ZAFTA's 2023: Renowned filmmaker Stephen Chigorimbo receives Lifetime Achievement Award


HARARE – At its first attempt, The Zimbabwe Annual Film and Television Awards (ZAFTAs) has proven itself as a premier gathering of the stalwarts of Zimbabwean cinema and television. 

Stephen Chigorimbo
Lifetime Achiever Stephen Chigorimbo

On Saturday, the 2nd of December, the crème de la crème of the Zimbabwean film industry gathered at Wisdom City Church (55 Kwame Nkrumah Ave) to venerate the past, celebrate the present, and optimistically look into the future.

The venue has a historical significance to Zimbabwean cinema. It used to be Kine-1 Cinema back in the late 80s and early 90s.

To add to the flair, esteemed dignitaries also graced the event. Among them were Deputy Minister of Sports, Art, Recreation and Culture Hon. Emily Jesaya; chief executive of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation Ms Adelaide Chikunguru; and Mr Josiah Kuse, the Director at the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe.  

In the spirit of celebrating the iconic achievements of the industry's veterans, the Cinema Society of Zimbabwe bestowed the honour of Lifetime Achievement Award to renowned filmmaker Stephen Chigorimbo. 

Stephen Chigorimbo becomes the first ever recepient of the ZAFTA's Lifetime Award for his lifelong contribution to the Zimbabwean film industry.

Speaking to ZimSphere after receiving the award, Chigorimbo appreciated the Cinema Society of Zimbabwe for bringing a much needed initiative to cinema, which allowed industry peers to recognise and honour each other amongst themselves. 

"It feels great that the ZAFTA's are now a reality. Having an independent organisation organising awards (as opposed to a national institution like NAMA) is very crucial because it means the recognition is coming from industry peers and the people of Zimbabwe. I feel honoured and I thank the organizers of the ZAFTA's for honoring me that way. They did their research and came up with that honour," he said. 

The industry veteran alluded that this honour meant more to him as it was a vindication of the tireless work he has been doing for almost five decades. 

"At my age such things are of great value because it's about recognition. When you go out there, and you're doing what you do, you never think people will notice you. But then when something like the ZAFTA's happens, you realize that the people are recognising your work. I'm most appreciative of that." 

And it has truly been a lifetime of achievement in cinema for 72-year-old Stephen Chigorimbo. 

He was born on April 5, 1951 in Chegutu, a small mining and agricultural town 100 kilometers west of Harare. He is a descendant of Mashayamombe, one of the leaders of resistance to imperialism in Zimbabwe in the late 19th century.

He started acting at the tender age of six, when he played as ‘‘Goliath’’ in a church play.

Chigorimbo attended Highfield High 1 School between 1965 and 1969 in Harare.The vibrant sociocultural scene at Highfield High groomed Chigorimbo in the arts; particularly theatre, literature, music and movies.

Even at a tender age, Chigorimbo's talent shone through, as he wrote a screenplay at the young age of 16. This early display of creativity and dedication set the stage for his illustrious career.

During and after high school, Chigorimbo acted and took part in Shakespearean plays including Othello and Macbeth, and others like Kongi’s Harvest by Wole Soyinka, Athol Fugard and many more.

His breakthrough was in 1974, when he acted in a movie called Whispering Death, popularly known as Albino which featured Christopher Lee, the first Dracula actor.The film was shot at Somerby Farm here in Zimbabwe, featuring the late Midlands Governor Herbert Mahlaba, wrestlers Mike Tshuma and Oliver Tengende.

Stephen Chigorimbo
In 'Whispering Death'

It was a German-produced film. He started off as an actor, but he ended up doubling as an assistant director, mainly for his people skills.

This was a huge accomplishment in colonial Rhodesia, where black people were discriminated against and relegated to demeaning roles on the big screen. 

"In the past, we were discriminated as the whites did not want us to rise. They knew about our talent and power that we had in the sector. They wanted us to play comical roles only. In fact, we were not given glamorous roles. It was not easy," Chigorimbo in a Herald piece in 2019.

Chigorimbo initially pursued a career in insurance, after a short stint at the potter’s wheel as a hand thrower. He was one of the first training managers in the industry in the 1970s. He spent 15 Years as Training Manager of Anglo American Insurances. 

His passion for filmmaking eventually led him to leave the Insurance industry and embrace cinema as a full-time endeavor in 1984.

Chigorimbo's glittering filmography spans over one hundred film projects that include short and feature films, as well as soapie dramas. 

Some of the feature films that he is credited include; Slavers, Month of the Doctors, House of Hunger, King Solomon's Mines, Jake Speed, Tuxedo Warrior, Soweto, Pfuma Yedu(co-producer and director), The Big Time, The Lost City of Gold, Incident at Victoria Falls, Quartermaine, Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, and Mandela, where he acted alongside Danny Clover. 

He also featured in a movie Forbidden Fruit in 2013. He also featured in a movie called Odium in 2014 which was directed by Ben Mahaka. During the same year, he featured alongside Martha Ferguson in a short film called Freestate, which gained critical acclaim at film festivals around the world. 

With Martha Ferguson in 'Freestate'

He has directed many documentaries on ecology, environment, religion social commentary and sports programmes especially golf. 

He also wrote, acted, directed or produced soapie dramas like Estate Blues, Mhembwe Rudzi, Lasting Memories' and others.

Perhaps Chigorimbo's most outstanding film credit is being assistant director for 1987's Cry Freedom which featured Hollywood actor Denzel Washington. The movie was based on the story of the late South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Bantu Biko, and took inspiration from the book Asking for Trouble, which was written by Donald Woods. 

Chigorimbo was initially considered for the role of Steve Biko (because of his gap tooth) but Washington, a rising actor at the time, was eventually chosen, for the sake of international appeal. Nonetheless, he played a crucial role in bringing the film alive. It was shot in Gweru, Bulawayo, Mutare, Harare and Chitungwiza.

Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington in 'Cry Freedom' 

Reminiscing on this moment in Zimbabwean cinematic history, Chigorimbo remarked, "I was at the right place, at the right time and I responded the right way. I am happy to have played my part in making Zimbabwean cinema come of age." 

Chigorimbo also featured in 1985's King Solomon's Mines, directed by actress Sharon Stone. Sharon Stone also featured in the film, among other Hollywood starts like Richard Chamberlain and Herbert Lom. The late Fidelis Cheza and Simon "Mutirowafanza" Shumba are immortalized as some of the Zimbabweans who took part in King Solomon’s Mines.

The film was shot on site here in Zimbabwe, in Somerby near Snake Park. A set dubbed 'the city of Tongoola' was constructed there, which is where most of the production was filmed. 

He had spent three decades in Zimbabwean cinema when he 'rose to fame' amongst television viewers as John Huni in popular soapie Studio 263.

As the popular 'John Huni' on Studio 263

Although Chigorimbo joined the soapie later due to his busy international schedule, he was instrumental in mooting the idea of Studio 263, together with the late Godwin Mawuru and Aaron Chiundura Moyo. He was one of the directors of the soapie until he left in 2006. 

It was in this production where he worked with the likes of the late Anne Nhira and now ICT minister Tatenda Mavetera.  

Chigorimbo's work has seen him touring many parts of the world, working on various films and collaborating with many artists and filmmakers. 

He has worked as a filmmaker in Denmark, France, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia, United Kingdom, United States and Zambia. He has attended workshops in countries including Australia, Germany, Mozambique, Lesotho, South Korea and Egypt.

Chigorimbo founded African Sun Motion Pictures Private Limited in 1986, a company which he still is working with in South Africa. He also worked for Moonlight Pictures as a line producer from 1996 and 1999.

Throughout his career, Stephen has worked tirelessly to contribute to the development of the film industry, not just in Zimbabwe but also in the broader African context. As a founder member of the Film Workers Association in Zimbabwe and the Southern Africa Film Festival, he has played a pivotal role in shaping the industry's growth. 

His involvement in organizations such as FEPACI (The Pan-African Association of Filmmakers), where he is an ex officio member on the board, has further cemented his commitment to the advancement of African cinema.

He has championed various programmes as part of his work with FEPACI; including Mini INPUT, Southern Africa Broadcasters Association (SABA), The Film and Television Market (SITHENGI), ZIFF Zanzibar, and ZIFF Zimbabwe.

Eversince becoming a fulltime filmmaker in 1984, Chigorimbo has been fighting for a robust local film industry. The legend believes that 'Zimflix' (the self-anoited term for Zimbabwean cinema) has very big potential to change the lives of not only the people involved in the industry, but Zimbabwe at large. Chigorimbo understands that cinema can be a powerful tool for communication and development. 

"The Zimbabwean film industry is the blatant solution to Zimbabwe’s image making and employment solution. The industry has serious potential if it makes use of the immense existing talent of educated and artistic Zimbabweans’ geniuses," he declared in an interview with Sunday News' Vincent Gono in 2015.

He shared with ZimSphere that plans for the formation of a Film Commission were at an advanced stage. 

"We are not yet where we want to be. We are now working flat out to form a Film Commission. Once that is in place, we should see serious change happening in Zimbabwean film."

To close off, Chigorimbo gives advice to rising names in Zimflix. 

"It's not enough just be ready to satisfy your hunger, you should also think about the people around you. See your industry peers as your brothers, your sisters. Be prepared to help each other." 

These wise words are a distillation of his five decades' experience.

And truly, he is seen as a role model by many in Zimbabwe and all over Africa. The septuagenarian understands the responsibility that comes with this honour, saying, "Being a role model puts one in a position where they have to be careful with what they do and what they're seen to be doing. You have to follow what is right and deliberately avoid what is wrong." 

The acclaimed filmmaker is also a pastor, and father to 15 children. 

That's enough for the cast and crew of a short film! 

Although it remains to be seen whether any one of Chigorimbo's children (or grandchildren) will reach the heights that their father reached, it is only right that the name 'Chigorimbo' reverberates in Zimbabwean cinema for eternity.

One thing's for sure: the ZAFTA's have done their part to immortalise this legend of our time.

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