Love and life on the flipside of Dar es Salaam

It is nice to see two female leads in an African film that are not doing hair, casting some sort of ju-ju curse or throwing vases at cheating husbands.

Still from T-Junction.

The Tanzanian film collective Kijiweni Productions, with filmmaker Amil Shivji at the helm, wants to “create a platform for all kinds of stories that do justice to a culture of resistance and resilience. To tell our tales from the continent; those that are either unheard of, only whispered about and/or are told from a ‘single story’.” To that end they released their first feature-length film, T-Junction, in 2017.

The film collective was already making a name for itself in African cinema with the short-films Samaki Mchangani (Fish of the Land, 2014) and Shoeshine (2013). The latter especially brought home a shelf of international awards, including the African Film Development Foundation award for best short film in 2014. Shoeshine follows shoeshine-boy Tambwe, played by Godfrey Augustino. Tambwe sits on the pavement in downtown Dar and shines shoes for people from all walks of life: the loafers of idealistic students, the dusty work-shoes of Indian Chai Wallahs, the hoity-toity cowboy boots of fat politicians with promises bigger than their feet. The film sometimes crosses the line into surrealism as Tambwe dreams of a brighter tomorrow for everyone, with or without shoes.

T-Junction was awarded the European African Film Festival Award at the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Like Shoeshine, T-junction has a distinct local flavor. It tastes like sea salt, dripping mangoes, grilled corn on a cob with chili and sugarcane juice. However, compared to ShoeshineT-Junction is a much bigger production. It stays within the bounds of what is real, has two female leads, and arguably has a less clearly pronounced political message.

We meet Fatima Hriji (played by Hawa Ally) who has recently lost her father. Her mother, her father’s former housemaid, is grieving, but Fatima is having trouble letting her feelings show. She appears to be wrestling with the memory of her father and to forgive him for his less savory personality traits.

The story begins in an immobile line at the hospital. Fatima is there to see Dr. Belinda and collect her father’s death certificate. While in line she meets Maria (brilliantly portrayed by Magdalena Christopher) who is her stark opposite. Fatima is restrained, composed and dutiful, whereas Maria is rebellious, fun, outgoing, flamboyant and perhaps just a little bit mad. While they wait Maria begins to tell her story. She tells Fatima how she ended up in the hospital and about the people and story of her “home” — the T-Junction. She describes Chine (David Msia), the gorgeous newspaper vendor whom everyone makes fun of because his English is trash, about the mango-vendor who each day ends up eating all his mangoes himself, and about Issa, the mysterious man of the mosque with a murky past. Maria transports Fatima away from her own grief and rather drab existence as she paints a vivid picture of a space full of pulsating life and color, but also uncertainty and danger. Through their friendship they both grow and explore their own unique traumas.

One of the features I appreciated the most about T-Junction is its brilliant structure, which is both traditional and modern at the same time. The story-telling format and a side-by-side story-line is both in synch with the founding ideals of Kijiweni and echoes the oral story-telling tradition not exclusive to Tanzania.

At the same time the subject matter is definitely part of the modern reality; the plight of the marginalized in a growing capitalist urban setting, finding themselves on the outside, rejected by a city that is supposed to protect them. Maria and her friends in the T-Junction are continually harassed by the “city” — city police who are “cleaning up the streets.” The city police go for raids, destroy their stalls, brutally beat the vendors with batons, which in the end has fatal consequences. During a funeral Maria’s utters the heartbreaking words: “We will always be under people’s feet. Alive… or dead. That is just how things are.”

Mistreatment of the urban marginalized is not restricted to Dar es Salaam. As African cities expand there are increasing numbers of floating, fortune-seeking youth who, in a way are “not really there.” They often end up working in informal sectors, on street corners and T-Junctions, weaving in and out of the law, with little security or predictability in their lives and overlooked or harassed by the powers that be.

T-Junction places the searchlight on this invisible ecosystem and brings us the view of the difficult state of affairs from the street-corners up. Instead of problematizing, T-Junction shows us the human side of the statistics. The focus on human relationships, Maria’s flamboyant character and the aesthetics of the film set a warm and intimate tone. Despite the precarious position of most of its characters it is full of affection, humor, passion, comradery and love. In short, T-Junction shows us the human life that quite literally falls by the wayside.

I am oddly reminded of Dubliners by James Joyce, where the point is not so much the story-lines in and of themselves as it is creating a portrait of life in a time and a place. As far as I am aware this is a pretty unusual format in African cinema. It is a fresh outlook and accentuates the emphasis on the human-aspect of life in marginalized spaces.

The film is doubtlessly gender-aware. One refreshing choice in T-Junction is the focus on gender and power, not only through the presence of women but also through the absence of abusive men. We never see these men and their destructive ways. Rather we are encouraged look at the aftermath of their destruction and how it affects domestic life and the women in their lives.

It is too easy to sit comfortably reviewing this type of movie to start talking about the film “making a statement.” The film has two strong female characters. Is this a statement? Is making an African film with two female leads even a statement anymore? Does the #MeToo campaign extend to African cinema? Or are the issues there realer, so that we must start a separate Swahili-coast twitter campaign — hashtag EvenMe2? What I do know is that it is nice to see two female leads in an African film that are not doing hair, casting some sort of ju-ju curse or throwing vases at cheating husbands.

T-Junction is much more than worth a watch; it should be mandatory viewing for anyone interested in Tanzania, East Africa, Africa or just human relations. It is a beautifully told story, marrying tradition with modern day subject matter. It has bags of local flavor, it is funny, warm and strangely uplifting. It trains the camera on people often forgotten, who fall into the background in the urban African landscape — the scenery one might pass by while in a Land Rover on the way to an air conditioned shopping mall cinema to indulge in Wakanda.

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