Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Watching Flame more than 10 years after it was first released back in 1996, it's hard to imagine the storm of controversy that surrounded it at the time. But it was the first film to deal with the liberation of Zimbabwe from Ian Smith's Rhodesian regime.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the film is less concerned with the Second Chimurenga/Rhodesian Bush War than with women's part within the struggle and the attitudes of the male-dominated society towards them both during and after the conflict. It is this examination of the treatment of women - which British-born Ingrid Sinclair's film contends included rape at the hands of their fellow soldiers - that sparked a backlash from the likes of the Veterans Association of Zimbabwe, who declared it "full of lies". In fact, the reaction to it in its homeland was so extreme that the print was initially confiscated on the (spurious) grounds that it was pornographic, until a worldwide campaign placed it back in the hands of its producers.

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The strength of the opposition may initially seem out of place when you consider the action is, for the most part, a fairly gentle study of friendship, centring on two village girls, Florence (Marian Kunonga) and Nyasha (Ulla Mahaka). Filled with romantic idealism concerning the nature of the fight - and not a little encouraged by some of the dishier blokes who've already signed up - the pair, with feisty Florence taking the lead, head off to one of the training camps. There, they take on new names, with Florence choosing the apt moniker of Flame and Nyasha, who has a more studious bent, opting to be known as Liberty. But the realities of war are harsher than they imagined, with an act of rape demonstrating that despite their battle prowess they are still ripe for subjugation.

Initially the film suffers from a series of scenes shot in the present day, as the now estranged friends reconnect. The acting from the bit-part players here is wooden and the staging more reminiscent of TV drama than a feature film. It is worth sticking with the action, however, as once we flash back 15 years to join Florence and Nyasha's story at its beginning, the film becomes much more interesting.

Certainly this is a rare chance to see an exploration of Zimbabwe on film and it's interesting to note that Sinclair originally wanted to make a documentary on the issue but was forced to fictionalise events due to the fact that the women on whose testimony it is based were too scared to go on the record. Sinclair and co-writers Barbara Jago and Philip Roberts also handle the 'echoes' of the women's treatment well - suggesting that although war may offer a modicum of emancipation and seem to "change everything", once the fighting ends the windows of opportunity are often snapped shut again.

Despite its interesting subject matter, a decent script and engaging enough performances from Kunonga and Mahaka, the end result is let down by a rather 'stagey' feel that is hindered rather than helped by intermittent voiceover from Nyasha, with Sinclair too keen to tell the viewer what is happening rather than show. Worth a watch as a history lesson, but the underlying emotion is always just beyond our reach.

Reviewed on: 18 Oct 2009
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Story of the Zimbabwe War of Liberation as seen through the eyes of to female freedom fighters.
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Director: Ingrid Sinclair

Writer: Barbara Jago, Philip Roberts, Ingrid Sinclair

Starring: Marian Kunonga, Ulla Mahaka, Moise Matura, Norman Madawo, Dick 'Chinx' Chigaira

Year: 1996

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: Zimbabwe


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