“Cook Off – the first film from Zimbabwe to be shown on Netflix” said the headline. Well, I’d better watch it then, I thought – especially as reports told me that since 2000 only a handful of full-length films had been made in Zimbabwe. And even better, it wasn’t going to be a depressing watch, focusing on Zimbabwe’s political and economic woes. Instead, this very low-budget 2017 film (it reportedly had an initial budget of just $8,000) is an uplifting diversion, a rom-com focusing on a young mother’s efforts to win a television cookery contest; she is entered into the competition by her son, who is a big fan of her cooking.
Written and directed by Tomas Lutuli Brickhill, Cook Off is not the slickest film ever. The acting is a bit amateurish at times and the whole thing looks a bit like it’s been shot on someone’s iphone. But you would never know that it was made as Robert Mugabe’s corrupt regime was collapsing around him; the cast agreed to defer their appearance fees amid massive hyperinflation, and the set was repeatedly beset by power cuts.
The lead actress, Tendaiishe Chitima, who plays single mum Anesu, was great, and she gave a really appealing performance as a women taking charge of her future, and using her talent to pursue the show’s substantial cash prize. There were plenty of other likeable characters, too, including hip hop star Tendai Ryan Nguni, or Tehn Diamond, as fellow competitor Prince, Anesu’s good-hearted romantic interest.
The film employed the TV set that had been used for making a real-life Zimbabwean cookery show. The challenges set for the contestants in the fictionalised TV contest didn’t seem particularly challenging or necessarily indicative of being Zimbabwe’s top chef: Eggs Benedict, and posh fish and chips. The subject matter was cosy, with a bit of very mild intrigue amid the sweet romance and gentle humour. Overall, it was an easy watch, which may be just what we all need at the moment.