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Malaika Mushandu
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Agnes Amondi


'Prison Is One “Decision” Or Small Mistake Away'

We talk to award-winning Zimbabwean filmmaker & former model Malaika Mushandu.

BY Agnes Amondi

Feb 23, 2023, 12:55 PM

Photo of

Malaika Mushandu

Photo by

Agnes Amondi
Before she became a filmmaker, Malaika Mushandu was a model and a successful one at that. In 2011, she won the Miss Zimbabwe beauty pageant and represented the country at the global contest Miss World. 

Now, Malaika is a filmmaker and is making waves across the industry. She's won a couple of notable accolades for her debut directorial film ‘Mirage’ including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress at the Zimbabwe International Film Festival. She also received three nominations at the Africa Movie Academy Awards.

We talked at length with Malaika about her journey and her film ‘Mirage’

Kindly introduce yourself and briefly tell us how you got into film directing.

Thank you. From a young age, I’ve always loved storytelling as it brings together people from different walks of life and offers us a platform to express our own narratives.

After high school, I took a somewhat circuitous route that saw me enrol for a qualification in business and embark on a career in modelling as well as some business ventures.

The storytelling “bug” however never let go of me and lead me to eventually enrol at AFDA. This enabled me to gain the technical skills to tell authentic African stories from an African perspective. 

It was also during this period I gained first-hand exposure to all aspects of filmmaking, on either end of the camera.

Where did the idea of Mirage come from?
Image Cover of the Film Mirage
During my studies at AFDA and afterwards, I always kept an eye out for scripts that projected powerful stories. Discussions with various writers eventually lead to a series of conversations with Virginia Jekanyika (an award-winning BBC international playwright).

It is from these discussions that she shared the initial script for Mirage with me. From the onset, I was impressed by her treatment of the characters as well as the major themes of social justice.

In summary, tell us what the film is about.

Mirage’s time period is 2017 during the uncertainty and turbulence of Zimbabwe’s political “transition”. The film’s events take place initially within the confines of the female inmates' section of Chikurubi Maximum Prison, a microcosm of wider society with interesting social dynamics among warders and between them and inmates as well as among inmates.

The main protagonist Tambu is serving a five-year sentence for a relatively petty crime [stealing a chicken]. She has accepted her fate however when she is told of the abuse her daughter is undergoing and subsequent mental health challenges, her maternal instincts kick in and she decides to make a break for freedom to rescue her daughter. In this conspiracy, she is joined by fellow inmates Zoe and Memo.

One of the things you are keen to highlight is life in prison for a Zimbabwean woman. Describe what that is like for our readers.

Over the past years, with the admission of the Zimbabwe Prison and Correctional Services (ZPCS), life for inmates has become increasingly hard. Inmates’ nutritional, mental and other basic needs are not adequately catered for.

Female inmates suffer “double jeopardy”. They undergo immense physical and mental pressures on a daily basis. Upon completion of their custodial sentences, former female inmates also suffer from the ignominy that awaits them as society carries a harsher stigma against them.
Your cast is made up of A-List names. What informed your decision to go for them?

From the onset, regardless of a limited budget, the Production Team was determined to put together a quality production.

Playwright Virginia Jekanyika delivered a solid script, MMX and Joe Njagu Films (both leading production houses within the Southern African region) and I, an ambitious young creative were fully committed to attaining this vision.

We therefore could not take any “shortcuts” when it came to casting. Contrary to popular opinion, we did not necessarily “headhunt” particular actors. We started with a “clean slate” where we conducted intense auditions within the country’s two largest cities.

This was done to identify any exceptional talent that may have “slipped through the cracks” or was “flying below the radar”. From this exhaustive process, the “cream” of local talent inevitably rose to the top.

Why was it important for you to have a female-led cast?

The short answer to that is that this was a story requiring powerful female leads to bring it to life fully. If you look at the back stories of all the main protagonists, you will realise that they had undergone experiences that are unique to women, for example, Tambu’s dilemma of her only child being abused.  

The longer answer to your question would be that traditionally the predominant storytelling narrative has been overwhelmingly male-dominated. This is unfortunate because female lead stories often carry a wider scope which has a universal appeal.

Your film was showcased at the International Images Film Festival for Women in Zimbabwe. What was that like?
It’s deeply fulfilling. To provide a bit of context, some decades ago, Zimbabwe held rich promise as an emerging hub for filmmaking. Respected productions like “King Solomon’s Mines”, “Cry Freedom” and Clint Eastwood’s “White Hunter Black Heart” were all filmed in the country. 

This initial promise eventually petered out with South Africa emerging subsequently as the leading Sub-Saharan film industry hub. A small but highly passionate Zimbabwean film community has however remained constant and it is this family I’m honoured and humbled to be engaging with.

There’s also a huge sense of promise and optimism that the local film industry is experiencing a “rebirth” of sorts, given the number of Zimbabwean productions being showcased on prominent platforms.

What’s the one thing that stands out from making this film?

I would have to say, it was not the technical aspects of putting together the film as that side of the process had been inculcated in me at AFDA. For me, it was the people I socialised with. The spirit of tenacity inmates still have. They still have hopes and dreams beyond the prison walls.

What stood out for me is that prison is literally one “decision” or small mistake away. In some instances, it's cases of not having a competent lawyer for false accusations or minor issues such as stealing livestock, not out of greed, but for basic sustenance.

Hunger and other desperate circumstances can lead to “sticky” situations where otherwise decent, law-abiding people get incarcerated.  

In 2020, the film received three nominations at the Africa Movie Academy Awards and you have been to other festivals as well, why do you think the film is doing so well?

Mirage does so well because even if you were to take the film out of its setting [of Chikurubi Maximum Prison] the social issues that are present within the film, are relatable to most people. 

Themes such as love, social responsibility, the search for freedom and the desire to survive and eventually thrive, are all aspects we experience regardless of gender or socioeconomic background.

What do you want people to remember from watching this film?

My desire is to make films that spark meaningful conversations. At the very least I would like people to self-reflect on their personal roles within the themes highlighted in the film.