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Tuesday, July 6, 1999 Published at 20:30 GMT 21:30 UK

World: Africa

Zanzibar festival aims to bridge ocean

Zanzibar's historic Stone Town is the focus of the festival

When the start of a film festival is marked not by a cocktail party but by a dhow race, you know you must be in Zanzibar.

The Festival of the Dhow Countries takes its name from the sailing boats which connect the countries bordering the Indian Ocean - and the line-up of films reflects Zanzibar's status as a cultural crossroads between Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

The programme includes the documentary Divorce Iranian Style; the controversial feature film Jinnah, starring Christopher Lee as the founding father of Pakistan; and When the Stars Meet the Sea, by Madagascar's Raymond Rajaoninveto.

Zanzibar hotel owner and festival chairman Emerson Skeens says the festival aims to make people aware of the common cultural heritage of the Indian Ocean countries.

"When Zanzibari people see the life of the Indian farmer they realise they share a common life, a method of life," he says.

Village screenings

While the main festivities are to be in Zanzibar's historic Stone Town, films will also be shown on mobile video projectors in villages across Zanzibar and the neighbouring island of Pemba.

Last year's festival brought 100 films to nearly 100,000 people in rural farming and fishing communities - about a quarter of these were children.

The present festival is expected to have a similar impact. Organisers believe it rivals the other, longer-established, festivals in Africa: Tunisia's Carthage festival, Zimbabwe's Southern African Film Festival, and Burkina Faso's Fespaco festival.

More than just film

A music and cultural programme is also part of the festival, which the organisers say is there to attract people who are not familiar with film as a form of entertainment.

"We want to offer a wealth of traditional musicians as well as contemporary styles such as African hip hop, salsa, jungle and reggae," says music programme co-ordinator Yusuf Mahmoud. "Whatever speaks to the people of Zanzibar."

Musicians from South Africa and India are among the foreign performers expected to join east African artists.

Visual arts workshops contribute to the festival's educational role, with the emphasis on women and children.

"We want to give children a forum in which to express their dreams and aspirations through creative work," says Nasra Mohamed, co-ordinator of the children's programme.

Women claim their rights

Women's programme co-ordinator Fatima Alloo recalls that "last year the gender issue was nil - I was the only woman on the board."

This year women have taken a higher-profile role in the organising of the festival

They have been encouraged by the example of Bibi Mwanashuru Mzee - a woman from a poor coastal community which survives by gathering seaweed - who participated in a video workshop as part of last year's festival.

Bibi Mwanashuru has since made several television appearances, and has become a campaigner on behalf of others who make a meagre living along Zanzibar's shores.

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