A beautiful brown-skinned woman (Shingai Shoniwa) runs to a car taking her to a recording session. She looks back at a young man with whom she was previously conversing and sings out, ‘Don’t give up, don’t give up’. This is one of the most touching scenes from Zimbabwe’s ground-breaking romantic comedy film, ‘Cook Off’.
‘Cook Off’ has broken boundaries, shattered stereotypes and made history. The ‘underdog movie,’ as it’s commonly referred to, has found itself on streaming titan Netflix and consequently became the first Zimbabwean movie to be picked up by Netflix. The movie was reportedly made with a budget of about 8,000 USD and under difficult circumstances including power outages, civil unrest and rising economic turmoil in Zimbabwe. When it was announced in early 2020 that the movie was going to find a home on Netflix, it shocked many critics and delighted multitudes of Zimbabweans. So they say, ‘Sometimes the underdogs rise and the mighty will fall’.
The film follows a single mother named Anesu (played by Tendaiishe Chitima) who struggles to raise her beloved son Tapiwa (played by Eugene Zimbudzi). Anesu feels dejected that her shot at a successful life has slipped through her fingers. Her world is turned upside down when she is suddenly entered into a cooking contest where she comes face to face with a fierce rival, a new love and probably the most engulfing thing: her insecurities.
The movie was filmed in 2017 and enjoyed limited screenings at film festivals and theatres around the world. Along the way, it generated buzz and won a slew of awards. I commend the writer and director (Tomas Brickhill) for pushing the bar and writing a story that is quite unusual to the Zimbabwean audience. The result of his bravery is an exciting viewing experience capturing the Zimbabwean spirit and one that has landed itself in the history books of movie-making across the world.
‘Cook Off’ invites us to dream big, soar high and never underestimate ourselves. Brickhill’s directing is very sincere and successful in bringing out the best in the actors. Viewers are in for quality performances from the vibrant cast.
The film was a Cinderella moment for Chitima. This was her first feature film as the leading lady in a role that seems to belong to her by divine right. She carries her character with effortless grace and easily elicits her audience’s empathy. The screen star marries her own charm with the requirements of her character. Tendai Nguni plays Anesu’s prince charming (coincidently called Prince).
Nguni, known as a musician, shows off his acting chops in his incredible portrayal of a talented chef who finds more than he is looking for when he meets Chitima’s character. Nguni and Chitima have just the right amount of chemistry to make their romance appear believable. Most Zimbabwean films shy away from romantic narratives but the two actors portray their character’s love story very beautifully.
Zimbudzi also gave a praiseworthy performance that will have audiences falling in love with his adorable character. Charmaine Mujeri delivers as always playing Anesu’s friend and advisor. Besides the leads, audiences are sure to remember her performance. The movie also includes royalty in Zimbabwean arts and film Jesesi Mungoshi, Chirikure Chirikure, Edmore Sandifolo and Vimbai Nhira, all of who provide solid performances. As a whole, the entire cast worked well in successfully carrying the story from scene to scene with skill. A job well done to the casting director for bringing together a host of talented actors.
A soundtrack featuring both local and international artists accompanies the film. The viewers are sure to be treated to upbeat music from beginning to end. From Zimbabwean songstress, Ammara Brown, to the bursting sounds of the UK-based Noisettes, the music in the film is exciting to listen to and appropriately slipped into the scenes.
Like most Zimbabwean feature films, the dialogue is primarily in English while including bits of Shona phrases. What sticks out about this is that it makes the actors’ delivery sometimes comes off as stiff and forced. What the continent has strived for is to achieve its own modernity; this is what ‘Cook Off’ has done.
The soil has never been more fertile for Africans to reclaim their narratives. A huge salute to ‘Cook Off’ for paving the way for more Zimbabwean and African narratives to find themselves among the stars that shine down on the sky and provide us with light and hope.
Grab some popcorn and spoil yourself to this tender-hearted offering. This is a family-friendly movie that feels ageless.