The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
WHEN director Daniel Lasker approached Tawanda “T1nda” Denga with the idea of casting him as the main protagonist in The Signal, two things in particular excited the musician cum actor.
Firstly, Denga was thrilled by the prospect of making a science fiction (sci-fi) movie, the first of its kind in Zimbabwe.
While there have been many ambitious Zimbabwean big screen productions, none have gone the sci-fi route, a genre that can be as demanding on filmmakers as it can be on audiences.
Secondly, Lasker told Denga that the movie would be done completely in isiNdebele. For Denga this was a chance to once again show his versatility.
A sci-fi movie, shot in Bulawayo, done entirely in Ndebele, was a groundbreaking concept, one that was just too enticing for Denga.
This was a chance to be a part of history.
“Being part of this production for me was very significant,” he told Sunday Life in an interview.
“Daniel approached me to play the role of the protagonist and I was excited about that.
Then he hit me with a twist when he said we were going to do the entire movie in isiNdebele.
That for me was even more exciting because it then got me out of my comfort zone and any actor will tell you that is what we want.
I was being put out of my comfort zone because I was being asked not to speak English, as someone who is not particularly proficient in any vernacular language.
I really felt challenged but being a Bulawayo boy, I wanted to make the best out of it.”
According to Denga, the fact that Zimbabwe has, in its entire cinematic history, been known more for churning out dramas had made the prospect of making a sci-fi movie even more enticing.
After all, if aliens can invade and cause havoc in New York, who is to say that they cannot do the same in Bulawayo?
“We can’t just be doing dramas.
There’s a place for dramas but if we are going to get into the international market, we need to be more creative and stepping out of the box while still telling stories from our point of view.
In that way we then have leverage because what the world is missing is our own unique stories.
We are always seeing aliens invading Europe or America.
So, are we saying aliens don’t like Africans? So, we will be doing it from our point of view,” he said.
Sci-fi movies are usually big-budget affairs that are known to demand a lot from everyone involved.
However, while Lasker has featured in high profile international projects like HBO Max’s Raised by Wolves, BBC One’s Noughts and Crosses, History Channel’s – Lincoln, The Telling Room and SYFY Networks – Vagrant Queen, the reality was that if the former Petra High School boy wanted to make such an ambitious project in his home town, finances, the perennial enemy of any Bulawayo creative, would be an obvious obstacle.
In addition, the film was shot during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, with containment measures making filmmaking a tricky endeavor.
According to Denga, when people finally watch the movie, whose trailer premiered on Friday, they should do so with an understanding that the quality cinema being dished out was made in spite of financial constraints.
“There was no big budget so people should not think that what they saw on screen was based on this amazingly huge budget.
There were limited resources and that’s always been the case in the arts, especially here in Bulawayo.
We will talk about lack of funding to actually push these things.
I think now is time for corporates to start engaging the arts, to engage people like Dumisani Manyathela and Daniel Lasker that have proven that they are capable of producing high quality content.
We were shooting during a time when curfew was 10pm and at times we needed to shoot up until midnight.
So that was a challenge on its own.
“The making of the movie was hectic.
The work ethic that Daniel brought to this was just mind-blowing.
We shot for a period of about two weeks and in those two weeks there was no sleep.
People were working flat-out, from the crew, to the actors.
We were working for 12 hours per day.
I learnt then that the film industry is not easy.
You realise that most people think that, while most people think that acting is just action and cut, there is a lot that goes into it.
The making of the movie showed me how we can be more creative with our surroundings,” he said.
Denga said when all was said and done, he left with the feeling that Zimbabwean cinema had the ability to compete with the best around the globe.
“So, in terms of the industry in Bulawayo, I think now is the time for us to start congregating and coming up with a formal structure that helps the producers, directors and even the actors.
We are saying we want to harness and create productions that can compete with anything that’s out there.
So, I think having something of this nature, because we have never had a sci-fi movie, it just means that people have to be more creative now.
“To be honest, I can say that the process of this movie was amazing for me.
It was life-changing for me.
It gave me a perspective of how film in Zimbabwe can grow and compete with world standards.
I’m not speaking about just competing with South Africa or Nigeria, I am talking about competing with the best globally and I’m basing on the way that Daniel was directing us, and from what I saw the crew doing.
Working with amazing talent, like Natasha Dlamini, who has been in the game for a long time, and Dumisani Manyathela, who is an amazing actor in his own right, showed me our capabilities.
I think for me, it was a good experience because it exposed me to A-listers in the movie and film business,” he said.
The brains behind the movie, Lasker, told Sunday Life that he wanted to bring to light, that African storytelling was more diverse than people gave it credit for.
“I wanted to create this sci-fi movie because Zimbabwe hasn’t had anything like it before.
I wanted to broaden the variety of the types of stories and movies which come out of Zimbabwe. It’s showing people a different side of African storytelling, more particularly, Zimbabwean,” he said.
Lasker said that, despite the demands of making a sci-fi movie, they had managed to pull it off through sheer hard work.
“There were challenges we faced making this film, which goes for making any movie, especially when it’s in the genre of sci-fi because it’s more difficult genre to do.
It can also be more costly because of special effects and other things.
We didn’t have a big budget to work with, so we had to put a lot of hard work and dedication to ensure that this project could be at a standard way higher than anything that has come out of Zimbabwe before.
We were able to pull that off without a big budget because every member of our team was so committed and so hard working.
They are also very talented and went above and beyond to deliver the best,” he said.
The idea of making the first sci-fi movie in Zimbabwe, using isiNdebele, had put a great burden of responsibility on their shoulders, but instead of shrinking due to the pressure, it had spurred them on.
“Especially with being the first sci-fi film to come out of Zimbabwe and the characters speaking in Ndebele, its literally the first Ndebele sci-fi movie.
We certainly felt a responsibility to do it justice and make sure that it’s something that every Zimbabwean, every African and every fan of sci-fi movies around the world, can relate to and enjoy and hopefully watch more than once,” he said.