An award-winning film-maker based at the University of Bedfordshire has directed a controversial new play that was set to receive its premiere this week in Zimbabwe.
Agnieszka Piotrowska has a long track record in television but is probably best known for her 2008 documentary Married to the Eiffel Tower, about women who fall in love with objects. Since 2012, Dr Piotrowska has been reader in film practice and theory at Bedfordshire, leader of the MA in creative digital production and the MSc in digital production and technology.
Although she was “horrified” when she first visited Zimbabwe in 2007, Dr Piotrowska has been back on several occasions since then, employed by the British Council as a consultant to teach film and story-telling, and has been struck by the dramatic changes in the country.
Her 2012 film about race relations, The Engagement Party in Harare, was the first by a non-African to be nominated for a documentary award at the International Images Film Festival for Women in Harare.
When she received funding for a creative project from Bedfordshire, therefore, Dr Piotrowska was conscious that Zimbabwe was “very much misrepresented in the British media in terms of dictatorship and terror” and sought a collaborator there.
She began discussions with the up-and-coming playwright Blessing Hungwe, whom she had previously met on juries at film festivals. He proposed a comedy about the legendary female spirit medium, Mbuya Nehanda, executed by British colonial rulers in the 1890s for leading an uprising.
This eventually became Lovers in Time, which was selected from hundreds of entries for performance at the Harare International Festival of the Arts, which continues until 4 May, one of the most significant arts festivals in sub-Saharan Africa.
Along with Bedfordshire and the Nhimbe Trust (funded by the European Union), financial support for the play has come from the Zimbabwean Theatre Association, which Dr Piotrowska describes as “unheard of for work with a British director and British money”.
She is also using the occasion to carry out interviews for a film on the relationship between African traditions and modernity, and to conduct research for an academic book on the arts in Zimbabwe.
Both the playwright and director are well aware that Lovers in Time may cause offence. Even though it is in accordance with Shona tradition for a spirit to take on a different body, explained Mr Hungwe, “Mbuya Nehanda is seen as a national icon and we are creating a comedy of her coming back to the 21st century in a male body”.
“She is used by the ruling [ZANU-PF] party as a symbol of resistance against white domination,” agreed Dr Piotrowska, “and we are showing her as a person with desires and thoughts of her own. Some may well find the treatment disrespectful.”
Members of the cast have already been interrogated by Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation about whether the production is making fun of national icons.
Furthermore, by exploring questions of sexuality, transgender, land reform and the possibility of working through trauma to achieve racial reconciliation, Dr Piotrowska knows they are venturing into territory that is touchy and even taboo in Zimbabwe.
“I’m prepared to be pulled in and interrogated,” she told Times Higher Education before the premiere, “but I hope I won’t go to prison.”