ZIFF A Pan African Arena For Cultural Self-Determination and Empowerment of the African Imagination

A Pan African Arena for Cultural Self-Determination
And Empowerment of The African Imagination

The ancient ‘Rock Art’ found in caves and mountains throughout Africa, the Conical Architecture of Great Zimbabwe, the geometric symmetry of the Nile Valley Pyramids of Nubia and Kemet and their detailed mural texts, the exquisite iron works of Benin, the ‘Orature’ of creation stories of primordial human history, the polyrhythmic recitations of the drums, and the whirling gyrations of dance are expressions of indigenous imaginations of African peoples imbued with ancestral heritage. They all reflect endogenous constructs of self-image, collective worldviews, cosmic consciousness, environmental record and social interaction of African peoples. An integral correlation exists between the power of imagery and the power of the narrative.

Visual representations of life are predicated on imagination.  Imagination is an essential element of human creativity and communication. The narratives were imagined, visualized and symbolically transmitted generationally via mediums of stone, bone, iron, wood, copper, gold, music, voice, written texts, clothing fashions, dance and rituals of life-ceremonies. 

However, during the age of modern Euro-American imperialism (1400-2100) a rupture occurred in Africa. The epoch of western imperialism was experienced by African communities as invasion, enslavement, occupation, disenfranchisement, colonisation and neo-colonialism resulted in African peoples losing control of their independent narrative power of self-definition and self-determination.

The symbols and social constructs that enshrined their cosmic consciousness, belief systems, living narrative and self-imagery were delegitimised, categorised as heathenism and displaced. African peoples were relegated to a status of subaltern beings. The global impact upon them was societal dismemberment, cultural alienation and suppression, epistemological subjugation and the criminalization of self-determination.

At that historical juncture during the ascendancy of age of empire in the 19th century, two technological inventions occurred; that of the radio and the motion picture camera. Both played critical roles as instruments of empire building and creation of the subaltern African being.  The motion picture camera was invented during the same decade of the Berlin Conference of 1884. Subsequently cinematic productions and representations would have an immeasurable impact on society and human imagination.

Colonial governments and missionaries used films and mobile film units in the early 1900’s with strategic, and diabolical, ingenuity in popular cinema and ‘scientific’ documentaries to promote the colonial civilizing mission of empire. Once the power of visual media began to be fully appreciated, governments, institutions of cultural reproduction and corporate capital found common cause in using film to reinforce and embellish the normative framework of European exceptionalism and superiority, African inferiority and subordination.  Although the sub humanity of Africans had already been well established in Euro-American art, literature, religion, law and science before the 19th century, the new medium of film and visible moving images opened up new possibilities for image fabrication and propagation fortifying the power to define and control. 

In 1915, the American, D W Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation was released.  For the fledgling art of cinema and the business of motion pictures it was a watershed event.  American President Woodrow Wilson compared it to ‘writing history with lighting’. The film was blatantly racist, pregnant with images and imaginations of White Euro-American racial and cultural superiority and Black African inferiority and uncultured heathenism. Its glorification of the myth and stereotypes of western cultural and racial superiority fuelled and justified empire and subjugation and civilization of non-European peoples worldwide. It would become the template for the global cinematic narrative in respect to the relationships between the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest of Us’ that still appear in cinema today. The film firmly establishes the complex place of African people in the modern world as subaltern objects to be held in contempt as well as feared, while simultaneously being the essential element in the social construction of racial hierarchy and definition of Euro-American superiority and imaginings of empire. 

The 1939 film Livingston and Stanley though centred in East Africa and Zanzibar in particular its agency is Euro-American centric as a discovery, civilization colonisation ‘historical’ drama and biography of the American journalist Henry Stanley and the British Missionary Livingston.  The film uses the same template to portray the imagery of Africans (Black People) as in The Birth of a Nation. Filmed both in the USA and Uganda, Tanganyika, Kenya and Zanzibar, it is notable that African Americans and East Africans are used interchangeably in the roles of the heathens or docile Christian converts. This film promoted images that are an assemblage of imperialist’s power relations of European cultural and moral exceptionalism and white supremacy and subjugated African peoples.

The fact that the birth of cinema coincided with the growing dynamism and normalization of the imperial project, where people of European descent gained control over 80% of the landmass of the planet and subjugated the majority of the world’s population to European or American domination. This has affected the very core of cinema and its ideological underpinnings. The cinematic enterprise was organised and structured such that the producers and fabricators of the recorded image operated within an imperialist and racialist context in ways complimentary to the agents, institutions and ideology of imperialism as superior. Thus reinforcing stereotypes of racial and cultural hierarchy. Consequently, the relationship between images and narratives related to or by African peoples and western institutions of communication and cultural imaging is a contested arena that is fundamentally linked to larger political and socio-cultural battles over the power of cultural and economic self-determination, self-expression and epistemological independence.

To fully appreciate the importance of The Zanzibar International Film Festival one must place it within this historical continuum.  In so doing we recognize ZIFF to be part of the historical Pan African struggle to regain the power to define social reality, to create self-imagery,  to exercise socio-cultural self-determination. In celebrating 25 years of ZIFF we are celebrating 25 years of work to build an institution that is [an] emancipatory platform for effecting and empowering a renaissance in African self-representation and narrative through cinema.

ZIFF in its purpose reflects the voice of the ancestors resonating through the human spirit which cannot be long repressed in its inherent demand for freedom and justice.  It will seek the power of self-expression, emancipated self-imagination and claim the space to be heard.  ZIFF is such a space. ZIFF is also a platform where hope can flourish wherein those ancestral voices and liberated images and self-determined narratives are liberated and empowered.

ZIFF in its 25 years has become part of the Pan African legacy that includes The Harlem Renaissance and the birth of African (Black) Cinema. This includes the films of Oscar Micheaux a ‘filmmaker image freedom fighter’ who in 1919 became the first person of African descent to produce a feature film, the Homesteader, that challenged the western representation of African peoples in American and European cinema. The Cinema, the music, the literature and the art of the Harlem Renaissance was amalgam of collective of African creative voice from the Caribbean, the USA, and Africa that came together by necessity and consciously counteracted white racist stereotypic renditions of Black/African people. Contesting of racial images, boundaries, and social economic hierarchies has been part of African cinema from its beginning.

During the 1960’s we are witness to this resuscitation and empowerment of African voice and emancipated visual imagery. Ousmane Sembene, a founding artist of African Cinema was a leader on the front-line of image and narrative emancipation.  His 1963 film Borom Sarret was produced in the 1960s during the time of the height of the Pan African Anti-Racism, Anti-Colonial Liberation and Black Power Revolution that was happening around the globe. As with many films and artistic works by African peoples during that period Sembene’s film dealt with social change, modernity, the emancipation of the African self-image and identity in the neo-colonial and neo-Jim Crow societies.  

By virtue of the very nature of the relationship between Africa and the West throughout the epoch of the Euro-American world order, the artistic socio-cultural, epistemological, political and scientific imagination and ideas of African peoples has been rooted in resistance, emancipation and hope. The consequent social narrative that engendered African peoples’ artistic expression rose like a phoenix from the agonies and torments of enslavement and colonization to become the quintessential artistic wellspring for reimaging Africa and reclaiming the power of self-definition. African artistic creative reflection in film, music and literature and fashion brought to centre stage and global public discourse the commonality in the lived experiences and aspirations of African peoples. It provided the artistic imagery and emotional inspiration for the human rights struggles and independence/anti-colonial/anti-racist movements of African peoples on the continent of Africa on the continent and in the African Diaspora.

ZIFF contributes to better understanding that commonality amongst diverse African communities, cultures, ethnicities, and lifestyles as well as being a platform for public dialogue and debate on pertinent issues affecting the lives of African people and the global community.  Zanzibar provides the perfect locus for ZIFF in this respect, as it is a microcosmic embodiment of the global African experience of the past 600 years. This includes the shared experiences related to invasion, enslavement, colonization, racialism, national independence and African unity. 

Culturally, ethnically, socially and economically, because of the central role enslaved Africans played as the foundational capital of the current world economic order, and the direct correlation of that fact to the similarities in the ethno-cultural amalgams that include African, Indian, Arab and European influences we find in Zanzibar and the islands of the Caribbean, the US’s states of Florida and Louisiana, Central America, Brazil and several other countries in South America.

Being that film is a powerful tool that can be used for education and emancipation or for control and maintenance of a status quo of inequality and false narratives of superiority and inferiority, ZIFF as a participatory integrated whole community event becomes a vehicle for ideological and social transformation. The venues in Stone town, the audiences made up of a broad array of people from Africa and its Diaspora, Europe, Asia, the Americas inclusive of artistic and business communities, governments and local residents all come together in the public sphere of the Zanzibar International Film Festival an arena of cultural engagement and critical dialogue with systems of power.

In this context ZIFF has contributed to the renaissance in the power of representation, visibility, creative self-determination, and the ability to control the Africa’s self-image are all elements of the historical Pan African struggles for political freedom, cultural self-determination and social justice. As such, the importance of ZIFF cannot be overestimated or overvalued. It is a significant event and institution in the record of Pan Africanism. As a platform for displaying and promoting the images and stories of Africans, and by Africans illustrating and sharing in public space the commonalities of the global African experience, thus contributing to African Unity and to epistemological, artistic and socio- cultural liberation of African People.

Current African and Pan African cinema and African centred film festivals like ZIFF, FESPACO (Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou), PAFF (Pan African Film Festival of Los Angeles) provide the space to contest and to deconstruct the false narratives and negative stereotypes of the way Africa, African peoples and the racial hierarchies are understood. They provide platforms for a critical interrogation of African images, the accurate recording of visual self-images of the historical Pan African experience and, most importantly, wonderful visions of hope for the cultural, economic and political future of a free, united and prosperous self-defined African World.


  • The Director of Department of Unity for the Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation in Tanzania and Coordinator for the Secretariat of the Tanzanian National Taskforce to develop the National Action Plan for UNSCR 1325 Women Peace and Security. He is the Secretary General of the Global Pan African Movement. He worked for the Tanzanian Film Company and is a past CEO and Festival Director of ZIFF. Professor Ikaweba conducted the last interview of Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania prior to president Nyerere’s death in 1999.

Related Posts