“We all encounter difficulties”
Tomas Brickhill’s 2017 Zimbabwean romantic drama Cook Off defied all odds when it was picked up by Netflix. Unfortunately, its severe filming conditions make it one of the hardest films to review, putting into question the essence of art. What is more crucial to its transcendence – quality or spirit?
Single mother Anesu (Tendaiishe Chitima) relies on distractions and pessimism to deter her from pursuing her culinary dreams. It’s not until her son Tapiwa (Eugene Zimbudzi) signs her up for a cooking competition, that she musters the courage to face the challenge. During the show, she meets fellow chef Prince (Tehn Diamond), who guides her growth – both skill-based and emotional. As an amateur chef, Anesu becomes the victim of petty espionage, learning that there is only so much of our lives we can control.
At times, it feels like we’re watching Masterchef – but with barely any cooking shown. The plot relies heavily on interviews and the judges’ verdicts, making the transitions rather dry, and the the film’s dynamism non-existent. One of the characters judging Anesu’s cooking is quite clearly a less sassy personification of Simon Cowell’s stinging apathy. It’s hard to derive any humour from it, however, seeing as everyone in
Anesu’s surroundings seems to spit venom at her on numerous occasions. The film is first and foremost a drama, which is unfortunate, since the actors’ stiff acting and the perfunctory dialogue they have to work with do little to aplify Cook Off‘s tepid tension. Perhaps that is why certain scenes appear in random order, and are accompanied by eyebrow-raising metal music.
In the case of this film, digging deeper is the only way to achieve clarity. With a budget of only 8,000 dollars, no running water and constant power cuts, the very completion of this film is something of a wonder. Cook Off was shot just months before the fall of Zimbabwe’s despotic ex-president Robert Mugabe, who brought the country’s economy down. In an interview with The Guardian, Tendaiishe Chitima disclosed that most of the film was shot on Zimbabwe’s version of Top Chef, called Battle of the Chefs, which has since gone off the air. Using the show’s costumes and equipment, the cast and crew were able to save some of the film’s budget.
Despite the film’s perceived amateurship and unoriginality, we are presented with a rather quaint story about the fear that stops us from pursuing our passion in life, and how awarding overcoming it can be. With its portrayal of the sacrifices a single mother makes, and the film’s achievement as the first Zimbabwean film on Netflix, Cook Off hides more beneath its hood than meets the eye. Though it’s nowhere near our standards of thrilling cinematography, it presents an insight into a different culture – and how perseverance often goes unnoticed.