Tsitsi Dangarembga

Interview by Beti Ellerson during the African Literature Association Conference, East Lansing, Michigan, USA April 1997, for the African Women in Cinema Project.

I was introduced to you through your literary work Nervous Conditions and I recently saw your debut film Everyone's Child a few months ago during FESPACO.  Please talk about your journey from literature to film?

    As for literature it's actually quite difficult to say when I began because my family had lots of books in it and I always read a lot.   And I always enjoyed composition at school and would always write outside of the classes we had and the assignments we had.  Of course, as I got older I began to see that that might be leading somewhere.

    So I began writing poetry at university and from there one thing just lead to another and from one form I would find dissatisfaction with that and move on to something else, and from poetry I went to drama.  After I had written a few plays I began writing prose and this actually took quite a long time.  I would say I began writing seriously in about 1980 and by 1989 I had quite a volume of work.  I had plays, I had short stories, I had radio plays and I had one novel, and nothing seemed to be working, nobody wanted to publish much.  What I was able to get published during that time was one short story and one play.  But that didn't seem to me to be enough for the amount of work that I had put into it and the kind of time.  And even more than that, I couldn't live from it and I had to make some decisions.

    So in 1988 I decided to change to film.  I realized that I wouldn't be able to make enough money in theater in Zimbabwe, I mean not enough to live well but simply to manage.  And I realized that as there was not much of a living to be made in one of the disciplines, one of the artistic disciplines, maybe I needed as many skills as possible so that I could take part in whatever came up and so that is why I decided to add cinema skills.

    Because for me the important thing is to communicate.  If I feel I want to say something, then I want to say it.  It just depends on what the situation is, maybe what the idea, what the context is, as to whether that comes out as a play or a poem, a novel or now a cinema script.  I decided I would go to film school and that is what I did, really.  I didn't go to film school with a sense of changing medium.  I discovered that when I got there.  I realized that it was quite different from anything that I had done before and I really realized that I needed to focus on that because I had a background as I said, in poetry, drama and prose.

    I had not thought it would be so difficult to make the change, to narrating for the cinema.  Of course that was extremely naive because I think I am good at visualizing but I had not visualized my narratives up until then.  I had always thought of my narratives in words and now I was required to visualize and it was quite difficult to come from the picture to the words when writing a film script instead of going the other way, for example, in drama from the word to the picture.  So that actually took a lot of doing and I was a bit worried that having to acquire this kind of skill would interfere with the skills I had before and might lose them.  So that has been a big battle.  First I had to convince myself to make the break with the person who wrote prose before or who wrote poetry before, and after that I had to convince myself to learn the new medium.  I think there was a little bit of resentment there that I had to make the break in order to learn the new skills.  And so that took a long time and it was a big battle but now I think I have successfully learned how to narrate in images.

    I am very happy with that skill especially because I think it reaches more people more easily.  To understand a film you don't have to be educated to the same extent where you do when you have to pick up a book.  I write in English so if I am thinking of a Zimbabwean public it would have to be people who can read in English and that isn't everybody.  Whereas even if a film is in English, I think if it is made well enough, a person can probably understand what is going on.

    I think that both media have their advantages for me.  I don't think they have disadvantages actually.  I think the only disadvantage of film is that one is not independent, one has to rely on people to fund the film and that is the biggest stumbling block I have.  But I am very happy with having the options, different ways in which I can talk to different people and different ways in which I can express things.  Because I do not think that any story is ideal to any medium.  I think that particular stories are more readily communicated in particular ways.  For example, you have community theatre which is a wonderful way of communicating the problems of a small closely knit group, a community.  Which may not be the best kind of material for a film.  Or other kinds of drama.  So I am glad to have expanded my repertoire of communication skills.

Do you think that your work, both your writing and filmmaking, reflects a sensibility that you may have as a woman?

    Well I think so, you know I think ones work is very much informed by the phases of ones life, of course, and one has to fight battles at different stages of ones life.  I know that when I was beginning my career in Zimbabwe, discrimination against me on the grounds that I am a woman was one of the biggest battles that I had to fight.   Men were reading the manuscripts and pronouncing my manuscripts invalid and uninteresting, and what have you, including Nervous Conditions, and so I had to fight that battle at that time.  But once the Women's Press had published Nervous Conditions that battle was won, as it were.

    Now living in Berlin, I find that the primary obstacles in my life are not that I am a woman, or not primarily that I am a woman but that I am black.  It's really so interesting, I wish I had actually kept some of the rejection letters I got from male publishers in Zimbabwe to compare with some of the rejection letters that I get from white editors in Germany.  They say exactly the same thing.  "You know, people don't behave like that, we can't understand why this character does that."  It is very clear that they don't want to understand, because I am one of those people who find it difficult to compromise in the things that I think need to be communicated.

    If someone asks me to make something a little bit less radical so that they could consider funding it or publishing it I am not likely to do it.  In fact, I tried once with literature and it didn't work I just couldn't write anything that made any sense, so I know that that is not the kind of thing that I can do.  And so I have this problem in Germany that if I would compromise more on my material and the ways I present things, then I think that this problem that I am talking about, of being discriminated on the grounds of race, would not be so big.  Because I have editors saying things like "even if its like that in real life one has to represent it differently in film."  I have had someone actually say that to my face.

    I think the focus of my life has changed.  When I go back to Zimbabwe now I do not feel that I have any problems because I am a woman.  For example, when I shot Everyone's Child I felt absolutely no trouble at all with the fact that I was a woman.  I worked with many men and they did what needed to be done.  There was a good division of labor.  I am not one of those people who thinks I have to control the whole set.  I know what I have to do, I know who I have to establish rapport with in order to get the job done.  And I am very happy to delegate, so I think it is useful to have a male first AD [Assistant Director], that kind of thing helps.  I mean sometimes one fantasizes of all women teams and maybe that works when you are working primarily with women in other capacities, but in a situation like Zimbabwe that just doesn't work anyway.  So now I find I have no problem on the gender dimension.

    What will be interesting is when I try to publish again in Zimbabwe.  In the meantime, Nervous Conditions has been taken up in Zimbabwe, as well, and the public loves it very much.  But I do not get very much official recognition from the writers' bodies, the official writers' bodies.  For example, I am never invited to the book fair or anything like that, but the public has taken Nervous Conditions up and they accept my authorship of it and what I have to say.  And the media as well have been very fair in their coverage.  So if the official bodies want to feel like that then it is not a problem for me.

    I must admit that when I was writing, that kind of lack of recognition, that cold shoulder, that feeling that people did not want me to do the kinds of things that I was doing, did have some impact.  Because I was much younger then, and not really as able as I am now to insist on doing what I think has to be done.  And I think that was very detrimental to my career.  You know in all those years I was writing, I did not have anybody who really said, "I believe in what you are doing and I want to move with you on that talent."  There were some people who helped of course; there is nobody who achieves anything without some help.  But really like the way of somebody who would accompany me down that road.  You know, like up to now I don't really have readers for my prose or for my film scripts.

    I have always worked in extreme isolation and I think that comes with being the first.  For example being the first Zimbabwean woman to write a novel in English, and to write with the intention of writing major literature.  Now again, to be the first Zimbabwean woman to make a feature film, this kind of thing.  I have always been opening doors so there have not really been many people at the door to accompany me and that really has been a problem.  It means that I have used a lot of energy to open the door and then sometimes I don't quite have enough to walk through it afterwards.  But I think that has been very useful, to have experienced that with literature and now be coming to film.  Because it is the same battle and the same struggle, and I know how to gather my energy better in order not to be as concerned about it as I was at that time.  So actually things seem to have worked out quite well.  What I realize is that all my interests are coming together.

    You know I don't feel this need to distinguish between being a novelist or a filmmaker.  I feel the need to be a communicator.  And I see that I have added some more communication skills to the repertoire that I had before.  And that is a significant thing for me.

Do you intend to write the screenplay for films that you plan to direct?  And more particularly, will you adapt Nervous Conditions into a screenplay?

    Oh, yes.  I think I am developing skills as a screenplay writer as well.  I think I will become very competent.  I have a screenwriting credit for Everyone's Child as well.  I am working on a screenplay for Nervous Conditions.  The same people who did Everyone's Child would like to produce Nervous Conditions with me, as an adaptation.

    But really the problem in Zimbabwe is finding money.  The industry has been largely financed by donor agencies and therefore the themes have usually been development themes like AIDS and women's rights and this kind of thing. So Nervous Conditions does not obviously fall into that category on the one hand, and on the other hand donor agencies are cutting down on their spending.  So I don't know how much success my producer will have in raising money for that, I will have to wait and see.  So far there has been little success and that is a bit disappointing.  I had hoped that that project would be underway by now, that's what I had thought.

How do literature and film come together for you?  Do you seeing marrying the two?

    As far as marrying literature and screenwriting and the production of films, I don't think they need to be married at all.  What actually happens is that in their individuality they compensate.  Because while I enjoy the intensity and the seclusion of writing, whether it’s prose, whether it’s a screenplay, I don't like to have to live like that all the time.

    So by the time I spend some time in seclusion writing something, the social animal needs to get out and be with people and so it really is good for me to have a film project where I can go out and spend lots of time interacting intensely with people.  So they compensate very well but I think that they are quite well compartmentalized now.  And I don't have to worry about interference.  It's not that I have to think about writing prose when I sit down and write a screenplay, and it's not that I have to think about developing the prose when I sit down to write literature so that's an interesting development, but it has been a struggle, as I said.

You say that you don't have to marry literature and film.  However, one thing about writing is that you have your pen and your thoughts.  On the other hand, you are writing a screenplay for a film that you may also direct.  Do you think about the technical aspects of filmmaking when writing the script or do you keep them separate?

    No I don't think so, because when I am writing a screenplay I don't think about the technicalities I think about the story I want to tell about in these pictures and I write those pictures down.   When I go back to producing it then I think, "oh my goodness how am I going to do that?   Is that possible or not?"  But I do not let that censor me during writing and I think that is very important, actually.  I think it is a problem that many people who work in the film business experience in that you do know these things and they do tend to interfere with the creativity.  But I think it is part of learning the skill of screenwriting, not to let it interfere, and to be able to write down the story as it comes and then know that turning this story into a film with all the technical problems is something that will happen latter.  But it doesn't happen while you are putting that story on paper.

Of course you cannot include all the themes and experiences in Nervous Conditions in a feature-length film.  How do you see the screenplay reflecting the book?  Do you see that the screenplay will change in some ways?

    Yes, I think one of the levels that will have to become less dominant, which is very sad to me, is the whole issue of the interrelationships between the members of the extended family.  That was one of the things that I really wanted to capture in the novel because the extended family is breaking down in Zimbabwe and I wanted a record of how it worked, or did not work as the case was.  I am going to have to make my choices as to which of those families' stories remains as a subplot to Tambu's main story.  So that is one of the key things that is very sad.  A lot of the anecdotes are going to go that's for sure.