The Ajabu Ajabu Collective and the Preservation of Tanzanian Film

A new film collective in Dar es Salaam is working to expand the reach of cinematic stories outside the mainstream.
Elisha Tawe

Distribution of Maangamizi at local video stall. Photo courtesy of Ajabu Ajabu.

It's July, in the middle of Europe's heatwave summer. London is bursting with life. A cacophony from the people scurrying through the capital's streets seeps through the walls as I sit in the basement at Close-Up Film Center—a small cinema and film library in Shoreditch—with Darragh Amelia. She is one half of the duo at the helm of Ajabu Ajabu, the Tanzania-based collective of arts professionals pushing for visibility and increased access for the country's experimental film scene. Co-founder Jesse Gerard Mpango later described this cinematic landscape during a video interview as mutable, stating, “though some practitioners are creating experimental works, the majority of filmmakers in Tanzania do not view experimentation as an approach in and of itself, but rather experiment out of necessity.” Through screenings and workshops, Ajabu Ajabu aims to unite these works that adopt alternative approaches and promote the values of experimentation by nature or necessity as essential tools for filmmaking.

Located on Kimweri Avenue in Dar es Salaam, the idea for creating Ajabu Ajabu’s production house and cinema space sprung from a passion project Amelia, Mpango, and a few friends undertook during the pandemic. Connected by their shared love of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, they created informal, unauthorized dubs of the films. To Western cinephiles, dubbing is viewed as a faux pas, an activity which overwrites the original creativity of a movie. However, in Tanzania, it is a common practice usually carried out by DJs—a term used for local dubbing artists who translate mainstream blockbusters from the West into Kiswahili—in order to introduce alternative cinematic experiences to otherwise unavailable audiences. While sharing these dubs with friends, the group began to long for a place that could house the energy that fueled their project, “one that was both very DIY but also still quite arthouse,” said Mpango. Following several conversations, they began their search for a location to bring this vision to life.

The name Ajabu Ajabu, which is Kiswahili for “peculiar,” was carefully selected to reflect their commitment to stories outside the mainstream. The collective, which now consists of six members, takes a conscious stance against the sterile, inoffensive, algorithm-driven international films much of the public has become accustomed to. This commitment means providing a platform through screenings and conversations for stories that are situated outside of or do not cater to globalized mainstream cinema standards derived from the West. A recent highlight, Mpango fervently tells me, was a screening of Flora Gomes's Blue Eyes of Yonta (1991), during which they hosted a dialogue with the filmmaker. Stories like Gomes’ which examine the inter-generational nuances of post-colonial life from an African perspective are so rare that they are almost classified as experimental by default as they are hard to find and even harder to see. Experimentation here refers to operating outside of the dominant gaze, as the process of reflecting what is normal to us as Africans expands the spectrum of what has been traditionally allowed to be seen on screen. Ajabu Ajabu hopes to inspire change beyond alternative storytelling. They aim to embed this mindset of embracing practices, services, and approaches that operate outside of conventional standards into the ways creatives produce works in Tanzania and beyond. “In general, despite our age increasingly being defined by mass communication, we all do a horrible job of reflecting the complexity of the world,” observed Mpango “So for us, the peculiar, or supposedly peculiar, are just things visible in their complexity.”

Ajabu Ajabu screening in Banda. Photo courtesy of Ajabu Ajabu.

Amelia is in London for their screening of the cult classic Tanzanian film Maangamizi: The Ancient One at the Barbican. She’s wearing a deep blue baseball cap with the Ajabu Ajabu logo scribbled across its front. We are discussing piracy, access, preservation, distribution, and the current state of the Tanzanian experimental film landscape. Their London screening of the twentieth-anniversary re-release of Maangamizi is rooted in the act of returning. The collective initially encountered the film as they were “looking at how stories exist through time and across geographies—contemplating how preservation of a film can and should center the cultural value of the story that it carries,” Amelia told me. Maangamizi was released in 2001 and chronicles the story of two women in a psychiatric ward brought together and united by a mysterious ancestral spirit. The film stars frequent L.A. Rebellion collaborator Barbara O. Jones (Bush Baby, Daughters of the Dust) and Amandina Lihamba who delivers a mesmerizing and at times deeply unsettling performance. Over the course of this excavation of ancient traditions, Maangamizi examines the toll of colonialism and the impact of Western belief systems on Tanzanians’ connections to their roots and traditional ways of life. To Amelia and Mpango the film is about “healing and all the ways in which memory and ancestry can carry us past fear and past trauma.” Its scale, ambition, and scope positions it as a shining example of what budget filmmaking on the continent could look like. Though the film garnered a degree of interest amongst viewers in the West, due to struggles around context, access, and language, the vast majority of viewers in Tanzania were unable to see it and it almost disappeared into the graveyard of time.

Ajabu Ajabu’s interest in the film is “not so much about what the film says, but what it shows as possible and the precedent it sets for how Tanzania intersects with the larger film world,” said Mpango. A significant number of African films are owned by Western production houses. The collectives' dream is to begin a conversation around ownership of classic cinema from across Africa. The work of artists such as Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop Mambety, and Idrissa Ouedraogo may in the West be seen as artsy, alternative world cinema but these are key aspects of Africa's cinematic history. They provide the building blocks for alternative and uniquely African ways of visual storytelling, and Africans should be able to create new frameworks for projecting their influence into the future.

Amelia mentioned to me in passing that the collective was able to secure permission from Martin Mhando and Ron Mulvihill, the directors of Maangamizi, to distribute the film freely via USB as they were in the rare position of having retained the rights to their film. Intrigued by this unusual piece of information I circled back to it later to get a clearer understanding of what she meant. Cinema-going was once accessible in Tanzania. In the late 70s, there were many indoor cinemas and a drive-in—Odeon, Avalon, Empress, and the Majestic in Zanzibar. Following an economic crisis in the 80s which resulted in radical changes in economic policies and slashes to public spending, those cinemas were systematically sold or converted into something more profitable. The Empress is now a furniture store and the drive-in, the American Embassy. Today to the average Tanzanian, a trip to the cinema is a luxury many cannot afford. Cinema exhibitions, the films selected, and the spaces themselves reflect a perspective that is mostly removed from contemporary local contexts so a large segment of the public has turned to small film stalls and shops. These stalls offer an easy point of access to films for locals with little to no internet access, often selling CDs and USB sticks with films from across the world. They allow people to engage with the work on terms relevant to their circumstances, in environments in which they are accustomed to consuming media. Mpango told me that through this project the collective hopes to “meet people where they are and trust their intentions with the work they share.”

Maangamizi: The Ancient One (2001).

The collective’s initial foray into film, dubbing the three Linklater films, greatly informed their handling of the re-release of Maangamizi. Dubbing is central to mass film culture in Tanzania, where it is associated with blockbuster cinema from abroad. The dubbing of a local film is almost worn as a badge of honor in the nation, as it is a good measure of what’s popular amongst local audiences. The DJ dubbers are often local celebrities in their own right, with their voices echoing through the beds and living rooms of people across the country. Although Maangamizi was already a bilingual film from its inception, featuring characters who spoke in both Kiswahili and English, “we were told that the language used was too formal, making it harder for audiences to connect with the story,” Amelia told me. The collective collaborated with DJ Black to dub the film in order to provide a level of accessibility and familiarity and imbue it with the magical aura bestowed on dubbed films.

Maangamizi is the first film the collective has worked to preserve. Through its re-release, they aimed to experiment with methods of distribution that prioritize open and inclusive local access. As the film begins to regain traction they hope to work with more films created by African storytellers in this capacity, namely Martin Mhando's Fimbo Ya Mnyonge (1984) and Yomba Yomba (1985), two essential works of Tanzanian cinema which remain inaccessible to local audiences. Ajabu Ajabu’s work is both invigorating and inspiring as it quietly reveals the unbound possibilities of African cinema and its ability to continually connect with audiences beyond niche art film spaces. Diversity of ideas, methods, forms, and styles are essential components of a thriving global arts landscape. In many ways this collective's work does the important job of bringing to the forefront particular forms of visual storytelling cast aside in favor of a limiting and homogenized film landscape which narrows the ability for artists to do what they do best, create.  

Walking up the stairs of Close-Up and back out onto the bustling cobblestone streets of Shoreditch, I thought back on my conversation with Amelia. One thing she shared that stuck with me was her belief in humanity as an ever-expanding continuum. She often returned to this idea of humans as the preservers of the remnants of those who came before us, referentially building on the past to create the future. To my understanding, time in this context is neither linear nor cyclical, but rather concurrent: the past, present, and future envelope each other in a similar manner to double and triple exposures found in experimental cinema. This sentiment made it ever so clear to me that Ajabu Ajabu’s project was about more than just breathing new life into fringe films, but rather revisiting tradition, preserving heritage, empowerment, and the encouragement of reinterpretation and re-contextualization. These films carry vital messages from the past that are still relevant and essential to our present lives. In the case of Maangamizi, it is literal and clear, but in films like Mohamed Camara’s Dakan (1997) or Ousmane Sembene’s Guelwaar (1992), it is more subtle but nonetheless still present. 

Our conversation inspired me to examine my own practice as both a Black filmmaker and writer working in today's complex environments. It pushed me to ask questions about the contexts in which the works I produce aim to exist. What ways is my work aiding in the forwarding of a Black cinematic tradition? How can I ensure it is not only physically accessible and intellectually challenging but also imbued with elements of the traditions of my ancestors that have been so actively erased by colonization and centuries-long pushes for global homogenization? Ajabu Ajabu not only prompts such necessary questions but also assists in the generation of their answers.

This article has been updated on October 9, 2022 to fix several factual errors.

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