By Danny Schechter

While the Visit Shut The City Down, A Dynamic Film Festival Showcases The Country’s Cultural Energy And Opens Minds

Zanzibar, Tanzania: The Big Show had arrived with the Secret Service bringing all traffic in Dar es Salaam to a halt as President Obama set down in Tanzania, the third stop on his three country African “tour.” The cheering crowds were out on cue, as a military band played the US National Anthem, not once but twice, less anyone miss the gesture.

Obama is here to promote more capitalist enterprise—foregoing aid for trade with 150 US and African business leaders on hand to see how they can capitalize on Washington’s sudden interest in Africa’s growth.

The US is playing a poor catch-up game with China whose trade with Tanzania totaled $2.47 BILLION last year as opposed to a skimpy $360.2 million with the US.

Fresh from a symbolic stop at Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on South Africa’s Robben Island, you would think that the President might have a word of thanks to offer Tanzania for its long years of support for Mandela’s ANC in exile where his law partner Oliver Tambo escaped capture as he organized resistance to apartheid in a country then known for African Socialism and the self reliance doctrine of  its brilliant founding president Julius Nyerere,  also known as Mwalimu, (The teacher.)

Mandela would never had been freed from his cell if the ANC in exile, based here and on other “frontline states, “ hadn’t had support to help it build its armed struggle and solidarity networks that would soon get the world organized against apartheid.

Tanzania had guts to defy the bullies of the apartheid state by providing offices and a School to the ANC despite threats.

Barack Obama left his the uplifting pro-liberation symbolism behind in South Africa, in order to get down to business in Tanzania.

Now, he is focusing on cutting deals for power companies— that’s the ‘power to the people’ he champions—while another form of power—cultural power– is on display a two hour boat ride out in Indian Ocean on Zanzibar, a scenic Island nation with its own government that is also part of the United Republic of Tanzania.

I am on Zanzibar for the 16h annual edition of one of the most impressive festivals in the world, the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) that brings regional  and international filmmakers to show their work , and join a multi-cultural event that also showcases musicians, artists, storytellers from all genres, and even a fabulous fashion show representing local designers.

Ironically, while the presidential party waved the American flag in in Dar, the festival has been showing films made worldwide, including in Iran and Palestine, two countries out of favor in official Washington.

Festival Director, Martin Mhando, a Tanzanian who also teaches in Australia, projected quite different values than the ones the politicians use in their official capacities.

Here’s how described ZIFF’s intent to unite the region, known as the Dhow Countries, named after the sailing ships that created a web of regional identity through trade, back into the middle ages.

“The spirit of the Dhow countries has always been that of sharing—sharing the values of justice, freedom, love and harmony in our history of maritime relations., “ he writes  in the Festival program. “We have tried to include as many perspectives as positive from the 48 countries represented in the films shown that reveal diverse viewpoints on events and issues.”

This is very appropriate for Zanzibar where diversity lives in the interplay of  the cultures of Arabs, Indians and African tribes.. It is a majority Muslim culture known for religious tolerance.

You can be sure that the TV crews that are accompanying President Obama don’t have a clue about the country except that it has lots of wildlife. tourist attractions and national parks. You would be hard put to accuse them of knowing what diverse perspectives are, much less displaying them in their programming. They are looking for a safari, not substance.

Watching the cable in my hotel room, there are low-brow American  action adventure  B movies (a.k.a violent flicks) and wrestling matches along with CSPAN like shows in Shawhili from the Parliament and sermons by Muslim clergymen.

Very few of the provocative films shown at ZIFF get on the air here, although a festival sponsor ZUKU (slogan: “AMAZING”) may buy some of the films for its pay TV channel.

Popular cultural institutions like ZIFF struggle every year to serve the masses culturally as opposed to ”the classes” that most western film festivals target.  They have to line up many sponsors—I counted 43 logos in their catalogue—without help from the government or the US. You would think that the Obama could engage some of the huge US cultural and media enterprises to help their counterparts in Africa, but they don’t think that way.

Cultural industries are often neglected despite their mass reach. I did see an excellent TV educational program for kids but it was plastered with adverts for FANTA soft drinks, the last thing you would want children to become addicted to.

The West promotes electricity—as in lights –rather than cultural electricity that inspires the public to want to change their lives. (Ironically, The U.S. backs infrastructure projects here while blocking them at home as the power grid falters and bridges collapse.)

To its credit, the ZIFF Festival also offers workshops like one that I will be teaching in critical journalism, a conference for academics on cultural studies, skills sessions for wannabe filmmakers and   even an out-reach program for sex workers and anti-AIDS activism. They are also working with other cultural institutions to create a regional film commission to lure more film production to the region and support local filmmakers.

To its credit also, there are film showings in villages and the outer island of Pemba.  They bring culture to the people as well as hold large outdoor screenings in a stone amphitheater in a colorful and historic old fort. The Fort is one of many attractions in an area known as Stone Town, a UNESCO world heritage site.

What’s impressive is the care that’s given to the highest standards of projection.

ZIFF also showcases an array of sensational Bongo Films, low-budget home-made Swahili language moves,  that are building audiences throughout East Africa.

The festival  draws well known and award-winning big-time filmmakers like Mira Nair, who has been making widely shown movies for  over twenty years.  Her film “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” opened the Festival and just won the German Peace Prize.

This  timely  and brave movie explores the contradictions of the war on terror in Pakistan as well as the parallels between violent religious fundamentalism and the pro-market capitalism fundamentalism on display in the Obama visit.

Barack Obama will no doubt not have the “time” to pop over to Zanzibar for the festival, but, if he did, he would see how culture leads politics in the hearts and minds of people here as elsewhere.

News Dissector Danny Schechter showed one of his documentaries on Nelson Mandela at the Festival. He edits and blogs at

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Danny Schechter, "The News Dissector," is a former network TV producer, radio newscaster, and edits He has written nine books on media themes. His latest, 'Plunder', was inspired by his latest film, In Debt We Trust: America Before The Bubble Bursts