NAMA Controversy and The Talk

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Right. Let’s talk about Zimbabwe’s National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA). I’m a filmmaker who was an adjudicator for a few years, so I will focus on film. This is how it works: Adjudicators get the submissions and the judging criteria towards the end of the year and they watch all the submissions as individuals during the Christmas break. They come together as a subcommittee and present their individual choices in the new year. There are often disagreements and sometimes heated arguments. When that happens, the committee always refers back to the set criteria. Individual adjudicators have to justify their shortlists. Some years it’s a straightforward process. There are some standout productions that just rise to the top and everyone agrees in the 1st meeting. The film subcommittee selection of nominees is then interrogated by the full adjudication panel. They have to justify their choices. Adjudicators cannot submit work during their tenure, so during the years I was an adjudicator I did not submit anything.

How are the adjudicators selected? I’m not sure, but I suspect its based on having consistently excelled and distinguished oneself in your field. Integrity is also important. You have to be able to objectively judge the work of people in your circle and then keep information about nominees and winners to yourself.

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And then there’s the awards night and the now predictable outcry. Lately it has turned into a naked attempt to delegitimise the the NAMA awards and this movement has taken hold on social media. Having invested time and effort into the process, I am here to defend it and call out the naysayers in as open and transparent a way as I possibly can. My worry is that, if a lie is told enough times it becomes the truth.

In 2017 I was attacked by Eddie Ndhlovu, the producer of Wenera. He is attacking the NAMAs again this year. I respect Eddie greatly as a producer. There’s a certain abrasive quality that distinguishes almost all great producers and he possesses that in spades. He will be heard, he will be seen, he will prevail. The model that he came up with for Wenera, where his crew and cast camp at their principal location made his production process ultra efficient. He managed to produce quality work with an impossible budget. Wenera brought viewers back to local television. That’s innovation. I admire his model so much I’m trying to mimic it for Gaza, the TV production that I’ll be working on in Chipinge.
However, Wenera has problems. If the storyline was about middle class families it would be fine, but Wenera is about diamond moguls and the sets don’t say diamond wealth. Additionally, while the design is innovative, the directing is so so. There are actors on Wenera who have excelled elsewhere who just come across tepid on Wenera. Those lacklustre performances can be blamed squarely on the director. So no matter how loudly and insistently Eddie Ndhovu tries to denigrate NAMA adjudicators, it does not change the fact that his directing of Wenera is not worthy of NAMA glory. It is a show that had potential that has stagnated while the competition has grown.

And finally, Wenera crew and cast have complained about not being paid while Eddie jet sets. They believe the money being squandered in taken from ZBC in their names and spent feeding Eddie’s ego. As an actor I have experienced this and it’s demotivating.

Suggestion for Eddie: Let your baby grow by letting go a little. Get sharp, hungry directors, pay them well and allow yourself space to birth new productions. If the allegations about partying at the expense of crew are true, then just sit down and shut up because you’re stealing from artists. You can’t expect to win nation awards against increasing stiff competition when you’re moving backwards.

On the issue of Rumbi Katedza and I being competition for Eddie, I can only speak for myself. I respectfully submit that Eddie and I are not in the same orbit. Eddie produces a struggling production on ZTV while I am an internationally recognized producer and director who has worked on broadcast projects all over the world. When you saw me on the red carpet at Cannes a couple of years ago, it was because I’m producing and shooting projects worthy of being invited to the Cannes Producers’ Network. So Mr. Ndhlovu we are qualified to judge your work and to exclude it if in our considered opinion it doesn’t measure up. We are the gatekeepers. If that irks you, don’t submit yourself to the process.

At least Eddie actually has a recognized and followed TV program. The loudest group of protesters are what I will call People With Cameras. As an adjudicator I have had to wade through hundreds of terrible videos that people have taken time to print onto DVDs and submit to the NAMAs in the belief that they actually stand a chance of winning. It’s these same delusional people who make up the bulk of protesters. Why did Shem Zemura win? NAMA adjudicators must’ve been bribed. The board needs to resign. No. Our media landscape is severely fragmented, so there’s no central place to see all the nominees and compare them. But ask some of the noisemakers to post their work online and let the public decide because – unfortunately – many do not understand just how bad their submissions are.

The formation of the Bulawayo Arts Awards proves my point. Compare the 2017 nominees and winners from the Bulawayo Arts Awards to the nominees and winners from the previous NAMA awards. See any similarities there? Are the nominees sleeping with adjudicators from both organisations?

A NAMA film adjudicator’s job is doubly difficult because our industry is still in development, so you will find a standout performance by an unknown actress like 2015 Best Actress award winner Bianca Mangwenzi in a not very well resolved film like Tariro. The normal inclination would be to throw the disc onto the “watched” pile after a few minutes of hunting focus and bad audio, but we owe it to the growth of the industry to watch to the end.

Then there’s the issue of having categories without winners… There are years during which the quality of submissions in some categories is so poor that the very best of them is not deserving of a national award. So do we endorse mediocrity? The NAMAs are a national competition. There are minimum standards that should be respected. Why have nominees without winners? It’s a balancing act – acknowledging effort without compromising standards.

The Zemura brothers announced their arrival with the film, My Lady. It had iffy audio in some places but it was clear that Nick Zemura could put a film together. They have since grown into a 3-pronged attack which by all indications is here to stay. There are other notable filmmakers I have been watching. Willard ‘Slimaz’ Makombedze is a storyteller. Beauty Nakai Tsuro has continued to mature and tell solid stories with strong female characters. Joseph Bunga has come out of nowhere to be one of the most visible producers around. I believe TM Pick n Pay Battle of the chefs would’ve stood a decent chance of being nominated in the TV category had I not been an adjudicator. Joe Njagu has gone international. Charles Mawungwa startled every music video director with Huyai Tinamate. A multitude of actors out of Bulawayo’s film and theatre scene have continued to distinguish themselves on the national stage. Tinashe Mombeshora is quietly building an empire. Nqobizitha Mlilo. Derby Beta was a college intern at Area 46 two years ago and was a nominee in the short film category this year. Andy “Cutta” Sobhuza rocks.

You will probably keep seeing these names on local arts nomination lists and some will become ubiquitous on international awards lists as well because they make good films. I think Shem Zemura is an arrogant little shit, but that is neither here nor there. He makes good films and he deserves the recognition that he’s getting. There are people whom I love to bits and have been in the industry with me for over a decade, but that doesn’t justify them being included in the NAMAs. It doesn’t work on a My Turn basis. Look at industry awards the world over and you will see the very same trends. There are a few exceptional practitioners, followed by some very good ones and then a multitude of journeymen and then all those people with cameras. I make no apologies about doggedly recognising filmmakers who excel. Repeatedly.

Ben Mahaka (Filmmaker)

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