SA TIMES -Cook Off -As history closed in on Robert Mugabe’s 37-year-long rule in late 2017, the romantic comedy Cook Off was being produced under exceptional circumstances in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. Enduring relentless cash, power and water shortages, riots, police harassment, and the devastating consequences of a countrywide economic crisis, this unlikely feel-good movie emerged to represent the strength and defiance of the Zimbabwean people.
Cook Off, which had its Africa premiere at Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) 2018, was the first feature to be released in Zimbabwe in the immediate aftermath of Mugabe’s ouster. Featuring rising Zimbabwean star Tendaiishe ‘Tendie’ Chitima, popular hiphop artist Tehn Diamond and the much-beloved ‘Neria’ star Jesesi Mungoshi as the grandmother, the film first screened in December 2017 at a homemade cinema on a Harare rooftop.
Soon after, it was selected for the prestigious Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR), the first time a Zimbabwean film was screened at Rotterdam in 22 years. Cook Off will have its UK premiere on 27th July 2019 at the Mayfair Hotel.
Cook Off follows the journey of Anesu, a down-on-her-luck single mother from Harare’s Budiriro township who becomes a national sensation after she qualifies for Zimbabwe’s top reality TV cooking show, but then finds herself out of her depth battling against professional chefs.
Working with the set of Zimbabwe’s real-life ‘Battle of the Chefs’ television show, and reflective of the passion and commitment of the film’s cast and crew, Cook Off’s production values vastly outweigh its modest US$8,000 budget. The film had the honour of being the first Zimbabwean feature film ever to be selected for Seattle International Film Festival, and placed 38th out of 187 films in the Audience Awards at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2018.
“As the economy collapsed in Zimbabwe, local filmmakers got hooked on donor funds and made pieces about “issues”, but without their heart in the story. We wanted to change all that and return to universal stories with commercial appeal that could restart the Zimbabwean film industry,” said Tomas Lutuli Brickhill, writer and director of Cook Off, and a third-generation Zimbabwean.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
Yearning for a better life, a single mother with a passion for cooking gets a shot at greatness when her son enters her into a top reality cooking show.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
With Zimbabwe’s first production on Netflix – Cook Off – I am faced with an interesting dilemma as a film critic. From a purely technical perspective, the film is not on standard with other offerings, with over-the-top acting and incredibly low production value. The plot doesn’t flow smoothly, and there are long sections of nothing really happening to drive things along.
However, if you just look at the content and heart of the story, it’s an inspiring, uniquely African film that warrants the recognition it has received. It tells a Zimbabwean story outside of the usual negative narrative. It’s a story about falling in love, making and eating amazing food, and family struggles.
The budget of the movie was only R140 408, and the filming conditions were incredibly hard as the country was rocked by economic collapse, the cast and crew working on contracts with deferred payments.
With that in mind, it makes it even more inspiring to have Netflix add it to its roster.
The film follows a single mother that enters a cooking competition on a TV show. While learning to improve her skills with a fellow contestant, sparks fly not only between them but with her mother as well, who is disappointed in how her daughter’s life has turned out.
Tendaiishe Chitima, who plays the lead Anesu, is a charming actor and delivers a standout performance that highlights her bright future ahead.
When it comes to the storyline there were many a plothole that could have easily been fixed – like the format of the TV show that was incredibly confusing – as well as tighter editing needed on many scenes. There were just too many of Anesu’s stories jammed into one, and perhaps slicing off some of it would have helped with the tempo.
In terms of the characters, the villain in the story – a fellow contestant married to Anesu’s ex-lover – could have used a little more fleshing out and more screen-time to build up the tension for the climax.
Admittedly Cook Off has its shortcomings and technical issues, but give it a try – be it to support African productions, a curiosity about Zimbabwean film-making, or a genuine interest in the heartwarming story.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: