Last night’s world premiere of Escape – the freshest and hottest film to put Zimbabwe on the big screen – saw Ster-Kinekor Borrowdale packed to the roof. Zimbabwe International Film Festival organisers were compelled at the last minute to open up a second cinema, and still, glitzy punters were sitting three-astride in the aisles.
Thinking Films – an established and powerful collaboration between Polish film maker Agnieszka Piotrowska and Zimbabwean Joe Njagu had created an impressive buzz around what is the first ‘high-end’ production to come out of Zimbabwe in a long time, and which contained erotic scenes that local film makers have avoided in the past.
“Free beer and porn – no wonder this place is packed,” joked someone near the front of the crowd. But jokes aside, right from the get-go, it was a magical experience to see our beloved local landscapes such as the msasa woodland and granite dome of Ngomokurira, Africa Unity Square and even Chitungwiza from high-up aerial views, and in crisp resolution. Drone footage provides the best views of Harare, escapes the litter and poverty, and will show the world, as this movie pops up on screens around the globe, our grand avenues, beautiful buildings, and rugged, tree-filled natural landscapes.
The script was the work of Piotrowska, who has worked in Zimbabwe several times, having directed a controversial play Lovers in Time that debuted at HIFA 2014, a subsequent documentary, and other works. Critics will point to the several moments of cliché, including in the opening theme song which had the well-worn alto-African voice singing across a landscape, the music and cinematography every time the protagonist took a taxi, and some of the characters including the exuberant barman full of wisdom and cosy wit (though the role was well acted). But overall Escape portrayed Zimbabweans as diverse and sophisticated throughout the murderous and lusty plot. Characters that needed to be developed were given enough depth. In particular, musician Selmor Mtukudzi who plays a kind-hearted and thoughtful journalist comes over very well. Her uplifting music also brings a lot to the film. All told, the local cast put on a convincing show, successfully suspending disbelief.
And what about the famous sex scenes? The film was punctuated by regular erotic encounters – the protagonist has sex several times throughout, and there are flashbacks to an orgy that his mother took part in during her affair. The flashbacks felt to me, a bit ownerless – I was not clear who was having them, or the purpose of repeating them several times. There was no nudity, but the frequency of the flashbacks felt gratuitous. Though our local film industry has shied away from portraying sex, it’s such a frequent part of Hollywood films that perhaps the ‘shock’ of it was diluted.
As far as being social commentary, issues such as race, child marriage, and the clash of traditional values and modern society are touched on, though not wholly developed – the plot was exciting and moved at a cracking pace and did not allow for much nuance on these things.
Nitpickers (as I have tried to be) will find issues here and there, but anyone with an iota of regard for the environment in which Escape was born will admire what Njagu and Piotrowska, with help from local production studio Media Matrix, have accomplished. On a tight budget, and over a very short space of time, Thinking Films has breathed life into the local film industry. The fact that the script for what would otherwise be a local film was written by a foreign director, lays down the gauntlet to local writers and directors. Escape demonstrates what is possible in Zimbabwe, and challenges Zimbabweans to take on big projects. Njagu and Piotrowska have shown that with grit and passion, miracles are possible.
For its entertainment value and pleasing production, Escape will win much acclaim among Zimbabweans, and jostle shoulders with the best that Nollywood or Bollywood has to offer. We await the next Thinking Films project with enthusiasm.
Main image: Selmor Mtukudzi and Agnieszka Piotrowska share a hug at the Escape première.
Escape will be out on DVD this weekend.