Tug of War is a remarkable directorial return by Amil Shivji and the first Tanzanian feature to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Based on the award-winning Swahili book by Shafi Adam Shafi, Tug of War follows a communist revolutionary, Denge (Gudrun Columbus Mwanyika), and a woman escaping a forced marriage, Yasmin (Ikhlas Gafur Vora), in 1950’s Zanzibar. With stunning cinematography and a beautiful soundtrack, we watch a romance unfold between our young protagonists during a time of political unrest. Through their eyes, we get to see the beauty of Zanzibar and the complicated landscape of existence after a long history of colonization and oppression.
The film opens with a dramatic, slow-motion scene that left me with goosebumps. Yasmin is being escorted to her wedding ceremony, a red silhouette among a pool of black veils. She passes an alley where Denge is standing look-out for his friend, who was vandalizing the side of the building with a red poster. He takes a drag of his cigarette and his eyes fall on Yasmin. His gaze lingers while she can only steal a glance. We see the story begin to unravel in Denge’s eyes just before he turns to run away with his friend at the sound of an officer’s whistle.
Much of the movie plays out quietly with profound emotions captured by eye contact and most communication occurring through touch or actions. The progression of the plot is reliant on body language and subtle glances between the characters. In several scenes, we see both Yasmin and Denge struggle with their words, opting for silence and hoping what they don’t say out loud is enough. Their relationship parallels the political conflict at the forefront of the film; Yasmin and Denge fall for and test each other with loyalty and freedom simultaneously pushing them together and pulling them apart. In their own distinct ways, both characters were fighting to regain control in their lives, a tug of war. With both characters in precarious situations, their romance is a rocky one, characterized by continuous uncertainty and their silent means of communication.
This technique was effective in pulling us into their romance just as they had been swept away by each other. When Denge spoke, he was reckless while Yasmin was calculated and cautious. Their silence and decisions to speak reflected their characters and their actions. The effect allowed us to understand the characters and their relationship on a surface level. When the characters spoke in pivotal scenes, the break from silence was enthralling. It emphasized the significance of what was being said, particularly for colonial-era Zanzibar and the topic of freedom.
However, there were many scenes where this wasn’t enough and the silence was lulling. It became a barrier that kept us from connecting to the characters, preventing the film from moving the audience on a deeper level and building Yasmin and Denge’s characters beyond their romance. This is the main difficulty of book-to-movie adaptations and unfortunately, Shivji was not able to overcome it.
While Yasmin and Denge’s romance did not resonate as strongly as it could have, the backdrop of resistance and question of existence did. Denge’s passion and need for change, an upper hand against their oppressors, bring him to change his approach. When he disrupts a party for the rich, he makes a strong statement against the government, pulling back harder on the rope held in the hands of the people and the British. This is the tug of war, the attempt to turn the tides and give the power back to the people.
His actions grant him a meeting with Zanzibar’s communist party. The dialogue of this scene is particularly captivating as the party leader dissects his actions and thought process. Denge is left undone and with new questions to answer regarding freedom, his understanding of Zanzibar’s history, and his own place in it. This moment brings to light a familiar question that scholars have frequently been asking—a burning question for Indigenous people around the world: who were we before colonization, and what are we trying to get back?
The second half of the movie is a masterpiece of its own. Lead actors Gudrun Columbus Mwanyika and Ikhlas Gafur Vora put on captivating performances, pushing the audience to persevere through the slow and silent parts to witness their characters survive the devastating conflict that pulls them apart later on. Zenn van Zyl’s stunning work with the film’s cinematography and the gorgeous score by Amélie Legrand and Amine Bouhafa are perfectly complementary. The music does an excellent job of filling the silence on behalf of the characters throughout the film, working against the backdrop of bewitching sceneries.
Moreover, Amil Shivji accurately and beautifully captures life in 1950’s Zanzibar, encompassing the social and political tensions between classes, races, and the uncertainty of time through the tale of a forbidden romance. He sensitively portrays the cultures and resilience of the Zanzibarian working class as a manner of telling the country’s history from the perspective of the people.
Amil Shivji’s adaptation of the Shafi Adam Shafi’s novel transcends many boundaries as the first Tanzanian period drama, the first Tanzanian film to feature at the TIFF, and as one of the few anti-colonial coming-of-age films. Despite the limitations in character-building, Tug of War is a magnificent and thought-provoking film. Incredible performances by Mwanyika and Vora alongside masterful cinematography and a gripping score make Tug of War an essential watch.