For decades, people living in Zimbabwe have been taught that speaking their minds comes at a cost. Under former president Robert Mugabe, an authoritarian ruler who held power for more than 37 years, openly challenging the government meant risking arrest, beating or worse. There's still a law on the books that makes insulting the president a crime.
Things have been different since last November, when Mugabe's former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, took power with the backing of the military. Although it's not entirely trusted, there's greater freedom of expression now than Zimbabweans have experienced in decades.
Nigel Munyati, the director of the Zimbabwean International Film and Festival Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting independent Zimbabwean filmmakers, hoped to spotlight that freedom when he launched a smartphone short film competition in April for people age 16 to 34 together with the Alliance Française. Until last year, Mugabe was the only leader Zimbabweans in that age group had ever known.
The competition was based on a single question: "What does it mean to be Zimbabwean?" But getting answers proved more challenging than Munyati anticipated.
"Young Zimbabweans are still tentative about taking advantage of that freedom of speech," Munyati says.
Submissions were slow. The deadline had to be extended. Entrants had to be reminded to stick to the topic.
When the films started coming in — 46 entries were considered in all — they were wildly diverse in both quality and subject matter. There was a stop-motion animation film with dolls, a zombie heist film peppered with deadpan jokes about Zimbabwe's cash shortage, films with harrowing, candid treatment of sexual violence.
"I think that's one of the things that comes out very strongly," says Munyati, "that our present reality isn't a very positive or a happy one. As a nation, we've been in a very sad state for the longest time."
And that's part of what's striking about this moment: filmmakers can answer the question "What does it mean to be Zimbabwean?" by responding that it's unpleasant — an opinion they might have only whispered in private under Mugabe.
On Thursday, a film called The Appointment won first place in the competition, earning filmmaker Rodney Mabaleka a $500 prize. In The Appointment, a young man on the verge of a nervous breakdown is visited by his alter ego, played by the same actor, who may or may not be a hallucination.
In a cleverly shot exchange, the exasperated main character serves as a stand-in for many frustrated young Zimbabweans, who are inheriting a crumbling economy with limited opportunities: "What's so difficult about just asking for a happy, meaningful life with a purpose?" he asks. His better self encourages him to buck up, and reminds him that Zimbabweans "can make something out of nothing."
Munyati said the film stood out for both its technical execution and approach to the theme. He says Zimbabweans are known among southern African countries as the "make a plan people," for their ability to work around tough situations. He says that's both a blessing and a curse: "The downside is we don't confront the problem. That's why it took us 37 years to get out of our quagmire."
Not all Zimbabweans are sure they really are out of the quagmire. Kingsley Kaisi directed and starred in another entry called Hustle, which follows a struggling street vendor from dawn to dusk. Kaisi hesitates when asked whether he can say things now that he couldn't have expressed under Mugabe.
"Yeah, I guess," he says, "I guess it depends on what I'm saying." On further reflection, he adds, "I think, yeah, we can now say whatever we want to say. We're now free to express ourselves in any way we want."
Priscilla Sithole Ncube, one of the judges of the competition, has made political documentaries in the past and says her work got her arrested twice under Mugabe. In Zimbabwe today, she says, filmmakers are "free but not free." Even in this more open moment, she worries the authorities are keeping track of who's saying what. She doesn't trust Mnangagwa – who is favored to win election as president later this month — and the army that put him in power to respect the new freedoms.
"We have been in prison for a long time," Ncube says, "and we are not really sure of what is happening now."
For Munyati, that uncertainty is what made it vital to hold this competition now. "It's a revolution, basically, anytime a society is able to reclaim one of its rights," he says. "We've got to hold onto that right and make sure that we prosecute it to its logical conclusion."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In most countries, a conversation with the director of a film festival would not be a revolutionary act. In Zimbabwe, I recently spoke with Nigel Munyati. He directs the Zimbabwean International Film and Festival Trust, and he told me we could not have done this interview a year ago.
NIGEL MUNYATI: That's one of the major transformations that has already taken place.
MUNYATI: I couldn't be talking like this with you because I'd be, you know, worrying about what would happen after you leave.
MUNYATI: You know, so the freedom of speech has become one of the major attainments of our coup that wasn't a coup.
SHAPIRO: Our coup that wasn't a coup - you hear that phrase a lot in Zimbabwe these days. He's talking about last November. The military forced out Robert Mugabe, the man who led an oppressive government for decades. And they put Mugabe's former deputy in charge, a man named Emmerson Mnangagwa. He says the country is open for business and that elections at the end of this month will be free and fair. I went to Zimbabwe to see what has changed and what hasn't during this historic transition. We're going to hear those stories all this week about what happens when a country begins to loosen the handcuffs that its people have been in for decades.
We met Nigel Munyati at the film festival's office in the capital, Harare. It's in a brightly painted, inviting old house set in a shady garden. An old reel-to-reel projector sits in the corner of a hallway.
What year would this be from?
MUNYATI: Oh, I couldn't tell you - probably from the '50s (laughter).
The film festival happens every year, but in this new moment of openness in Zimbabwe, Munyati wanted to try something new - a competition for young people to make short films on their smartphones. The theme...
MUNYATI: Asking young Zimbabweans to tell us what they think being Zimbabwean means.
MUNYATI: You know, that does tend to be quite a challenge.
SHAPIRO: Turns out if people grow up in fear that speaking out could get them arrested, it might take some time to turn that ship around. At first, responses to the contest were slow. Munyati had to extend the deadline for submissions.
MUNYATI: I think young Zimbabweans are still tentative about taking advantage of that freedom of speech.
SHAPIRO: Do you think they're afraid to answer the question, or do you think that because they've never been asked the question, they're not yet able to answer it?
MUNYATI: I think it's more the latter. It's something that they've never had to do before, and it's not something that just automatically, you know, comes into one's mind.
SHAPIRO: Eventually 46 young people gave it a try. They're from all over Zimbabwe, and their films are wildly diverse. One young woman did stop-motion animation with dolls.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Luna, are you sure we can make it to this new town with not a lot of dolls?
SHAPIRO: Another young man created a kind of zombie heist film sprinkled with deadpan jokes about Zimbabwe's economic crisis.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I had to keep my plan simple. Kick down the door. Tie the guy up. Get the cash. But this is Zim. There's no cash, so...
SHAPIRO: I met the creator of one film called "Hustle."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HUSTLE")
KINGSLEY KAISI: (As character) It's not easy in the streets these days, but you always have to keep on hustling and working hard, hopefully trying to get that extra dollar.
SHAPIRO: Almost everyone in Zimbabwe has a hustle. The informal economy is full of car washers, fruit vendors, money changers. The director and star of this film, Kingsley Kaisi, told me the story comes from his personal experience.
KAISI: At one time, I used to throw umbrellas, which was actually quite good because at the time, it was raining, so people were, like, interested in buying umbrellas.
SHAPIRO: He found a place to buy the umbrellas cheap, then sold them on busy street corners for a small profit. Kingsley is a full-time student studying development. Many of his friends have been through something like this, working every minute of the day, trying to squeeze out enough to buy food or pay for school. In the film, the main characters spend so many hours trying to make a dollar that when he finally has time to call his girlfriend, she's given up on him.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HUSTLE")
KAISI: (As character) I just hope that you understand. Hello?
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: The number you are trying to reach is currently unavailable.
SHAPIRO: This is not an uplifting film, and that's part of what's so striking about this moment. Filmmakers can answer the question, what does it mean to be Zimbabwean by saying it's unpleasant. Before, they might have only whispered that in private. To get some perspective on this, I talked to an established filmmaker. Priscilla Sithole Ncube makes documentaries, and she's one of the judges of this competition.
PRISCILLA SITHOLE NCUBE: I've been arrested twice.
SHAPIRO: She told me about one incident in 2014. She was filming a women's march, and police handcuffed her.
NCUBE: The police officer arrested who arrested me was, like, saying, you are the ones who are selling information outside the country.
SHAPIRO: And how different is it today?
NCUBE: Today at least we are free but not free. Sometimes if you are a prisoner, it is upon yourself that you give yourself freedom.
SHAPIRO: She's not ready to trust that these changes are permanent, and for older people especially, she says the habits of suspicion and self-censorship can be hard to let go of. That's why Nigel Munyati gets so excited about these films from young people who've lived their entire lives under Robert Mugabe.
MUNYATI: As a nation, we've been a very sad state for the longest time. Fortunately, though, I think it's something that's about to come to an end.
SHAPIRO: Does the fact you're able to do this without interference from security services feel like a baby step, like a revolution? How does it feel?
MUNYATI: It's a revolution. Basically any time a society's able to reclaim one of its rights, it's not a baby step at all. It's a huge achievement, and the key is to ensure that we don't lose that again ever.
SHAPIRO: Are you afraid that this window might close after the elections?
MUNYATI: No, I don't think so. I'm very confident that regardless of the outcome of the elections, this country will never be the same after the 30th of July.
SHAPIRO: That's one of the most optimistic views we heard during our reporting in Zimbabwe. Tomorrow we'll meet people who are less hopeful. Cash in Zimbabwe is so scarce people sleep outside of bank ATMs hoping to get some precious paper currency in the morning.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) It's very painful to have to wait for your money, especially if it's money that you've worked for. And it feels like we keep getting pulled back when we should be moving forward. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.