Reel Reviews | Vuta N’Kuvute (Tug of War) (TIFF ’21)

by Christopher Vourlias | Variety

For the first time in its 46-year history, a Tanzanian film is part of the official selection of the Toronto Film Festival, as Amil Shivji’s “Vuta N’Kuvute” (Tug of War) prepares to bow at the Canadian fest on Sept. 13.

Set in colonial-era Zanzibar, “Tug of War” is the story of a young freedom fighter and a runaway bride whose romance blossoms against the backdrop of a political uprising in the final years of British colonial rule.

The film is produced by Steven Markovitz (Big World Cinema) and Shivji, who co-wrote with South African director Jenna Bass, who also debuts her latest feature, “Mlungu Wam” (Good Madam), in Toronto’s Platform section.

Based on the Swahili novel by Shafi Adam Shafi, “Tug of War” is a story that captivated the director when he first laid his hands on it. “I picked it up and couldn’t put it down,” Shivji tells Variety. “I realized that this book was so cinematic. It was like I was watching a film through Shafi’s writing.”

The movie centers on Denge (Gudrun Columbus Mwanyika), a young revolutionary agitating for Zanzibari independence, and Yasmin (Ikhlas Gafur Vora), an Indian-Zanzibari woman who flees an arranged marriage in search of her own freedom. Forbidden love stirs between the two, even as the resistance struggle by Denge and his comrades intensifies and a growing crackdown by colonial authorities puts all their lives in jeopardy.

Shivji says “Tug of War” is the first-period drama in the history of the nascent Tanzanian film industry. It explores a little-known chapter in the archipelago evocatively referred to as the “Spice Islands,” whose white-sand beaches and UNESCO World Heritage Stone Town — among the top tourist attractions on the continent — paint an image of an island idyll frozen in time.

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