Zimbabwean Filmmaker Rumbi Katedza Talks About Sensitively Depicting Authentic Refugee Stories7 minute read

Rumbi Katedza, director of an Of Africa Cinema Homeland feature, the award winning short film Asylum, has an extensive resume. Rumbi has lived in the USA, Japan, Italy, Canada, the UK and Zimbabwe. She worked as a radio presenter/producer for Radio 3 a Zimbabwean station. Her articles have been published in numerous magazines including Vertigo, AV Specialist and Hype!, while her fiction writing has been published in Women Writing Zimbabwe, the BTA/Anglo-Platinum Winners Collection and Illuminations. She was Distribution Manager at Media for Development Trust, responsible for a catalogue of over two hundred films and, later, she became Director of the Zimbabwe International Film Festival, before going out on her own as a producer and director of narrative and documentary content through her company, Mai Jai Films. 

Amongst her catalogue of films and tv shows, Asylum stands out as an exploration of an unchartered question: Can the adoption of a new homeland erase the traumas of your past? A powerful silent short film, it follows a Sudanese asylum seeker in England who is haunted by her horrific experiences in Darfur. It is not an easy film to watch, but it is definitely a necessary one.

I spoke with Rumbi Katedza about Asylum, identity, Zimbabwe, and African women in the arts.


Asylum deals with the themes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in an interesting way. In your opinion, how do  people from post-conflict areas reconcile their love for their home countries and having to deal with trauma they’ve been through?

I’m not sure you can reconcile it. Aesha, the character in the film, is from a country that is still in conflict, so the conflict that she feels is not just a memory but [also] a reality. For example there is conflict in Zimbabwe and a lot of people can’t reconcile how they feel about what Zimbabwe has become, with their broken dreams and broken families. For Asylum, I actively sort out the Sudanese community in London and what came out most was the trauma that they had all been through. However, they set up a school [in London] and they tried to preserve their culture. From this, I understood that the conflict did not define their country; the conflict existed because of certain elements, certain power struggles and prejudices. So they separated it by congregating as a community and preserving their language and culture.

You did a great job capturing Aesha’s hopelessness on camera. Was this an easy task?

No not really. I spent a lot of time with Sudanese women who had been raped and separated from their families forcibly. So, what I tried to do is reflect the feelings that they were portraying. When I cast the lead character I did an extensive casting in London, it was a hard choice. But in the end I chose a woman from the Caribbean who was very expressive with her body and her eyes. I took her with me to the women I had met to get a sense of their experiences, and she used her own memories of trauma due to the racism she’d seen growing [up] in the Caribbean community in the UK to relate.

Do you feel like it’s easier expressing your voice in Africa or in other places?

I wouldn’t know with Africa as a whole. But distance is often necessary to be able to tell a story. For what it is, I made a documentary on [Zimbabwean] post-election violence in 2010, I could have made it in 2008 but I had to wait. Distance whether it’s the next country or the next continent, or whether it’s ten years, helps you to tell a story from different angles.

Do you think you can help to translate issues of African women to the world at large?

I can’t speak for all African women. All I can do is tell my story the best way that I can. So when I’m making my films, my characterization is very important, and finding the character’s backstory. So I spend quite a lot of time with my actors discussing what the backstory is and I encourage them to build it from the elements they get in the script. When I made Playing Warriors, the feature film, we spent a lot of time with [actress] Kudzai Sevenzo, just working out who Nyarai was [as a character] and I think that’s why she did so well in the film because she really broke down what she could relate to and what she couldn’t relate to she would research or talk to other women who may have been like the character and discuss with them the rationale from Nyarai’s perspective.

What are some challenges African women face in the Arts ?

I’ve travelled quite extensively with my work and one thing I know is that I can’t put a blanket on African women. I have film-maker friends from quite a lot of countries and although we may share similar issues like trying to find funding or trying to work in a good environment for film, sometimes these issues are not different from our male counterparts. What is difficult is getting into the industry. Especially if you’re young and impressionable you can be subjected to all sorts of harassment and people trying to take advantage of you. You need to have a very strong head on your shoulders to be able to work in this industry. It’s really important to have strong female role models to be able to talk to and get advice from and they may not be accessible. Zimbabwe I feel, on one hand is somewhat different. Compared to other African countries, statistically, we probably have more women in leadership roles in film and television than other countries. There are a lot of producers and directors and it’s nice because you’re able to speak to other women about projects.

What advice would you give to any aspiring filmmaker reading this?

Never take no for an answer! You’re going to get a lot of doors closed in your face, you’re going to get a lot of rejection, not only from your peers but when you look for funds, when you look for support, when you write a story and someone tells you it’s crap. Journalists telling you how horrible your work is, whatever it is. Don’t take it personally. Your journey is yours, your art is yours! For example on set, sometimes the technicians will tell you something can’t be done. That’s rubbish. Anything is possible; you can literally do anything with film. That’s the dream. You can do anything. So don’t take no for an answer!

What do you feel when you think about Zimbabwe?

For me it’s a love hate relationship with Zimbabwe, because I have an ongoing search for identity. Identity is sometimes porous because you may think it’s one thing but it’s not. You can’t say you [are] one specific thing. I’ve gone back and forth [in and out of Zimbabwe] and I’ve had struggles in terms of getting where I’d like to be in my career. But nevertheless, I love Zimbabwe, I love the culture, I love the people, I love our resilience, we always make a plan. But I struggle with what the country is becoming and the fact that I sometimes feel like we do not fight hard enough for the things we love about our country.

What is Homeland to you?

In the obvious sense it’s someone’s native land… it’s an autonomous or a semi autonomous state that’s defined through a collective… through culture, religion, geography and so on. Especially if you are looking in the context of migration Homeland is a place with which you have historical ties where your family originated and came from. But for me Homeland can also be something quite fluid because a Homeland should be a safe space, should be a place that you want to return to, that you feel strongly connected to and with migration that kind of connection can change with time. A Homeland can be a space that you create in your mind and it’s also a physical space that you can return to. As a mother ultimately I want my children to have a Homeland where they feel safe, where they have a sense of belonging, where their identity is never brought into question. Homeland is fluid and it can change with time and you can build new collectives, so within a new collective you have a new Homeland.

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Ashleigh Zvobgo was born in Zimbabwe and grew up between Africa and the UK. She has an honours degree in Sociocultural Anthropology from the University of Pretoria and is currently doing a Masters in Development Studies at Great Zimbabwe University. She is passionate about developmental issues that affect African women as well as the environment.

One Comment

  1. Well done Ashley; interesting article; enjoyed it immensely! And good job Rumbi; we shall never take no for an answer.