Cinema and Social Justice in Zimbabwe: An Evening with Agnieszka Piotrowska
Brooks Marmon is a PhD student in the Centre of African Studies at The University of Edinburgh. His thesis examines Zimbabwean responses to the broader process of decolonization in Africa. In this blog post, he writes about an illuminating evening in Edinburgh with Agnieszka Piotrowska on cinema and social justice in Zimbabwe.
With support from the Global Development and Global Justice academies’ Innovative Initiative Fund, the University of Edinburgh hosted Dr. Agnieszka Piotrowska (University of Bedfordshire) in March 2017 for a screening of her film Lovers in Time: Or How We Didn’t Get Arrested in Harare and presentation of a paper on post-colonial trauma. The event explored the theme of ‘Cinema and Social Justice in Zimbabwe’ and was moderated by Dr. Francisca Mutapi from the School of Biological Sciences.
For the better part of the past decade, Piotrowska has been engaged with cinematic and theatrical initiatives in Zimbabwe. Expanding on her initial training activities undertaken in Zimbabwe with the support of the British Council, Piotrowska has now made several feature-length and short films in the country and recently published Black and White: Cinema, Politics and the Arts in Zimbabwe.
Piotrowska has been particularly engaged with the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA). This annual festival in the Zimbabwean capital was the subject of one of Piotrowska’s earliest works on Zimbabwe, The Engagement Party in Harare. A subsequent edition of the Festival formed the backdrop to the film for which we gathered at Thomson’s Land.
Lovers in Time traces the controversy surrounding a play of the same name. Written by a Zimbabwean, Blessing Hungwe, Piotrowska was selected to direct the performance at the 2014 edition of HIFA. The play provocatively traces Nehanda and Kaguvi, revered Zimbabwean spirit mediums who played prominent roles resisting the intrusion of white colonists in the late 19th century. State media criticized the play for reincarnating the characters with a different gender, calling it “a distortion of history” and Piotrowska was requested to make (slight) alterations to the script, which she refused. The documentary follows the impact of the tension induced by this critical attention on the cast and crew.
Piotrowska spoke frankly on the challenges she faced in directing the play both in the film and during her remarks. Toward the end of the film, following a scene in which the play has been disrupted by a protester, she queries in a voice-over, “I’m left confused and battered, not sure at all anymore. Did we change anything? Did we open a space for dialogue about history and race?” She does not directly answer the question in the film, however during the Q&A, she noted that if she could do it all over again in that moment, she would.
Ultimately, as the title foreshadows, no one gets arrested. Piotrowska continues to work in Zimbabwe. She has overseen the production of several shorts on the tumultuous relationship between the German academic Flora Veit-Wild and the celebrated Zimbabwean writer, Dambudzo Marechera. Her latest feature-length piece, a film noir entitled Escape with Joe Ngagu (with whom she also collaborated on Lovers in Time) will soon premier in the UK.
Piotrowska, whose work draws heavily on psychoanalysis, has described herself as a ‘trickster’, subverting dominant structures in a humorous manner. In light of her continued (and prolific) work in and on Zimbabwe, it seems that the post-colonial trauma she endured in staging Lovers in Time has not dented her ambition to provocatively interrogate the lingering impact of foreign rule on Africa.