Making 'Makishi'



Taken from "African Chat Room" by Leonard Boucher

My first project for the Zambian Government, I was informed, would be an all dance film dealing with Makishi traditional rituals.

Makishi initiation rites can be seen in Barotse Province although you have to be lucky to get there at the right time and they are now very watered down compared with what they were some years ago. A version of the ritual could be seen in Livingstone (near the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls); it formed part of the tourist attractions there and the dances took place in a reconstructed 'typical African village'. Within two days of my arrival in Lusaka I flew down to Livingstone after being robbed of all my cash and most of my clothing during the early hours of the morning by a thief who broke into the hotel where, temporarily, we resided.

Researches there did not present an encouraging picture. The village had fallen into a sad state of disrepair. the dances bore little resemblance to the authentic performance I had seen in Barotseland. The traditional costumes were ragged and tattered and unsuitable for use in a film and the dancers were uninspired. But my despondency lasted only a short time. In my hotel room I planned the rebuilding of the village, adding to it. The costumes would be repaired or I would find others more presentable. I planned to rehearse the dancers and make the whole film just as makishi might have been seen a hundred or more years ago.

This news brought dismay to the film unit. Several of the members of the Unit were from CAFU (Central African Film Unit). they should have known what to expect from me.

It had been expected that the crew could take a camera and shoot what was found in Livingstone in just a few hours....or less if it was hot. The Producer, like myself an expat, decided to put the makishi project on the 'some-other-time' list.

The production, however, had already taken the interest of the Minister of Culture. he asked me to visit his office. I told him of what I had planned. I also explained we would need 'extras' to dress the set - men, women and children, chickens and goats, traditional stools, pots, pans and numerous other items to make the scene look authentic. The Minister was delighted. He instructed that the Makishi film should proceed.

My associates thought I had gone mad. Did I realize what a tremendous amount of work all I had in mind would entail? And, who in the end, would see the bloody film? Who wanted to spend two or three weeks in Livingstone? And have to work with a load of wild dancers? Problems and difficulties were brought up to endorse that the film would be disastrous - and it would cost a lot of money. The Minister battled through all that and won. Makishi was put on the production list - but with no enthusiasm from the staff of the unit. It was left to me to deal with production as well as writing the script and eventually I also directed.

I went to Livingstone with three cameramen, a sound recordist and a local crew of eight. It took three days to reconstruct the village and dress it correctly. During this time the non-dancing cast were engaged, the chickens and goats hired ( from the well known game ranger, Stuart Campbell) and the costumes patched up - by myself, or replaced by newer dresses from he Livingstone Museum and a local African Craft shop.

I bought yards of Dutch print (traditional - the Dutch brought material to Africa centuries ago) for the women and this was cut to size and costumed into long skirts which fitted just above their breasts. This was not traditional - their breasts should have been seen - but I had to stop somewhere. The men were more of a problem. They refused to shed their shirts and shorts. My idea was that they should wear no more than skins or cloths around their loins.

"But we will look too naked", one of the drummers told me. "It is not good we should not wear clothes". (So much for the missionaries). I explained that it would look more incorrect if, in the film, they appeared looking like men who worked in factories or offices. But the drummers remained adamant.

"Friends will laugh to see us without poor men," another drummer remarked. I asked all our crew to take off their shirts and work a whole day with at least their upper parts unclothes.

"There, you see," I then told our male cast, "White men are not ashamed to be undressed. We are not disgraced". The trick worked. the men went to work wearing no more than a small covering of skins.

The next problem concerned beer.

"Without beer we cannot dance", one of the Makishi performers said. "We need beer to put spirit in our movements". This I knew to be something of a 'leg-pull' but I also knew that after a few pints Africans danced without reserve and most probably they needed extra courage to get through the ordeal of being filmed.

We arranged for two large oil drums filled with native beer to be delivered each morning during the shooting period.

We finished the film in five days with only one serious delay. The dancer playing the role of Nalendele demanded an extra five pounds every time he had to repeat his performance. It is a dangerous 'act'. After climing a high pole he went through various antics and gyrations perched full length across a rope strung to the top of another pole of the same height. Eventually we settled for two pounds ten shillings.

Shortly after the film ended the same man fell from the rope and broke his neck.

The production finished. Again no one in the unit cared what happened to it except myself and the editor, Des Murphy. Des worked hard on the picture and sound. Then we showed the result to the Minister of Culture. "This is Makishi as it should be!, he exclaimed. "Never did I think I would see makishi looking so wonderful!" From then on everyone jumpted on the bandwagon wanting to gain credit and favour. Even a few who had known the film only by name.

Having no authority to designate credits, finally I received just one - my official title of Scriptwriter which I did not want - my original commentary had been chopped about and I did not approve of the changes.

Before further showings, however, there were a few continuity shots required. It seemed pointless to go all the way to Livingstone for just half a dozen shots. Instead we had the necessary costume sent to the Unit and went off to the banks of the Kafue River a distance of only forty miles. The setting matched. There we had to find a local man to rehearse, don the tight fitting, over-all covering, skins and mask and then perform the steps. Several men wanting the cash we offered were not hard to find, but on seeing the costume each candidate retreated. They were convinced the mask held a spirit ( traditionally this is the correct assumption) Throughout most of the day the search continued. We put up our fee, tried to convince the men brought to me that the mask was harmless and began to feel the task was hopeless.

The sun began to set; I wanted to get the shots off to the laboratories on the early morning plant to London. I then realized the solution to our problem was simple. I knew the steps of the dance, completely covered no one would know whom the costume hid. (traditionally the identity of all makishi performers is kept a secret) and we could shoot without further delay.

Thus I became, I think, the first white makishi dancer.  

Thus I became, I think, the first white Makishi dancer. The film was shown at the Venice Film Festival later that year and won an award. Some months later the Administrative Director did invite me into his office to see the award - it stood on his desk, he smiled proudly as if it was all his own. The award did not matter. I knew what work in the film came from my efforts and it was pleasing to have turned out the first African film to receive a European honour. (In actual fact it was the second. My film on experimental education and child play in Ghana "One Potato, Two Potato' had won an award at the Cork film festival two years previously!).

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