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of the trash heap
Gordon Glyn-Jones, Art South Africa
Extracted from Vol: 02, Issue 04, Winter 2004
The stars of
Zimbabwe’s first animated children's feature film are constructed
entirely from bits of garbage. Gordon Glyn-Jones uncovers an African
legend in the making.
To tell the
world a positive story regarding creative endeavours in Zimbabwe
is challenging right now. The expectations of impending tragedy
and starvation are just too compelling; we strain to hear the screams
of torture rather than the scrape of the palette knife. Nonetheless,
undaunted as usual, Zimbabweans follow Sisyphus, their ruling mythological
muse. While in Harare recently I came across just such an example
of obstinate stone rolling.
Last year a
young team of maverick filmmakers completed Zimbabwe’s first ever,
full-length, animated children's feature. It’s called The Legend
of the Sky Kingdom and stars nothing but conglomerates of discarded
junk. In a joint effort between street artists, dedicated filmmakers
and the director Roger Hawkins, the characters, sets and props were
fashioned utilising the African tradition of trash heap art -- hence
the term "junkmation."
Menali Da Silva and her team of street artists, Weston Muronzi and
Edson Manjekeye, set about creating the entire cast as well as the
sets from society’s throwaways. THey created their children’s characters,
Lucky, Italiano, Badza and Blockhead, from bottletops, lunch boxes,
crocodile clips and spoons. The leading man has an egg whisk for
a hand and a coffee mug for a head. Hyenas’ bodies are made from
scrubbing brushes, vultures fly on old sacks and Scaramouch the
Scary Baboon is nothing but squash balls, tennis balls and footballs.
be an outdoor filmmaker’s paradise. It boasts temperate weather
most of the year, a host of talented local actors and dazzling natural
settings. Ironic then, that the only film to be produced in Zimbabwe
within the last three years was shot indoors and constructed from
"Most of the
movies done here over the last 20 years have been development type
films, ie films funded by the international donor community," asserts
Hawkins. "Films such as Neria, Yellow Card, Everyone’s Child,
have tended to be movies with a message. We set out to do something
uniquely African, speaking from Africa, rather than at it."
was totally independent and privately funded by producer Phil
Cunningham who generates his income from selling prepackaged eggs
and chickens. But this is no ordinary chicken man. Before moving
into film, Cunningham wrote the original children’s story of Sky
KIngdom , and has in the past published books on Alexandrian
history. Journalists will no doubt scoff at the handy reference
to Chicken Run, but when you compare the budgets, its definitely
a worthwhile angle. Chicken Run cost its producers around
US$ 42-million, whereas Sky Kingdom’s price tag was closer
to US$ 400 000.
starting out with a B.Sc. in Agriculture, had a string of teaching,
musical and advertising jobs before Sky Kingdom. He learned most
about film from working on a BBC documentary about AIDS education,
shot in Zimbabwe.
"I did a Charlize
Theron;" says Hawkins. "I convinced Phil to do the movie while we
were chatting in a bank queue. It was a case of once in, forever
indentured, and intense project which took three years of painstaking
accuracy and logistical ingenuity."
difficulties overcome were not quite on the level of Werner Hertzog’s
jungle operatics, but incredible nonetheless.
is no film lab in Zimbabwe, I had to shoot the whole thing on digital
and then race down to South Africa to have it transferred to celluloid,"
says Hawkins. Due to budget constraints, and entire camera motion
control unit had to be created on site, using parts of an electric
gate, tape measures, bicycle chains and lengths of 6mm bar. The
country suffered power cuts regularly, so the team set up a generator,
only to be foiled for days at a time by fuel shortages.
There were in
Excess of 12 scene changes, each one a conglomerate work of art,
with names such as the Valley of Complacency, the Baobab Plains,
and the Monkey Forest, which took 600 metres of different types
of rope, 220 floor mops and 50 bottle brushes, all painted in vivid
By now it’s
clear the story of its conception is admirable, but is the film
any good? At the time of this interview, only short pieces were
available for viewing, because of an edit to tighten up the plot
line, but by all accounts it has surpassed expectations.
problems we faced were characters with little facial expression.
We had to give them a soul and tie them into a tight screenplay.
The animator Brent Dawes did a great job on the first count, but
the second edit was needed to perfect the overall structure," says
Dawes has achieved
an uncanny grace of movement and warm idiosyncratic temperaments
for each of the characters, despite the limitations of the raw material.
It has a similar sliclaustrophobic feel to the cult stop-animated
feature The Adventures of Tom Thumb. The textural integrity
and colour values of the movie feel totally unique. Attention to
detail is maintained throughout and all effects were done on camera,
including a very ambitious underwater scene.
The Legend of the Sky Kingdom has collected fifth prize at
the prestigious SICAF world animation festival in Seoul. It’s also
caught the attention of the Tsar of Southern African film, Anant
Singh, producer of over 20 international releases, including Cry
the Beloved Country. He’s currently negotiating worldwide release.
The plot of
the movie is thematically akin to the current Nemo/Shrek type adventure
epics: the central characters face deception, fear, desolation,
and through sheer grit, humour and bravery reach their destination.
Italiano, Badza and Blockhead escape from a subterranean Underground
City, and set out on their epic journey in search of the title’s
Sky Kingdom and the mythical Prince Ariel. The premise is simply
"be steadfast in your intentions and you can achieve your goals",
something young Zimbabweans need oft repeated at this time in their
history. The filmmakers’ story itself is a panegyric to the creative
potential of the country, just as it serves as a quiet prayer to
those in power for the space to let it flourish.
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