This Young Filmmaker Wants to Make Africa's First Teen Movie

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In a Q&A, Tatenda Mbudzi talks about using the silver screen to make a social impact.

Tatenda Mbudzi is tired of the way the media portrays Africa and minority actors—and he’s not alone. A new video series on YouTube, Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color, boils down lines from minority actors in feature-length films to mere seconds and recently went viral. Another video calling out how African men are portrayed in the media has been viewed more than 1.3 million times.

So the 28-year-old Zimbabwean filmmaker decided to do things his way. An MFA graduate of UCLA’s film school, the self-proclaimed movie buff has an Indiegogo campaign in the works to raise $70,000 to make Zim High—what he’s calling “the first African teen movie ever.”

Mbudzi would be the writer, director, and star of the semiautobiographical dark comedy. He’s also the prime candidate to make such a movie, having seen both sides of the equation. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, he spent a portion of his childhood in the United Kingdom and his higher education and early career in the United States. For Mbudzi, the hope is that an authentic film created in Zimbabwe and showing a real, relatable side of Africa, will help change Western attitudes.

Despite his age, he’s not lacking in the experience department, having held script development, marketing, and publicity jobs at major Hollywood studios, including Universal Pictures, Focus Features, and Sony. The young filmmaker even has the support of his former UCLA instructor: actor James Franco.

We talked to Mbudzi about his project and how a story told well can change the world.

TakePart: What’s the story of Zim High?

Tatenda Mbudzi: It's the first African teen movie ever that isn't about Ebola, Somalian pirates, pregnancy, or random black guys with AK-47s. It's about self-acceptance and standing up for yourself and your dreams in the harshest of environments. It's about a 17-year-old loser, Tatenda, who desperately needs to be a prefect—an all-powerful student leader—so he can win scholarship money to study anime in Japan. When he gets framed in a near fatal bullying incident, he has to turn to an aboriginal Australian new kid to help him be cool and cruel enough to become a prefect.

TakePart: What inspired you to tell this story in particular?

Mbudzi: I was inspired to tell this story because being a dreamer is hard, especially in an environment like Zimbabwe, where the economy and cultural mind-set don’t really support people in the arts. I was also sick of seeing movies—teen movies especially—that use Africa as a backdrop or setup for some morally absolving adventure. I wanted to make something from an African and Zimbabwean perspective for a change. Also, being a Zimbabwean teen in a postcolonial environment was tough, physically and mentally. There were bullies, and there were unwritten rules and attitudes that I only noticed after I left the country. I wanted to dissect how Zimbabwean young people come up with a worldview that dictates who they socialize with, who they date—interracial dating is very rare—and what they end up doing with their lives.

TakePart: What are the problems you see in portrayals of black people in mainstream media and entertainment?

Mbudzi: In Black Hawk Down, there are hundreds of Somalis shot down, but we never hear their perspective. This is a well-made film, but can it be a great film if it dehumanizes people? There’s no such thing as a wrong story, I think, which may be controversial, but I do believe that consistently hearing one type of story and taking that as truth is wrong. Black Africans are villainized, and that's all we see. We need stories where they’re empathized with to balance out the scale. What was [Charleston, South Carolina, church shooter Dylann Roof] watching while he was growing up? Yes, there are many influences that make up a person, but young people are especially susceptible to media. As a society, I think we are responsible for creating a balance. There’s an article I read where [Roof] is wearing a jumper with an apartheid flag and the flag of Rhodesia on his chest. Clearly, he needed to see a different perspective than whatever it was he grew up with.

TakePart: What would you like to see happen to stop, curb, or change these issues?

Mbudzi: I think, to solve these issues of portrayal, we need to be more deliberate and culpable about what these portrayals lead to in our lived reality—like the violence against black people in the United States or xenophobia in South Africa. I think the power of film is underestimated. We need positive propaganda, if you will, that helps people be more open. Obviously, there are other factors that affect how humans treat each other, but a well-placed message or film with empathy in it can make someone think for a moment and reflect before hurting someone else. I think we need a civil rights movement for the imagination. We need films and television shows that dismantle perspectives that perpetuate glaring injustice.

TakePart: What do you ultimately hope your audience will take away from Zim High?

Mbudzi: I want them to not look at Africa as some place where people are only starving, suffering, or dying. That happens everywhere. In Africa, there are people pursuing their dreams too. Every country and continent has its problems, whether they be poverty or gun violence. However, I find that Africa is used as a moral footstool to make characters from the West seem heroic or feel better about themselves. Zim High is going to show a Zimbabwean African perspective that is very aware of this double standard and hopefully be a step in defusing this attitude. There is far more complexity to the black African perspective.

TakePart: What made you want to become a filmmaker in the first place?

Mbudzi: I think I was seven, and we had moved back from the U.K. to Zimbabwe. We didn't have the television antenna set up, so I would watch videos on the VCR when my parents were away. I watched films I shouldn't have watched until I was 18—Predator, Poltergeist, Kickboxer. I loved cartoons too. I remember watching Poltergeist with a group of older ladies from my mother’s side of the family. They thought the film was real, like a documentary. I found this very interesting.

I would say, above all, my grandmother's storytelling skills and the commonalities I saw between her tales and Looney Tunes got me hooked. I loved characters, so I started drawing a lot of my own. The decision to go into film was solidified by anime. I had a friend who used to share these films with me, and I would draw the characters. I loved Dragon Ball Z. I loved The Matrix. Over the course of high school, despite a lot of pressure [not to], I decided I would be making entertainment, because it was more than that for me. A really good film or TV show can help you rekindle faith in yourself.

TakePart: Where did your cultural influences come from to make Zim High?

Mbudzi: I had a really good couple of friends who helped me stay sane in high school. No matter what, I knew I could always laugh at the absurdity of high school with these guys. I had a very strong accent because I lived in the U.K. for a bit when I was younger. It was so strong, the black kids and the white kids couldn't tell if I was mocking them when I said hello. So I was always kind of on the sidelines of things.

We had the very British colonial school system that included things like corporal punishment and prefects and seniority above all else. This was common across all Zimbabwean high schools. There were also stories I would hear from schools across Zimbabwe of people being bullied really badly. It was pretty bad at boarding schools, but the day schools caught on too. As I mentioned, white people didn't really date black people, and Indian people dated amongst themselves too. Cliques were formed almost strictly based on race first, then other commonalities. Zim High takes all of these elements and creates a hyperreal extremist—but all too familiar—institution where every day is a struggle for survival.

TakePart: Where did your professional influences come from?

Mbudzi: Professionally, I was inspired a lot by Judd Apatow, who has a way of doing comedy that feels grounded and tragic. I also really like how Todd Phillips looks at friendship in The Hangover. Zim High has these elements compressed into an almost hyper-militaristic school environment. It’s the baddest high school in the entire universe.

And I love the young adult genre. I grew up with Harry Potter. I love The Hunger Games, Divergent, all of that stuff. All of these series use a metaphorical environment or aspect to heighten the stakes of adolescence. As a teenager, we have those days where we feel the world is going to end. Harry Potter facing Voldemort is like having a confrontation with a really nasty bully. In Zim High, there is no metaphor. It's pure, lived experience, because that’s how rough the school system can be. Fights, with both corporal punishments and cruel seniors, make every day a battle. It's like Harry Potter, but instead of magic, there’s casual racism. It's like Divergent, but your faction is your ethnicity. I wanted to do something young adult that didn't try and hide behind a filter or mechanism, but that could still feel epic. I felt like there were no young adult movies or books dealing with issues of race and identity head-on.

There was a time in Zimbabwe and South Africa when black people weren’t allowed in cinemas. Now we need to get them on screens. This not only has a positive effect on how people treat each other and feel about themselves but it creates work opportunities too.

Also, I studied at UCLA under James Franco, and his work ethic, the way he relentlessly pursues his vision, made me feel like I needed to do the same thing.

TakePart: What's next for you after Zim High?

Mbudzi: Not sure. A couple of projects are in the works. I just want to keep finding and creating compelling humanistic stories. I'm working on a book that's a companion to Zim High about growing up in Zimbabwe.

TakePart: What's your career goal in the long run?

Mbudzi: Make characters on a global scale that explore the perspective of the other. Write, act, direct, produce, repeat. Challenge myself. Make African entertainment a must-have. Most important, for the long run, keep myself running.
Source: Take Part 27 July 2015