Written by Rowena Carr-Allison on Sep 23, 2010. Posted in On Location

Location Focus: Zanzibar

A paradise island set in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania, the archipelago of Zanzibar is best known for its turbulent colonial history with the Omani, the Portuguese and the British until its independence in 1963.

The island's main income is derived from both tourism and the spice industry, earning it its moniker of ‘Spice island’. Its patchwork history has made Zanzibar culturally rich and in 1997 American expat Emerson Skeens founded ZIFF (the Zanzibar International Film Festival) to capitalise on the island’s potential.

Now in its 13th year, ZIFF is the largest film festival in East Africa, putting African film and music on the international scene.

A living legend in the old city of Stone Town, Emerson is a charming Texan who has called it home for 21 years, even speaking fluent Swahili. The founder of hotspots Emerson House and Emerson Green, he’s everyone’s go-to guy on the island. He smiles:

“I saw the cinematographic possibilities here. You can make any kind of movie you want in Zanzibar – in historical or rural settings of course, not contemporary! Since then I’ve scouted locations for most of the productions that have been shot on the island, like the recent History Channel documentary.”

Although Zanzibar is hot with magazine fashion shoots, with the likes of Vogue, Elle and Redbook coming to the island, the feature film industry hasn’t yet taken off. Things are moving slowly and there’s only one other small production company, ZG Films, involved in small-scale projects like Swahili Fashion Weekend and Naomi Campbell's visit for Fashion for Relief.

Emerson is confident Zanzibar is a unique proposition. He enthuses:

“The interiors are very interesting and there’s plenty of beautiful architecture.”

Exceptional historic buildings are available for use for a fee. He confides:

“You can even hire the Sultan’s Palace and spectacular furniture like the solid wooden carved tables given to the Sultan by Queen Victoria!”

Antiques are easy to come by, but anything else can be made by local skilled carpenters at very short notice.

Bureaucracy is not a problem. Permits and licenses are actually easily obtainable:

“I have paid anything from USD100 for three days filming to USD1,000 for a week – it depends on the overall budget.”

As for equipment, it’s available care of the Busara Music festival. They have stage lighting, speakers and mikes but the camera equipment needs to be flown in.

Accommodation in Stone Town is plentiful, while catering is great value and can be arranged anywhere on island.

“The presentation is Styrofoam – it’s pretty basic," laughs Emerson: "But it tastes great!”

In terms of locations, aside from the unique Omani-inspired exotic interiors, there are some of the world’s most beautiful, unspoilt fine white sandy beaches as well as dense mangroves and the Jozani forest, well known for its monkeys.

There are also the tiny, meandering streets of the World Heritage Site of Stone Town, with their stunning studded doors and archways. Filming on the water is also an option, with incredibly beautiful, authentic Dhows available for rent, complete with crews.

An unexpected bonus, the unique genetic mix on the island means there are plenty of local actors and extras of all colours and creeds available. And, although there are no official incentives, there are no taxes on income in Zanzibar so, adds Emerson: “It’s flexible and you can always come to an arrangement.”

So, what are the real problems? The unreliable electricity! But, an obvious solution is a backup generator, the African way.

Related Posts


Not Logged in

You must be logged in to post a comment

    There are no comments