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Making ‘Cook Off’ by Tomas Lutuli Brickhill

part 1. The handshake.

It was a cold winter evening in Harare, Zimbabwe, as I walked through the car park to where my producer Joe Njagu was waiting next to his car. We had just completed our second day of rehearsals and camera tests. Tomorrow would be the first day of filming. Joe had only agreed to come on board the project 10 days earlier (up until this point I had been producing), and I’m not sure if he had fully realised what he was getting himself into. I handed him a small pile of money and my bank card, in total we had just under US$8,000.

“This is our budget.”

He maintained his composure and slowly and carefully counted the notes. When he had finished he put the money into his wallet. He still held the card.

“I’ll send you the PIN in a Whatsapp”, I continued.

“OK”

“If we run out of money I might need you to sell my car”

“OK Tomas, but let’s make sure we don’t have to sell your car”

Joe put the card into his wallet also. I felt excited; excited and worried like we were about to embark on a thrilling and somewhat dangerous adventure. In a way, we were. I extended my arm and we shook hands.

“Let’s make a movie”, I said.

Joe’s brother Charles, who plays one of the villains in the film had been sitting in the car and had witnessed the whole thing. He would recount this story back to us both several times once the film was done, but we were a long way away from that at this point. This was just the beginning.

The total budget of the film on paper was somewhat higher than the actual money we had – about $50,000, but we didn’t have this. We ‘sold’ a stake in the film to a local equipment rental company in return for use of a decent second-hand camera and some old prime lenses, and we had to convince all the major cast and crew to work on ‘deferred payment’ contracts. The economic situation in Zimbabwe had helped with this second part because there was virtually no paid work on offer which made the prospect of ‘maybe getting paid if the film made money’, an easier sell. Silver linings, I guess.


As we were trying to get through the production, our country was falling apart. Of course we had the usual low-budget production logistics to get through: scheduling around people’s other commitments; actors turning up late (or not at all); keeping our ‘deferred payment’ crew motivated, etc – but we also had a different entirely Zimbabwean set of problems to deal with: having to ‘buy’ cash in order to give the crew transport monies; rescheduling due to power cuts; delaying a scene because one of the actors got caught up in a riot in town and was teargassed – in many ways it was a miracle that we got it ‘in the can’ at all, but we were a special kind of determined.

When all was said and done and we had wrapped for the last time and the crew members that had been living at my house (most of which was also part of the set), had all packed up and gone home, I sat alone on the grass outside my front door and wept. Somehow, we had done it.

Little did we know just what we had actually just done at that point.

part 2. The fall of Robert Mugabe and the rise of Cook Off

The situation in Zimbabwe had felt quite on edge as we had been shooting the film. Robert Mugabe’s iron grip on power had been fading for some time as age finally caught up with the geriatric dictator: he fell down the stairs of his plane; he fell asleep at public meetings; he read the same entire speech twice without noticing – clearly his days were numbered but it seemed as though he was setting up his wife to take over. An unpopular move.


As the film took shape and the first cut was being finalized, soldiers appeared on national television announcing that this was ‘not a coup’, and that they were simply ‘targeting criminal elements around the president’. As the drama unfolded and the international media turned the spotlight on Zimbabwe, we busied ourselves with adding music and typing out the end credits.

Mugabe was being pressured to resign.

For a few days, he resisted.

Finally, he did and people were partying in the streets all night celebrating his downfall.

The country was now full of hope and optimism as we planned our first screening. We would have liked to have shown it at the local cinema but we couldn’t afford to hire it.

So; we built our own.

We borrowed a projector and hired a small PA system and constructed a homemade screen from sheets and then we showed the film for the first time on the roof of the New Ambassador Hotel in town just a couple of weeks after the fall of our infamous dictator.

Just under two months later Joe and I would watch the film in a real cinema for the first time. This was different. This was the International Premiere of our movie at Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR). We were the first Zimbabwean film for over 20 years to be selected. We weren’t in competition at that festival except for the audience awards. We came 38th out of 187 films. We felt like we were on top of the world. The festival gave us each a giant chocolate tiger head (which they do for all premieres) and Joe and I posed with them after the screening.

Once more we shook hands.

“We did it”.


When we posted the picture on social media people assumed we had won something. I guess we felt like we had.

Since then the film has become the first Zimbabwean fiction feature ever to be selected for the Seattle International Film Festival, won Best Film and Best Actress for our lead twice, first at the Zimbabwe International Film Festival and then at the NAMA Awards, and screened at international festivals in Durban, Silicon Valley, Cannes, Leuven, Nairobi, Auckland and in the Kingdom of Eswatini.

After a year and a half of festival screenings we are finally getting ready to release the film commercially; now professionally graded and sound mixed and trimmed down a good 15 minutes shorter than when we first showed it on that Harare rooftop.

The new version will be shown for the first time at the glitzy red-carpet UK premiere at London’s Mayfair hotel on the 27th of July with a bunch of Zimbabwean celebrities.

I’m not sure it could be further away from that cold car park scene just over 2 years ago and the handshake that kicked it all off.

Tomas Brickhill: @TomasLutuli

Tomas Brickhill: Cook Off (London Premiere)
at The May Fair Hotel
at 18:00 on Saturday 27 July.
Tickets and info