By Bethsheba Achitsa
Published March 22, 2010
On March 6, 2010, a little known film, SEASONS OF A LIFE, received a whopping eight nominations–Best Director, Best Picture, Achievement in Sound, Achievement in Editing, Best Original Soundtrack, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, and Best Screenplay–at the continental 6th Africa Movie Academy Awards. Even more unknown to the African film fraternity was the filmmaker himself, a Zimbabwe-born Malawian surveying and mapping scientist with training in mathematics and physics who has the knack for winning creative awards. That filmmaker, Charles Shemu Joyah, speaks to ArtMatters.Info’s staff writer, BETHSHEBA ACHITSA.
Who, exactly, is Charles Shemu Joyah?
Well, I was born in June 1959 in Zimbabwe of Malawian parents. My family moved back to Malawi in 1971 where I have lived ever since. I have a B.Sc degree in mathematics and physics from the Chancellor College, the University of Malawi, and a B.Sc Hons degree in surveying and mapping sciences from the University of East London, United Kingdom. I run a consultancy company in Malawi which deals in land matters. It’s this consultancy company that enabled me to raise enough money to make my first film. I have been involved in the arts since my schools days and I have had several short stories and poems published in anthologies. In 1990 my short story, Rays of Hope, won the British Council Arts and Literature competition in Malawi. The story went on to be published in an anthology of Malawian literature. In 1998, a story I wrote for children, Danger in the Lake, was published by Heinemann under the Junior African Writers.
Your film, SEASONS OF A LIFE, that has just received eight Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) nominations has in the past won two awards at the 12th Zanzibar International Film Festival and several other international awards. How do you feel about the AMAA nominations?
This feels great. The Zanzibar awards are very special to me because that was the first time ever I was receiving an award for the film. I spent more than two years working on the film and it always feels great that after all that effort people appreciate your work. AMAA takes everything a decibel level higher. Seriously, I did not expect eight nominations. I thought maybe two or three. But eight is beyond belief. It means that even of the African stage the film is being appreciated.
When one classifies the budget spent on SEASONS OF A LIFE as a low budget; how much is one referring to?
I spent around US$100,000. About half of that was spent buying a camera and other equipment like lights, computers, software, etc, and the other half to pay for actors and crew, food, transport, venues, costumes and other things.
While making SEASONS OF A LIFE, what did you wish to achieve?
My main aim was to make a film that would be accepted in one of the major film festivals. When the film was accepted at the Cairo International Film Festival I thought I had achieved what I had aimed to achieve. The rest has been a bonus.
Do you feel that you have achieved what you set out for?
As far as the public response to Seasons of a life is concerned I think I have achieved well beyond my expectations. However, I don’t think that I achieved technically what I really want to do. This is because I did not have any experience in filmmaking, just like the rest of my crew. So we made the film more from our instincts than sound technical experience. I have always read extensively about filmmaking and I watch good movies. But all the theory about filmmaking I had read could not be of help for some of the problems we encountered were too much for people who had no experience. Since then I have acquired more knowledge talking to experienced filmmakers from other countries in the festivals I have attended. Some of them have been kind enough to tell me the weaknesses of my film and what we could have done to surmount them. I remember that after Giancarlo Esposito saw the film at FESPACO, he spent over three hours tearing apart the film, telling me all the technical problems he had seen. Maybe another filmmaker would have gotten angry with such kind of criticism but I realised that the reason he was wasting his time talking about this film was because in fact he liked it. He was just trying to tell me where I could have done better. So even though his criticism was hard, it was also constructive. When I went back to Malawi I spent another two months re-editing the film. I cut out thirty two minutes from the original film. It is this new version that was first screened in Zanzibar and instantly it won two awards. Giancarlo was in the audience when the film was shown the Old Fort Amphitheatre. Throughout I could hear him screaming: “That’s a great cut! That’s a great cut!” Afterwards he came and hugged me and said I had done something very courageous for it is very difficult to cut your own film after you thought you had already finished it. He said it was like killing your own children.
Despite the many difficulties that Malawian filmmakers are said to face, what motivated you into filmmaking?
The main motivation that drove me to filmmaking is the same motivation that made me write short stories before, and that is the desire to create a world of my own, a world with characters and events that did not exist until the day I sat down with a blank piece of paper in front of me and write it down. This gives me total the freedom, the freedom to address issues I may not be able to address in real life. When I was a young sometimes I could not talk back to my teachers or parents. When that happened I would write a short story where the main character would be able to talk back to his teachers or parents. The story gave me a chance to revenge, to do things in my own terms. It was my catharsis. Without the ability to create my own world that I could manipulate in the way I want, I think the anger I felt in me, particularly in my rebellious youth, could have driven me crazy.
OK; how did you get into filmmaking?
When I was growing up in Zimbabwe, we lived about two hundred metres from a cinema. From the age of six to twelve, I watch a film or two in that cinema every weekend. That’s the time I began to be creative and that’s the time I began to think that one day, maybe, I would make a film of my own. But as I grew up I realised that it was not that easy, so I went on to do other things but the idea to make a film still lingered on at the back of my mind. I did not know that it would wait until I was closing to fifty years of age to make my first film.
What strategy did you use to ensure that audiences in Malawi and beyond get to watch SEASONS OF A LIFE?
So far we have been showing the film in festivals abroad. In Malawi we have shown it at entertainment centres, schools and colleges. There is only one cinema in Malawi so you have to use these places to show your film. We have not yet released the film on DVD since we wanted to take it to festivals first before we started selling it. We did not release the DVD immediately because we feared that pirates would overtake us. Now we intend to release the DVD by the end of April or in May. We will also be selling the film on-line.
With the success that your film is receiving, what is next for you?
Make more films. I am in the pre-production stage of my next film. I have already written the script and we are now putting things together. The other script I have already written is that of John Chilembwe, the Malawian hero who in 1915 rose against British rule. The uprising was brutally crushed, but it sowed the seeds of nationalism that eventually saw Malawi attaining independence in 1965, fifty years later.
What does the founding of Malawi International Film Festival, in which you are said to have had a hand, mean to filmmakers like you and the film enthusiasts in the southern African country?
It will greatly help to expose Malawian films and filmmakers. The most important thing about MIFF is the training component that has been introduced. The idea is to train Malawian filmmakers under the festival and then assist them to showcase their newly attained skills during the festival. The best way to encourage a filmmaker is to give him exposure.
Is the lack of people who are knowledgeable about filmmaking in Malawi the reason for the non-existent of locally-produced films for the last three decades or so?
Yes that is the main reason, but also even the few knowledgeable people have problems making films because of the huge expense involved. Now that is changing for even government is getting very interested in filmmaking. Government is encouraging us very much and was instrumental in the formation of the Malawi International Film Festival.
How will you and other filmmakers keep up the new found interest in filmmaking that has even caught the attention of the government?
My aim as an individual is to produce another film in the next few months. I don’t want people to forget that I exist. I think most filmmakers are being encouraged by this and I am sure we will see several good quality productions coming out of Malawi in the near future.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers in Malawi?
Do not give up. Watch as many good films as you can. See the classics, even the black and white ones. I still think that CASABLANKA, CITIZEN KANE, ON THE WATERFRONT, and PSYCHO are some of the best films I have ever watched. First watch to enjoy the film, then watch again several times to see how the director chose to tell the story using different camera angles, positioning of actors, soundtrack, motifs, colour etc. Then go out there and make yours.