me, it’s kind of that, it happened with multiple scripts.
I was working on different things and what I found with Cook Off is that, maybe there is something more commercial, more unique about the way the story is told.
Maybe my scriptwriting has just also improved over time, that meant that, now, when I was sending this script and again, that’s the draft of the script that we used to shoot the movie.
It was not the first draft actually, a lot of feedback came from Joe, other people, other filmmakers that I sent the script around to say, what do you think of this and as I said, the feedback was like generally, wow, this is great, let’s make the film, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t tweaks and ideas that still came into the film, in order to make the final product that you then get to see when you watch it.
TVN: So I hear collaboration there, Tomas, I hear collaboration with everybody else that eventually jumped onto making Cook Off the movie?
TB: Totally, I think a film is made by a community of artists.
That is the best way that I could put it and you really have to build a network in order to make a piece of art that is going to stand up and be noticed by people.
So, we were really lucky with this project that we managed to put together a really crazy collection of artists to make this kind of great collaboration happen and you know from Joe, I was very much targeting Joe because I knew from Lobola, from the gentleman that he was a filmmaker, who saw [things] the same way as me, who saw that if we are going to build an actual film industry, something that’s sustainable, something that’s viable, we have to focus on commercial films that have a wide audience appeal, [something] that you know is going to travel well across borders.
That’s the only way that we build something that actually, now, we can all start to say this is our livelihood, this is how we make our living.
As our stars, through to the musicians, who perform tracks that we used from the soundtrack to Josh Changa, in the arts department, Sabastian Lalleban, who was our director of photography, there are so many artists who came together and for the duration of making the film of one kind, all together working towards the same goal.
That’s how we managed to produce something; you know of that just has the benefit of those artists working together on one single idea.
TVN: I turn over now to Tendaiishe Chitima, you have got a Bachelor of Arts in Drama, Film Media and Writing. You’ve had an ongoing role on SABC 3’s Isidingo, so you’ve made a name for yourself and I was wondering what made you jump onto the script?
TC: I have been on a couple of TV shows here in South Africa and another one on Msanzi Magic, which is fantastic but after I had done a couple of TV shows, so realised that and I could see the way the industry is built that it was important for me to continue getting exposure and especially when I was playing a more lead role.
That kind of pushed me to start looking on Zimbabwe as an option. One of my friends was getting married in July and I was going to be in Zimbabwe for 11 months.
I decided to ask Joe, who was literally one of two producers that I knew in Zimbabwe.
I didn’t know any other producer and I only knew Joe because I had an audition for Escape like a year before and I never saw him again.
I think I didn’t remember it was him after the audition.
So, now, a year later, I inboxed him on Facebook and asked him if he was working on anything that I could collaborate on or just assist him on.
They were actually about to start shooting for Cook Off and they were still looking for the lead actress.
So, it was that desire to kind of continue getting exposure and hopefully get a lead role.
So when he told me that they were looking for a lead actress, I was so excited, I bothered him until he gave me more information.
He introduced me to Tomas and I was chatting on a WhatsApp group for like a few days, actually, it was like the day after I got the script, we decided both of us that I was going to be on the movie.
I got the role on a Wednesday, Saturday I was in Zimbabwe and Monday I started shooting, it all happened in a short space of time.
TVN: You say Cook Off the movie is a letter of love to Zimbabwe, talk to me about that. How does it become a letter of love to Zimbabwe?
TC: I think it’s a letter of love because it somehow shows the essence of Zimbabwean people, the resilience that we have is a love letter not only to Zimbabwe, but I think to Harare as well.
With the authenticity of the film, we are not trying to make a Hollywood film, we are making a Zimbabwean film about ordinary Zimbabweans, even the way Tomas wrote the script, I think it portrays a very ordinary Zimbabwean life — the essence of who we are.
Generally, the film itself carries a lot of values that Zimbabweans hold — the perseverance, the underdog story about how someone who is least expected to make it in life makes it and the general family values that we have, the supportive systems that we have in our culture.
TVN: Tendai Nguni, aka Tehn Diamond, where does the Tehn Diamond come from? Talk to me about the name.
TNG: Well, before Cook Off happened and blew us all away, I spent the bulk of my creative life as a musician, a rapper, a hip-hop artiste and it was when I was in Australia when I came up with the name.
So, initially, my nickname was just Diamond and I worked at a nightclub, so I was one of the promo boys.
I would stand on the cornice and while I was there, I would spend the whole night there.
I would stand in the corner singing to girls as they came past and I liked rapping with the guys I worked with.
When I started going into the studio and making music, one of the artistes that I was with and writing for started calling me Tendai Diamond, being the wordsmith or lyricist that I am.
Tendai Diamond didn’t quite follow and then, it became Tehn Diamond with the H in the Ten because my goal as a creative has always been, I want to come back home and make it at home.
So, I had a big H in there to remind me of Harare.
What was at the core of what I was doing obviously, Tendai means give thanks, so the whole name TeHn Diamond, I took it to be give thanks and be grateful, give thanks and shine, so that’s how that came.