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Netflix’s Cook Off – An authentically Zimbabwean no-budget romcom which can reinvigorate the film industry

A pulsating, multi-layered, engaging narrative, endowed with that infectious Zimbabwean sensibility, with a mix of mbira music playing in the background; interspersed with the familiar high-rise Harare buildings iconography, the dusty streets of Budiriro high density suburb, Cook Off feels authentic to the Zimbabwean experience.

The Zimbabwean film industry has come of age; traversing way back from locally produced films such as More Time (1993), Neria (1993), Yellow Card (2000) and now the country’s Netflix debut Cook Off (2020). Cook Off landed on Netflix on 1 June 2020, making history in the process as the first Zimbabwean film on Netflix. Cook Off is a reality TV rom-com film centring around the demure, insecure and at times vivacious protagonist, Anesu played by Tendaiishe Chitima, and Prince; her on screen boyfriend, played by Tendai Ryan Nguni aka Tehn Diamond, the film doesn’t disappoint as it chases myriad strands, not least the duo’s fluctuating love life. The central narrative is of course, the now endemic popular reality TV genre cook show, but tied to that are other attendant sub-stories worth noting. At the heart of single mother Anesu’s life, is the story of triumph over adversity. Zimbabwe is still steeped in a traditional cultural malaise where single mothers are unfairly judged, bashed by society and written off as ‘social misfits’ who’ve squandered their chances by having a child out of wedlock. The irony though to this revolting hypocrisy is; it takes two individuals for conception to occur, yet only one party, the female bears the brunt of this censure and social opprobrium. 

There is also the allegorical subtext of Zimbabwe as a nation; a sub story worth celebrating. For a country constantly grabbing headlines for the wrong reasons; economic malaise; political ineptitude and instability, government repression, Cook Off is thus a welcome relief. It’s a breath of fresh air which showcases the diverse, positive talent inherent in Zimbabwe’s fledgling film industry. We appear to be in good season in terms of the renaissance of our arts sector. We do have platitude to excel, after all, some of our very own daughters have starred in Hollywood blockbuster productions such as Black Panther (2018), Danai Gurira being a notable case. In recent days, Zimbabwean born Amapiano star Sha Sha (Charmaine Mapimbiro) won the prestigious 2020 BET award

Another exceptional Zimbabwean by descent actress Thandie Newton, plying her trade in England and across the transatlantic in the U.S. continues to excel having starred in leading productions such as Mission: Impossible 2 (2000),  HBO’s Westworld (2016- present), and the famed BBC flagship Line of Duty (2017) crime drama which won her a BAFTA, as the show continues to gain global audience appeal. In addition, Thandie has bagged an array of awards as testament to her acting prowess. Her performance in Crash (2004) earned her a BAFTA Award for best actress in a supporting role. 

There is a bigger story emerging, from the grand success of fellow Zimbabweans; the Cook Off narrative is therefore microcosmic of how far as Zimbabwe we have journeyed and made significant strides in the global film industry.  A story of hope and triumph is a sub story of Cook Off worth taking away, exemplified in Anesu a single mother’s tenacity and fighting spirit which sees her overcome daily rigours and setbacks of contemporary life in Harare to emerge winner of the prestigious Cook Off TV show. Anesu’s inspiring resilience is perhaps a befitting tribute and metaphorical acknowledgment to my fellow citizens in the face of the centre disintegrating in Zimbabwe. We are all Anesus, striving to eke out a living in the daily grind of life in Zimbabwe.

There is so much to celebrate in Cook Off, in equal measure. On one hand, it is a joy to witness a star being born in Anesu, one blooming with profound prowess and potential. She certainly has a bright future beckoning ahead as an actress of note raising the banner of the Zimbabwean flag, on the global stage. Equally, it was heart-warming to savour the iconic Jesesi Mungoshi, who has aged gracefully; reprising her role as ‘Sorojena,’ the all-embracing matriarch, who radiates wisdom and love, where it is lacking from Anesu’s grumpy old mama. Interestingly, Cook Off cast is more like a who is who in Zimbabwe’s arts sector, thus it was a joy to witness celebrated Zimbabwean performance poet, Chirikure Chirikure as one of the cooking contest judges. Anesu’s onscreen boyfriend, Prince; Tehn Diamond is a widely known and respected hip hop artist, rapper, singer, songwriter in Zimbabwe. So, there is so much talent at play, a mix of veterans and upcoming arts and cultural ambassadors. 

The budding romance and magnetic chemistry between Anesu and Prince was a joy to watch, it was more hilarious even as Anesu cheekily denied the existence of the blossoming romance to her sharp and sassy son; Tapiwa. Who wouldn’t like a friend like Charmaine; Anesu’s confidante and relationship counsellor, who remarks prior to Anesu’s date with Prince, “at least, I have time to work on you, between now and then?” True to her word; Anesu emerges for the date, groomed and well dressed, radiating with unflinching beauty and connoisseur make up. In keeping with mainstream Hollywood rom coms, we all need a friend like quirky Charmaine, don’t we, more like the Jellyfish quartet of friends in Bridget Jones Diary (2001) and eccentric Spike in Richard Curtis’s Notting Hill (1999). There are some lighter moments galore in Cook Off , synonymous with reality TV genre, not least the tabloid press and attendant media circus which hog wannabe celebrities. One conspicuous incident is when the scheming, conniving, malevolent Lady Macbeth alter ego, the snobbish, limousine driving Milly Ann is caught out and exposed live on national radio over her under the belt shenanigans to derail Anesu’s position on the cooking competition.

Cook Off is a salvo on more local talent to emerge from the Zimbabwean film industry. In the words of Cook Off’s producer, Joe Njagu;

Seeing a Zimbabwean film beside a Hollywood one on the Netflix homepage is what Zimbabwe’s filmmakers need to help them claim their place on the international stage. To be honest, the local film industry needed a Cook Off. It needed this push. It needed this example.

On this note, hearken, Zimbabwe, our story is not over yet.

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About the Author

Andrew Chatora

Andrew Chatora

Andrew Chatora is a Zimbabwean novelist, essayist and short-story writer based in Bicester, England. He grew up in Mutare, Zimbabwe, and moved to England in 2002. His debut novella, Diaspora Dreams (2021), was approvingly received and nominated for the National Arts Merit Awards (2022). His second book, Where the Heart Is, was published in the same year to considerable acclaim. Chatora’s forthcoming book, Born Here, But Not in My Name, is a brave, humorous and psychologically penetrating portrait of post-Brexit Britain. Chatora is noted for his acerbic and honest depiction of the migrant experience. Heavily influenced by his own experience as a black English teacher in the United Kingdom, Chatora probes multi-cultural relationships, identity politics, blackness, migration, citizenship and nationhood.

''Inside Harare Alcatraz and Other Short Stories affords Andrew Chatora to tell his story with more urgency than before. Chatora roars into centre stage with this charmed confluence of the novella, the essay, the treatise, the short story and the vignette. Here is a collection to startle you out of your complacency.'' – Memory Chirere, University of Zimbabwe

In his fourth literary offering, Andrew Chatora gives us eleven stories written in a wide range of settings and painting the lives of Zimbabweans from different walks of life. From the impenetrable Harare prison to the working class Mutare and its domain of shebeen queens to suburban Harare and a politically charged United Kingdom in a post Brexit world, Chatora takes the reader on a grand tour of outrage. Notwithstanding the shifts in scene and setting, these stories have one pervasive theme in common - they capture the suffocation and desperation of Zimbabwe and her Diaspora and fully describe the precariousness of living in environments that are increasingly hostile.

Inside Harare Alcatraz and Other Short Stories transcends the grass is never greener perspective with a nuanced interrogation of the socio-political realities of its characters. Chatora fashions a diverse cast of characters whose complexities and eccentricities evoke the utmost in us.
"Where The Heart Is offers a nuanced view of one family’s struggle to negotiate cold Britannia as they face dicey neighbourhoods, sketchy liaisons, and perennial ill-fate. Chatora’s diaspora is not the glorified El Dorado; it is an honest place of grit and survival. A stellar contribution."

– Tariro Ndoro, Author Agringada: Like a Gringa, Like a Foreigner

For migrant Fari Mupawaenda, life cannot be complete without quitting the back breaking struggle for survival in the UK and returning to the laid-back streets of a warm Harare… but does it make sense for him to want to return to the periphery once more? The man who returns, why does he return? To what does he return?

His wife, a zealous cosmopolitan, the daughter, a conflicted bed-hopping undergraduate, and the son, a budding homosexual, will not follow Fari in his trip to what they see as the back of beyond. They have decided to invest fully where they are.
Fari’s reverse trip is a story about the human body, a tight memory test and a duel between geography and anticipation…

Masterful in style and form, the narratives in Andrew Chatora’s Where the Heart Is are intensely provocative.

-Memory Chirere- University of Zimbabwe
“Chatora gives us an honest account of the migrant’s experiences in a world that seeks to silence him. Diaspora Dreams is simultaneously suffocating and isolating. Battle after battle, the reader is constantly thrown into the unforgiving world of a black man in a white man’s world.” – Tariro Ndoro, Author, Agringada: Like a Gringa, Like a Foreigner

Diaspora Dreams is Andrew Chatora’s debut novella. It details the life and struggles of Kundai Mafirakureva, a Zimbabwean immigrant living in the United Kingdom. When Kundai departs a failing Zimbabwe for the greener pastures of England, he is convinced that his luck will immediately change. Yet what he finds in the UK convinces him that all that glitters is not always gold.

Chatora takes us on a journey that acquaints us with Thames Valley, where Kundai must negotiate his place and his voice in a world where African men are not welcome, a world where racial prejudice is still rampant. Set against the backdrop of petty classroom squabbles that constantly remind Kundai of his lower status as an immigrant and as a black man, Diaspora Dreams exposes the tensions of working in the diaspora and the complicated dynamics between community and authority experienced by black men.

The pressures of Britain also bear down on Kundai’s family and relationships, threatening, in the words of du Bois, to “tear his soul asunder.” This is a novel with comedic elements gleaming with personal values and beliefs, sometimes an aching story to read, but never without excitement and hope as you watch this black man’s life unfold.
“Harare Voices and Beyond takes us on a journey through the dark recesses of the human psyche.”

─Sue Quainton, Bicester, United Kingdom

A drunken confession exposes a dark family secret. Rhys appears to have it all. A white Zimbabwean living in affluent Borrowdale Brooke area he gets involved in a freak traffic accident. Therein unfolds a confession which unleashes a cathartic chain of events in the family’s hitherto well-choreographed life, a family whose lived experience becomes microcosmic and an eye opener to Zimbabwe’s seemingly closed, forgotten, white minority community.

Through offering a rare insight into lives of the white community in post-independence Zimbabwe, Harare Voices and Beyond explores the dynamics of love, money, family feuds, identity politics, false philanthropy, and respectability inter-alia. Two families’ lives are inexorably linked in this fast-paced narrative which not only traverses multiple locations, but also juxtaposes the seedy underbelly of Harare with the leafy northern suburbs, and little-known Marina Thompson from UK Durham University all appear linked in a drama-infused finale that will shock and numb the reader.

Today in Literature

Andrew Chatora’s Debut Novella “Diaspora Dreams” Stares Back at the White Gaze


The Breaking of Our Tribe: A Review of Where the Heart Is by Andrew Chatora


Charles Lovemore Mungoshi – Eulogy to Greatness


Navigating New Identities – A Review of Andrew Chatora’s “Diaspora Dreams”


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