How ‘Comic Relief’ is fighting malaria with film in Ghana and Tanzania

For Amil Shivji, it started with a one-page pitch.

Comic Relief, the United Kingdom based charity organisation founded by comedian Lenny Henry and scriptwriter, Richard Curtis had sent a public call out for film projects dealing with malaria. The call out was part of the ‘Fighting Malaria… On Screen’ initiative, a project aimed at empowering local filmmakers in Ghana and Tanzania to advocate for malaria prevention, control and even eradication in entertaining and creative ways.

The film project is part of the larger Fighting malaria, Improving Health program, a five-year partnership between Comic Relief and global healthcare company, GSK. The Partnership works at strategically providing grants to organisations tackling malaria and improving health in targeted countries in the global south. The countries include Cambodia, Ghana, Laos, Mozambique, Myanmar, Tanzania and Sierra Leone.

Shivji, an accomplished Tanzanian filmmaker who also lectures in filmmaking at the University of Dar es Salaam certainly had his reservations about advocacy films made by well-intentioned non-profits. With any other organisation, he might have passed on the opportunity. The use of melodrama to elicit some emotional response from audiences has long been a talking point highlighted by critics of films commissioned by non-profits.

But Shivji, a big fan of Comic Relief’s work and their track record of working with filmmakers on the continent was intrigued. In 2019 for instance, Comic Relief funded Sema Stori, a Docubox implemented pilot program focused on supporting filmmakers in countries of interest in the East African region to make documentary shorts with social impact as the primary objective.

One of the films, Footsteps in the Dark scored its European premiere at the Film Africa festival in London. Shivji recalls, “The call out from Comic Relief stated specifically that they did not want an NGO-styled film.”  He adds, “I sent my pitch and was very forward about how I wanted to address the story.”

The nationwide lockdown, part of Tanzania’s response to the covid pandemic however, called for a change in plans. Shivji had to shift from live action to animation when it he could not shoot on location. However, he maintained the core of his original idea. The result is Mozizi, a 15-minute witty mockumentary-styled short about an anti-hero who is half mosquito and half human being.

Through the playful voice of the titular character, Shivji reiterates that malaria is not so casual as it still kills millions yearly. He reflects, “I was interested in addressing the disease or the problem in a way that the Tanzanian audience can decide for themselves how they want to respond to it.”

This agency was also important to Gwamaka Mwabuka. His film, Mbuland, a beautifully animated drama about a 10-year-old boy with supernatural powers who unites his village in a bid to thwart the plans of villainous mosquitoes is the second Tanzanian project.

Using colors, movement and song, Mbuland reiterates the public health messaging regarding malaria but in a fun, digestible way that kids will surely be singing along to. He says, “My objective was to find a way to tell a three-dimensional story. For me it had to be funny, informative with an attention-grabbing aesthetic.”

Samir Patel, CEO at Comic Relief notes, “We are thrilled to be launching these outstanding animations that really convey malaria education in fresh new ways. By working with film makers close to local communities, forms of popular culture like animation can be expertly used to re-engage and inspire local audiences into positive action. These animations are both entertaining and enjoyable whilst delivering memorable prevention messaging that could save lives.”

Government and non-profits may play their part with crucial investments in public health infrastructure, but it is extremely important that affected communities buy into malaria messaging and take it upon themselves to adopt behavioral changes that can make all the difference.

Mbuland advocates for community ownership and participation through prevention and control measures. Mwabuka adds, “Mbuland is a story about stirring the pot of behavior change especially in adhering to safe health guidelines. We have taken our time to fuse a message in the dialogue and the lyrics for our audience to understand that we all must do our part.”

Mbuland and Mozizi both screened to thousands of people at the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) where satellite screenings in local communities of Nungwi village, Jambiani and Stonetown were organized.

The films were a hit.

Mozizi won the festival’s competitive Sembène Ousmane Award. “Mbuland and Mozizi are taking over Zanzibar!” gushed professor Martin Mhando the festival director. “The films appear to capture the hearts and minds of young people. I wonder how many children will be nicknamed after Mozizi after this season amongst children in Zanzibar.” He adds.

For Nadia Denton, the British film consultant who served as social impact producer for the project, the reception of the films in Zanzibar has been rewarding even as she looks forward to a wider online release. She tells me, “The filmmakers have presented stories and themes that have a strong resonance with the local communities they are from. The fact that whilst producing entertaining short advocacy films they have also made content which easily translates to both indigenous and international audiences is quite unique.”

Comfort Arthur’s The Underestimated Villain rounds out the project. Arthur, a British born Ghanaian filmmaker is one of the most acclaimed animators on the continent and her films have screened in festivals across the world. The Underestimated Villain is Arthur’s first foray into the world of commissioned film as advocacy.

Working with Ghanaian poet, Poetra Asantewa, Arthur’s film reimagines the Anopheles mosquito as a glamorous villain who flaunts the seeming inability of humans to stop her from spreading disease and death. “We all know about malaria, how its spread, how to prevent it, how to treat it yet it remains deadly. This is what gives this villain her power and makes her feel unstoppable.” Arthur explains.

The challenge with malaria programming on the continent of course is that decades of investment have done a pretty good job of putting the information out there. Even though malaria remains a public health menace, it is hardly because of a lack of information.

For Arthur, understanding this was key to telling an engaging story that provides context for these realities. She explains, “There is no point making another didactic malaria project for me, that is why in the film you see the Anopheles on television and in billboards and she is mocking her audience. All the information is out there. We just need to figure out how to apply what we know already.”

Arthur is confident that because of the animation format and local context embedded in all the films, the projects will be influential in how people respond to malaria prevention and control. She has the last word, “I am hoping that with these films, people will realize we need to sit up and make active change in terms of how we protect ourselves and manage the environment.”

This blog piece is commissioned by the Fighting Malaria, Improving Health Partnership but the views expressed are that of the author.

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