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‘Shungu’ puts human face on ballot box

Helmer's docu on Zimbabwe election put camera on the voters

When Saki Mafundikwa began traveling around Zimbabwe in 2008, documenting the buildup to his country’s presidential election, he had no idea what he was getting into. But the first-time helmer felt compelled to capture the campaign season on film, focusing on President Robert Mugabe and opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai.

As the camera rolled, Mafundikwa was gripped by the human stories he encountered: a poverty-stricken opposition supporter trying to survive in the face of political violence; a doctor struggling to cope with the country’s collapsing healthcare system; a middle-aged widow who was given a farm by the government during its controversial land seizures from white farmers.

Those ordinary people became the focus of “Shungu” (from Gandanga Media), which puts a human face to the headline news of Zimbabwe’s descent into chaos. Since its preem at Amsterdam’s Intl. Documentary Film Festival last year, “Shungu” — the Shona word for “resilience” — has been a hit on the festival circuit, as well as winning the top documentary prize at the Kenya Intl. Film Festival last month.

Success has come as something of a surprise to Mafundikwa, an accomplished graphic designer, who didn’t expect to become a filmmaker when he returned to Zimbabwe in 1998, after two decades living in the U.S.

A year after returning to Harare, he founded the Zimbabwe Institute for Vigital Arts (ZIVA), a media arts school with the goal, he says, of “training students in the visual arts using digital tools.” (The word “ziva” also means “knowledge” in his native Shona.)

Buoyed by the academy’s success, as well as his own laurels as a first-time filmmaker, Mafundikwa is now planning to offer a degree in documentary filmmaking at ZIVA.

Filmmaking, he says, has also proved therapeutic. “At that time, if I hadn’t made ‘Shungu,’ I would’ve gone crazy,” says Mafundikwa, recalling the turmoil of the 2008 elections. “By my silence, it would’ve looked like I supported what was going on.”

He lensed the doc with support from IDFA’s Jan Vrijman Fund and Trust Africa, although much of the coin came from his own pocket. Though he’s working on his second doc, “Basilwizi,” a story about the indigenous Tonga people of northern Zimbabwe, the emotive power of “Shungu” stays with him.

Mafundikwa recalls the story of Pamela, a young woman whose death from AIDS-related illnesses is the emotional climax of the film. When doctors told her family that they should have brought Pamela to the clinic sooner, they said they were too poor to pay for the treatments that could have saved her life.

The cost, says Mafundikwa, was just $50.

“This country is depressing,” he says. “But the reason I still live here is to share these stories.”

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