Cook Off: Zim film defies all odds to reach Netflix

“Seeing myself on Netflix, I have to punch myself every day. Like, is that really me?” asked actress Tendaiishe Chitima, star of the first Zimbabwean feature film acquired by the streaming pioneer.

Cook Off premiered on Monday.

Cook Off was shot in 2017, just months before the fall of Zimbabwe’s despotic ex-president Robert Mugabe, whose iron-fisted rule brought the economy to its knees.

The romantic comedy had a meagre starting budget of just US$8 000.“It was not like a luxury shoot where you have your own trailer and you are big on wine,” 29-year-old Chitima said, sparkly eyed as she recalled the experience from her parents’ house in Johannesburg, South Africa. “Everything was very minimalistic. We had to get things right the first time or the second time.”

Cook Off is a romance about a struggling single mother who finds love during a cooking competition.For the Zimbabwean débutante, making it onto Netflix was a “miracle” given the filming conditions.

Most of Cook Off was shot on the set of Zimbabwe’s version of Top Chef, which airs on public broadcaster ZBC.
“We used the costumes, the set, the cooking pots of Battle of the Chefs,” confessed director Tomas Brickhill, referring to a programme now no longer airing. “Without that there would not have been any movie.”

Chitima admitted that none of the cast or crew had yet been paid for their work.Their budget barely covered food for the crew while on set.
“At the time, there was restriction on (cash) withdrawals,” Brickhill recalled.

“Every day we had to source cash,” he said in an interview with AFP, adding that hard to get hold of notes were selling for more than their value on the black market.

The daily limit was US$20 — not even enough for bottled water in a country crippled by hyper-inflation.
“Other people think we are completely crazy,” he chuckled. “But we have been dealing with it for so long, that is normal for us.”
With no running water on set and little cash to spare, the Cook Off crew resorted to drinking boiled water from a garden tap.
The first days of shooting were also constantly disrupted by power cuts — a regular occurrence — forcing the team to stretch their paltry budget and hire a generator.

One day, one of the actresses found herself choked up in a cloud of tear gas fired to disperse an anti-government protest.
Zimbabwe often grabs headlines for its economic woes and political crises, but producer Joe Njagu said the film sought to project a different image.
“I wanted the world to know that there is more to Zimbabwe than what they hear. We also fall in love, we also enjoy nice food. We also have very nice stories,” Njagu said.

“Previously, I was acting in a lot of TV shows in which my role as a Zimbabwean was either a maid, a prostitute, or I was being trafficked,” Chitima said, who had previously featured only in shorter productions. “A role in which I could play an empowered character pursing what she wanted was for me a great opportunity.”

She added: “The movie shows the other side of our story. That we are resilient and have dreams.”
Chitima hoped to eventually star in big budget productions.
Meanwhile, the low budget film even won several awards at international film festivals, including in the Netherlands, Durban and United States.
Everything changed two and half months ago, when Netflix, the world’s leading entertainment streaming service with 189 million paid viewers, came knocking on the door.

“It’s a big ‘hello, this is Zimbabwe we are here’. It’s an opportunity for us to introduce our content to the rest of the world. It’s really a big deal for us,” Njagu said. “We can’t fall short anymore. This is the world stage.”
He would not say how much the Netflix deal was worth, but that it was enough to pay the deferred expenses and make a profit.
The cast also includes outstanding Zimbabwean actors and artistes such as Chirikure Chirikure (Judge), Brickhill himself (JJ), Eddie Sandifolo (Nhamo) and Jesese Mungoshi (Gogo). — Mail Online.

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