Zimbabwe’s ‘Cook Off’ in African premiere at Durban International Film Festival

Many worried that as the decades-long rule of Robert Mugabe came to an end, Zimbabwe faced the toughest of times. Some even feared violence.


Cook Off – the first feature film released in Zimbabwe post-Mugabe – to have its African premiere at Durban International Film Festival

For filmmakers Tomas Brickhill and Joe Njagu, however, their focus was on an unexpected project: a romantic feel-good movie. Produced under the most difficult of conditions, Cook Off reflects the strength and defiance of the Zimbabwean people – and their hope and optimism for the future.

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A year ago, as history closed in on Robert Mugabe’s 37-year-long rule, an unlikely romantic comedy called Cook Off was being produced in exceptional circumstances in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. This feel-good movie, which tells the story of a single mother who enters a reality cooking show, was completed with less than US$8,000 – surviving relentless cash, power and water shortages, riots, police harassment, and the devastating consequences of a countrywide economic crisis.

Cook Off, which will have its continental premiere at Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) on Saturday 21st July, was the first feature to be released in Zimbabwe in the immediate aftermath of Mugabe’s ouster. Featuring rising Zimbabwean star Tendaiishe ‘Tendai’ Chitima, hiphop artist Tehn Diamond and the much-beloved Jessesi Mungoshi as the grandmother, the film was first screened in December 2017 at a homemade cinema on a Harare rooftop.

Soon after, it was selected for the prestigious Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR), the first time a Zimbabwean film was screened at Rotterdam in 22 years.

Cook Off follows the journey of Anesu, a down-on-her-luck single mother from Harare’s Budiriro township who becomes a national sensation after she qualifies for Zimbabwe’s top reality TV cooking show, but then finds herself out of her depth battling against professional chefs.

Working with the set of Zimbabwe’s real-life ‘Battle of the Chefs’ television show, and reflective of the passion and commitment of the film’s cast and crew, Cook Off’s production values vastly outweigh its modest budget. The film had the honour of being the first Zimbabwean feature film ever to be selected for Seattle International Film Festival, and placed 38th out of 187 films in the Audience Awards at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2018.

“As the economy collapsed in Zimbabwe, local filmmakers got hooked on donor funds and made pieces about “issues”, but without their heart in story. We wanted to change all that and return to universal stories with commercial appeal that could restart the Zimbabwean film industry,” said Tomas Lutuli Brickhill, writer and director of Cook Off, and a third-generation Zimbabwean.

Tomas is the director of the real-life Battle of the Chefs television show that provided the inspiration for the film. He appears on-screen in the movie in a small cameo role, and also wrote and performed some of the soundtrack with his mbira punk band, Chikwata.263, which features alongside other leading Zimbabwean acts. Cook Off is his debut feature film.

“Cook Off has given birth to a new era in Zimbabwean filmmaking,” added producer Joe Njagu. “Cook Off moved away from the individualistic approach that local filmmakers usually follow and showed that if we collaborate and put our heads together on a project, two is definitely better than one. It’s the direction that the Zimbabwean film industry needs to take.”

Joe Njagu is a leading figure in the ‘new wave’ of Zimbabwean cinema. Usually a director in his own right – credits include The Gentleman, Tete B and the popular 2010 film Lobola – Joe stepped into the producer role for Cook Off to help support the creative process.

Cook Off will have three screenings in Durban, the first time it will be seen in a cinema setting on the African continent. All the screenings in Zimbabwe have thus far been in makeshift locations in bars, theatres, and on the hotel rooftop as the filmmakers were unable to afford to hire out a local cinema in Harare.

Cook Off’s African premiere will be at 12pm on Saturday July 21st at the Ster-Kinekor at Durban’s Musgrave Center, just a week before Zimbabwe’s momentous elections – the first in 38 years without Robert Mugabe on the ballot. Cook Off will also be screening at the Gateway Ster-Kinekor in Umlhanga at 8pm on Friday 27th July and at the Cinecentre, Suncoast Casino at 12pm on Sunday 29th July.

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