Shortsighted – Jonah

A series of reviews on short films that are available online.

Jonah (Kibwe Tavares, 2013)
By Hadiyya Mwapachu

The short film “Jonah” by Kibwe Tavares transplants the biblical story of Jonah in Zanzibar. Jonah was a great hit at Sundance where it premiered in competition this year. The film integrates magic realism and 3D animation to capture the environment with startling beauty along with scathing social critique. The story follows two young men, Bwana and his friend who spend their days reliving the same routine where they aim to acquire “tourist dollars” through various schemes. Although the beach is littered with numerous tourists, Bwana asserts “the tourists we have are not enough, we need to something wild here”. They trade examples of monuments they could recreate “Buckingham Palace, Taj Mahal”.

After a giant fish is captured on camera, they put their grand schemes into practice as Zanzibar is turned into a hypereal tourist spectacle where people travel to see the giant fish and Bwana becomes known as “the fish man”. The 3D animation illustrates the transition of Zanzibar from a town filled with classic architecture to one accosted with billboards and colorful marquees. In one sequence, the city resembles a futurist landscape similar to the decadence of Las Vegas.

The film’s strength is its ability to encourage the viewer to reflect on the implications of mass tourism and the economic instability that drives it. One billboard is labeled “the sea stock exchange”, over a short period of time, the fish becomes the largest island commodity but we do not see this improve the social circumstances of the people on the island. It is evident that a privileged few benefit from economic mobility. The film asks us to contemplate its themes through witnessing the changes in the landscape that are made with alarming speed.

As a film viewer who is Tanzanian, I was excited to see a film that delivers a dynamic take on Zanzibar beyond the various texts that mediate on the Island’s beauty. The island is often structured as an ancient place due to its architecture, notably the Stone Town area. However it is a site that has seen an influx of tourism for many years, which has led to tensions surrounding the social impact of this presence. Although the director and writer Jack Thorne are not Tanzanian, they address these tensions with a degree of nuance. I was distracted by the inaccuracy of the accents that the two young leads spoke in, however they deliver strong performances. The cast member who we meet in the final part of the film embodies the character with a haunting efficiency that speaks to the notions of time and regret.