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Wednesday, July 7, 1999 Published at 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK

World: Africa

Festival celebrates Zanzibar's cultural mix

A still from the Somali film Fire Eyes, being screened at the festival

By Ruth Evans in Zanzibar

In a small park in front of the legendary House of Wonders, the ornate palace built by the Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman in the 19th century, Zanzibaris and tourists gather to watch a performance of traditional stick dancing from the islands.

In the background, triangular sails of wooden dhows are silhouetted against the setting sun. These wooden boats have sailed the Indian Ocean for centuries, transporting ivory and spices, textiles and mangroves and , of course, people.

The second International Festival of the Dhow countries - which is taking place from 2 to 10 July - is a celebration of this rich legacy of trade and exchange.

Filmmakers, musicians and artists have gathered in Zanzibar to display and demonstrate their contemporary wares that have been so influenced by this historical legacy.

The best new films and documentaries will be judged by an international jury, and the winner will receive the Golden Dhow award of $5,000.

'Unique culture'

Emerson Skeens, an American who has adopted Zanzibar as his home for the past 10 years, is chairman of the festival committee. What he finds so enchanting about Zanzibar is the mix of culture that has come to the island from its African, Arab, Indian and colonial history and influences.

"This mix has created a unique culture here. When you listen to almost any Zanzibari song, especially traditional taarab music, you hear these influences.

"That's what makes this place so magic_it's a blend of things over time, which has been enriched by so many cultures."

The festival programme is also a rich blend of feature films, videos, dance and debate. There are films and videos from India, Iran, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and some from west Africa too.

Fire Eyes is a Somali film directed by Soraya Mire, which documents the experiences of African women who have been circumcised.

Transcending boundaries

[ image: The dhows which connect the countries around the Indian Ocean are the symbol of the festival]
The dhows which connect the countries around the Indian Ocean are the symbol of the festival
But one film in particular seems to have captured the spirit of the festival. It's called Bombay and Jazz, and, as the title suggests, it's a documentary about music in Bombay.

This film has already won several international awards and now it has won a special award here in Zanzibar, which Goan director HO Nazareth is thrilled about.

Despite the diversity of the programme, he thinks the concept of Dhow culture really pulls the festival together precisely because it is so fluid and transcends national differences and boundaries: "One of the themes of a future festival perhaps ought to be the dire consequences of nationalism in the arts."

Small beginnings

This is only the second year of the Zanzibar festival, known locally as Ziff. Funding has been severely hit by a donor boycott following the disputed outcome of the last elections here, so it is still fairly small compared to Cannes or FESPACO , the annual film festival held in West Africa. But the fact that the festival is still in its infancy can have advantages because it is easier to meet other directors and distributors, Mr Nazareth says.

Most of the films have been shown in an open-air amphitheatre in the 16th Century Arab fort, and festival Director Imru Bakari is delighted that this year so many local people have been attending the events.

"We have been able to make people aware that this festival is their festival," he says, "but the events aren't just confined to the town.

Village screenings

"We have also organised a 'Village panorama' taking films and videos out to the villagers who would not normally have the opportunity to view them, and this has been tremendously successful and popular."

The festival hopes it can provide a shot in the arm to budding filmmakers in east Africa and help them sort out the distribution problems and general lack of intellectual copyright laws that have hampered the arts in the region. Part of the aim of Ziff is to provide a platform for these issues and to seek solutions to the problems.

"Ziff is a significantly concerned with east Africa because it has the lowest traditions of cinema and production on the continent," says Imru Bakari. "It's an organic process of interaction and stimulation."

Chairman Emerson Skeens, meanwhile, is already thinking ahead to next year's festival and how it can be expanded and improved to ensure that, as the new millennium dawns, African cinema will no longer be dwarfed by "Hollywood and Bollywood."

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