Cinema of Commoning 2
Symposium, Screenings, Talks
We are a space shaped by the people who inhabit it

Interview with Jesse Gerard Mpango and Bernard Ntahondi, Ajabu Ajabu

Ajabu Ajabu is a multimedia curatorial collective based in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Through a variety of participatory, open-ended approaches, they explore decentralized and communal forms of presentation, production and preservation of audio visual art forms.

We spoke to Jesse Gerard Mpango and Bernard Ntahondi about the East African cinema landscape, the importance of preserving popular film history and the unexpected advantages of (temporarily) being a “spaceless space.”

Hadithi Hadithi Film Program, Zanzibar International Film Festival 2022

Introduce us to Ajabu Ajabu – how would you describe the type of work that you do as a curatorial collective? What is special about your cinema space? 

Jesse Gerard Mpango: I would describe Ajabu Ajabu as a screen collective. By that I mean that we use screen culture, be it cinema or more experimental video to create conversations, ask questions and bring people together. That was our starting point, born from a few of us using cinema as a way to connect and collaborate. It’s kind of expanded from there. We didn’t really have a roadmap or a plan when we first began, but we have molded it into a space which veers between hosting events, either in our space or within the wider community, or organizing long-term exchanges, research programs and interventions with a curatorial angle. It’s a balancing act between those two. We’ve got a knack for curating cinematic events, whether it’s contemporary stuff, or delving into the past. But where we become more specific, with different strengths, is in the threads that we weave through larger research programs and through overarching ideas underpinning our screenings. 

Bernard Ntahondi: Ajabu Ajabu isn’t just about screenings. We’ve had a great time over the past couple of years getting involved in production and preservation, as well as presentation. 

Jesse: In terms of what makes us special, that’s tricky to map out. But in the context of the Dar Es Salaam community, we’re definitely a space run by creative people, for creative people. We have been working hard to resist falling into more formal ways of working. That’s something we’re still negotiating, but I think it really did help when we had to move and relocate last year. Well, we didn’t really relocate. Our former space that we had been in since 2020 was sold to a developer, leaving us spaceless. So we just sat in that spacelessness for a while, doing events in places that we would scout, and our community followed us. That experience showed us what’s different about us: we are a space shaped by the people who inhabit it, at any given moment. We’re not static. Ajabu Ajabu can morph into various forms and constellations in Tanzania and elsewhere, depending on  the ideas we’re working with, and the people driving them forward.

Where are you located now in the city and in terms of the space itself? Did you have to deal with any fights to get the new space? 

Bernard: Not really, for now we are based in Mikocheni, which is actually a very famous neighborhood. Our space is just next to the president’s residence! So it’s actually right on the beach, making it a very nice place. For the past four years, we were in Msasani, which is actually one of the most well known places in the city, it’s called the Peninsula, and lots of expatriates and other people live around that area. We had to move because our space was sold to a developer. Somehow we managed to get another good space. Again we have a very good community that has always followed us to almost every place we have gone. 

Jesse: We did learn a lot from not having a space for a while and being mobile, because then we’re able to move to different areas of the city and build new bridges and relationships. So I would say we’ve grown from that process. The Peninsula does have many advantages, but it’s not a space where the positioning of culture is the same as a lot of other places in the city. By that I mean that often in culture spaces, there’s an overrepresentation of people coming from the Peninsula, who go anywhere that culture is happening by virtue of access, or class because historically the Peninsula was an upper-class neighborhood. We were constantly negotiating and trying to reach different places from that space and bring people in. And then when we were no longer part of the Peninsula, we had the freedom to be quite flexible and move around. I definitely do not want to glamorize the process, because the logistics of it were not easy. But we now have a place that is also unique and historical, and we’re very fortunate to be working with somebody who owns an old historical building that they’re trying to set up into a cultural space. We have a section of that, and we’re supporting them. So far, we have been able to work well together, but we don’t take those more commercial pressures for granted. People want that space for massage parlors, hotels or beach resorts, even music videos. We have an event next week but I’ll be spending the first day of it, with music video people who want to shoot in our space. It’s a community space, and we are trying to focus on supporting creatives, and preserving spaces like that, preventing them from becoming an exclusive space.

Mama Mishe Film Program, Dar Es Salaam, 2022 

What role in your experience does cinema play in community building and place making? How do you ensure that your cinema feels safe and welcoming to the wider community?

Jesse: In our early years, it was helpful that we didn’t do it because we had funding to do it. Many cultural spaces start off as a funding idea, and even though some of them may endure, the pressure to meet the funders’ expectations can be stifling. Both of us have experience in the cultural sector, and we know the demands funders place on projects and how they want to be able to gauge outcomes, and all the pressure that brings. It was liberating not having that pressure to document everything we do. We actually don’t have many pictures of our past events; there is only a handful of pictures from those 50 or so screenings we hosted.

So when people did begin showing interest in supporting us, we were able to take risks and explore different avenues, knowing we had a community of people with whom we’ve been talking for a long time as a result of our shared interests. I think that’s what it’s about, shared interests and shared resources. For the people who joined the collective, that was the basis. We had a space, internet access, and a pool of shared  resources at our disposal. 

Bernard: We were a place, but then we also provided space for individuals to come in with their programs. We didn’t have formal structures. I remember joining in late 2021. I met with Jesse and I pitched a program inspired by my work at the Center for Architectural Heritage, which is closer to a museum model. History was part of almost everything we were doing, and we had the idea of establishing a program of African films, called Short Century African Films. These are basically films made from the 1950s – 1990s in Africa. This program, which we’ve been screening every Sunday for nearly four years, was a success –we’ve been able to screen over 30 films – until we lost our space.

Jesse: I remember there were also nights when people didn’t show up, but that was an important part of it too. When only few people turned up we didn’t see this as a failure. It was a valuable lesson in shifting away from a focus on audience numbers. Empty chairs in the room might trigger panic, but we just kept doing it. It was fun even when there were only three or four people in the room, we still had great conversations. 

Bernard: We weren’t focusing so much on the audience, instead our idea was just to keep going. Again, I think we learned a lot when we started hosting public screenings in new places, after we lost the space. Most of the audience we have today joined us during this period,  that’s when we started gaining people’s attention.

Jesse: After three years of expanding our practices, we had quite a strong core audience, and we relied on them to be able to move into different places. They introduced us to people who welcomed us into their neighborhoods, taking a chance on the programming we were doing. These two aspects have found a happy medium now in our new space. We’ll see how this will continue to unfold, because we’re still on this journey. We are still open to learning from our experiences of moving through the city. Losing our space wasn’t so unusual, as it is common for anyone who lives in Dar Es Salaam. Unfortunately, people are being moved around the city all the time. So the question for us was,how can we continue to encounter and build connections with the city in a different way? This is still ongoing for us. Even when we have a space, we don’t take it for granted. We have a place to meet, build and tell stories,  and we’ll continue to do that as long as it works for everybody, including ourselves. But it’s possible that our current space may not be permanent.

Manifested Belonging Project, 2021 – Present

You describe your work as being open-ended, participatory, decentralized. How is that reflected in the way you curate the films, choose the films, and collaborate within the collective as a whole? 

Jesse: We have a few central activities and events that everyone can contribute to, and we collectively decide on leading roles. From there, based on the time that we’re spending together, and the ideas that we’re pursuing as individual practitioners, various offshoots emerge.  That’s how we ended up working together. Initially, Ben’s [Bernard’s] event Short Century African Films, started off as his personal interest, but it ended up being the thing that held the programme together. We make sure to have one event per month which we do regardless of attendance, and we democratically decide on our approach, . allowing people to take the lead depending on their strengths.

Bernard: Collaboration is at the core of what we do. We have programs which run every month, like Picha La Leo.  But we don’t have a formal structure, where you have to be here at a certain time to do a certain task. We adapt based on who is available, what tasks are at hand and who is drawn into certain tasks. One day I may be the curator, but then next time you might find me taking on different roles. This kind of fluid structure helps us work in different environments.

Jesse: I’ll also add that we were “spaceless” for a while; we were working out of my home. The physical space is where we are coming up with ideas. We might be sitting across the table, sharing a meal, and this becomes our brainstorming space. The outcomes are collective resources, equally shared among us, without individual ownership. Everybody has their own paths, in terms of how they actualise their practices, but the resource of Ajabu Ajabu and the events we have done, are all equally owned, they don’t have one of our names on it. As a result of the work we’ve done collectively, we’ve been able to travel as individuals and pursue other other opportunities. So, for instance, Ben was in Korea last year, Gertrude was in France, DJ Black was in Indonesia, I was in the Netherlands. It moves in that way, we go out, we come back, we sit down, we come up with an idea, and that idea becomes a seed for different possibilities according to our different practices.

Maangamizi Retrospective, Zanzibar International Film Festival 2021 

How does the work that you do fit into the wider cinema culture of Tanzania and East Africa?

Jesse: This rich cinema culture used to exist here.  I’m not necessarily referring to what was being shown, but more like the ritual of going to watch a film, amongst working people. There were cinemas like The Empress, Odeon, The Majestic in Zanzibar, which is being restored now, and which was huge. They were for regular people, I think that’s the key. This cinema culture had grown in relation to an audience base which was everyday people. So the loss of those spaces was also the loss of that position for cinema in the culture. This project is called Cinema of Commoning, but you know cinema was common culture for a while, and then it kind of faded. Then when the cinemas did start coming back, it was definitely something for upper middle class, a kind of elite thing. The reasons for that are market reasons, the commercialization of cinema. The relative underrepresentation of African independent cinema, meant that a profitable cinematic endeavor would have to cater to people who could speak English, who desired to see the James Bonds and the Iron Mans, who wanted to be part of that conversation.  

The other thing that affected that was television coming in, local television companies which were also being driven by commercial interests, following soap opera models etc. Then after that came Nollywood, and the response from creatives here, which was “Bongo Movies”. So there are very strong distribution networks and proven distribution models, but there’s a huge disconnect between the language of the material that’s been shown, and how people receive it. The role that a soap opera or a telenovela plays in creating conversations in Tanzania, is still absent from any discourse around what that form means. But that was the form that people had access to, so it’s a question of access. There wasn’t an alternative. In the eyes of people here you can’t position a popular TV show against something that’s more avant garde, that has higher aims or ideals, because that thing doesn’t exist. This is what exists. So what was the audience’s relationship with that material? That’s a much more interesting question than asking why people are watching supposedly “lower” mass culture?  

This is I guess sort of an intro to the way in which we approached releasing Maangamizi, which I think is very relevant to your question. Maangamizi  is one of the few films from East Africa that was able to be digitized.  There’s a lot of films that just are lost, or exist as negatives, that are costly to digitize. For example, Fimbo Ya Myonge, Mama Tumaini, Yomba Yomba whose reels are at Nordisk Film, Denmark and would cost around 15,000 Euros to digitize. Going further back, our searches for any remaining trace of 1950s films starring Rashid Kawawa (who would go on to be vice president) such as Mhogo Mchungu & Chalo Amerudi have not yet yielded anything concrete. So that history was not as present as is the case in West Africa. What we’re trying to do is build a link between the film, which has this kind of very relevant storytelling, with perspectives and ideas which are embedded in the culture and the history here,connected to the circulation systems which have been built by mass culture exchange, the exchange of Nollywood movies, Bongo movies and telenovelas through the 1990s. Those networks were built by audiences getting access to something, telling a story about it, and it becoming part of conversation. Then these commercial entities served people’s needs to keep listening to that story, or keep telling that story. There’s a disconnection between that and the festivals which were showing “important films.” But those festivals were completely disconnected to what was circulating on the ground, which is the context that a lot of these films are coming from, and that’s endured. These networks are quite informal, but it became a very profitable film circulation system, across the nation, sharing all of these popular films. Those networks still exist today, and they exist largely through the work of people in what you would call the “informal sector”,  who contain the history of how these stories moved, what stories people care about and how they remember them. It’s not the kind of material that you see winning prizes,, it is the material that people have access to. 

So I guess the question, with the Manifested Belonging project, was what would happen if this “informal” network was able to have access to a film that was more relevant in terms of it was trying to speak to this history in a different way. Maangamizi was widely distributed through pirate networks, and we followed that story with our documentary Apostles of Cinema. One of the key things we learned from that was the ability of these spaces to do things their way, and to come up with really incredible curatorial ideas and frameworks, in the way that they showed films and the way they shared films. And how they addressed the problems that they found, particularly the problem of language which they addressed through the emergence of this dubbing culture that is now fully embedded and really it’s own creative artform.

I think films suffer from the idea that the cinema has to be commercialized on this scale. Especially in the international space, the point of entry to having a profitable distribution project is so high, that it’s only worthwhile if you are talking about a film that costs 1 million or  $500,000, which is a lot to us. So how do you distribute a film which costs $500 to make? That’s not interesting to people who do have the capacity to distribute on a wide network. But it is interesting that there are these small scale networks, where a film that cost $750 to make can find its network, through just this compounding effect of the storytelling and the audiences, that enter these spaces for 50 cents, and then can stay all day. That micro market is, in my opinion, key to having a real conversation about cinema that’s not about what’s happening just in galleries and academic spaces, but is actually coming back to that old mass culture. A lot of cinema culture in lots of places, starts with really popular things, and then people from that base of access begin to test and experiment and widen the scope of that conversation. I think to start from a place that is accommodating only to a very specific frame of reference is very difficult. I think you can bring important films and show them once, but how do they endure? How do people remember them?

That’s the problem with Maangamizi. It was a film that was shown a couple of times in Tanzania, and existed in universities, but you know regular people on the bus or something wouldn’t know what it was. They know what’s being shown at a different level, and they talk about those things in a way that’s really interesting, in terms of how different it is from the way popular culture is read in other places. This kind of long unfolding question is definitely very close to certainly the project we are still following, called Manifested Belonging, and really thinking about how you get films to people and how you talk about films in a way that’s relevant. Not just aping how you’re supposed to talk about films, and films you are supposed to like, and ideas that you’re supposed to care about. We certainly don’t have an answer to that. I don’t think it’s a question of really having an answer. It’s really about creating a space where we are not assuming a kind of supremacy, a patina of independent or alternative cinema. Because once you bring that here, the easiest question is “an alternative to what?” The mainstream doesn’t exist here as it does elsewhere, so what is it being an alternative to? The truth is, anything which is made by African filmmakers, anything which is made by people who have not historically had the resources or the voice to tell their own stories, is alternative. So we are already in an alternative space. There are films that cost nothing, look terrible and have terrible sound which are the most alternative art creations I’ve ever come across, such as this silent sequence from Mji Wa Wachawi by Tony Mkongo, for example. I’m interested in how we can own that and begin from there rather than assume that the whole mainstream alternative dichotomy works for us, because from my experience it really doesn’t.  At least from my perspective, I think the question of distribution goes to the heart of how a filmmaker is able to tell a story and find their place. How do they find the platforms that are relevant to them? How do you not then just create an export culture for African stories? I’m very conscious of the shortcomings of this sort of ambassador industry which can form when people from different African cities, people who often have a lot of privilege, are called upon to represent an entire storytelling history, even when sometimes their films aren’t being shown in their own country. That is an issue we are definitely navigating.

Picha La Leo Film Program, Dar Es Salaam, 2023 

What does Cinema of Commoning mean to you?

Jesse: Cinema of Commoning, for me, is another chance to speak beyond the status quo in terms of distribution, circulation and discourse. The status quo suggests a linear progression, starting from three cinemas to having six to 20 etc. But the reality is that cinemas are struggling everywhere. We will never get to a place where there are multiplexes all over the country, because that model is already dying. What we should be talking about, ignoring the push of the status quo to just build more things, are people who are trying to tell stories, preserve these stories, to produce a language around a medium that we care a lot about and which has done a lot for our own growth as creative people. How do we talk about cinema, without deferring so much to the status quo and to the assumed importance of how things have developed elsewhere, especially when those models are struggling.  The landscape is changing so rapidly, that to be talking about building cinemas, in order for us to have a mass release of Avengers 26 in 2030 is pointless.. The traditional conditions of a cinematic success no longer apply, not even at places that have been furthest ahead in that model. This creates an opportunity to ask ourselves: what could be a solution to the shortcomings of the normal ways of doing things? We are all problem-solvers, shaped by our different histories and contexts. While there are commonalities in our challenges, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and there’s not one dominant way of producing these spaces. Instead, we must embrace diverse approaches to create spaces for filmmakers and audiences as well.

Bernard: The idea of networking and sharing knowledge among cinemas and filmmakers is a very big thing, and the idea of engaging with international organizations and other cinema practitioners is crucial. I think the only way that we can discover most of the hidden gems and hidden ways of dealing with feelings about cinema in general is through conversation. 

Jesse: As a last word, I would say what is getting more and more central to our work is scaling back the necessity of a certain scope of filmmaking that feels very much inherited. I feel  there’s a lot of pressure on writers , image makers and actors to wait for the stage. Because the stage is set so high, if they perform without it, it feels like they’re not doing anything at all. We want to open the doors for films where creative people are just telling a story. We’re not reading it against these sorts of financial considerations, but rather against the themes they are talking about, their own background and their voices. We are hoping to do more writing over the coming years. We have a few writers in our collective and there’s so much we have to say, even within the film program essays, so we are hoping to possibly write about Short Century African Films and Picha La Leo. So we are excited to continue to think about how we might also write, and speak to people in a way that’s a bit more truthful.

Jesse Gerard Mpango is a storyteller from Kasulu, Tanzania. He is a founding member of Ajabu Ajabu, a multimedia curatorial collective based in Dar Es Salaam. Ajabu Ajabu employs participatory, open ended approaches in its programming and events as a way of exploring de-centralized and communal forms of presentation, production and preservation of audio visual work in Tanzania. Recurrent within his work as part of Ajabu Ajabu, and as an independent practitioner, is the capacity for participatory rituals of imagining to unsettle and dislocate dominant narratives and extractive power structures. 

Bernard Ntahondi, a Tanzanian cultural heritage enthusiast and curator, is deeply committed to preserving stories and storytelling practices. Currently serving as a Screenwriter and Curator of Short Century African Films at Ajabu Ajabu Audio-Visual House, he focuses on films from 1945 to 1994 depicting Africa’s struggle for independence and subsequent socio-economic challenges. Bernard’s role involves sourcing films, organizing screenings, and facilitating dialogues between filmmakers and audiences.  Previously, Bernard worked as a history curator at the National Museum of Tanzania and as a Curator and Administrator at the Dar Es Salaam Center for Architectural Heritage, promoting and conserving architectural heritage.  Having participated in various seminars, exhibitions, and cultural events worldwide, including the CPI program in Busan, South Korea, Hadithi Hadithi in Hamburg, Germany, and Dino in the Room in Berlin, Bernard is dedicated to cultural exchange and preservation. His work includes organizing workshops, exhibitions, and film screenings with the goal of promoting and conserving Tanzania’s cultural heritage while fostering dialogue and understanding among communities.