Seized by the Zimbabwean police, denounced as pornographic, the director vilified as a criminal and traitor, yet Ingrid Sinclair’s Flame did nothing wrong other than act as a mouthpiece for female guerrillas whose experience of, and contribution to, the Bush War had been previously overlooked.
The film tells the story of Florence, a young girl who joins the fight against the Rhodesian forces, motivated first by the inspiring speeches of Comrade Danger and then by the arrest of her father by the Rhodesians. She, along with a number of other female combatants, becomes accepted into the rebel troop and adopts the name ‘Comrade Flame’. Although she excels as a soldier she endures a series of traumas; she is raped by male Comrade Ché, and although they reconcile and have a baby together, he is eventually killed in an air raid. At the climax of the war she is celebrated as a war hero by her male comrades who proclaim;
‘It is women like this. Together with you men we have won this war; women won this freedom with us. They fought with us, they have fed us, they sheltered us, they have risked their lives, let us salute them’.
What the film also covers is the post-conflict period. Florence lives out in the country with Danger and they have started a family. However, Danger is dominant and violent towards her, especially after he loses his job. Florence goes to the city to look for work where she is reunited with her old female Comrade Liberty. Liberty reveals that female combatants have a reputation for having been prostitutes and do not get any respect anymore. On Heroes Day Florence remarks that they are among the heroes but Liberty replies ‘No Flame, we’re just women’. One of their last lines is to shout ‘a luta continua (the struggle continues)’, a telling message from the director.
Sinclair already had a background in European Feminism and feminism as a topic was beginning to become a become a force in Zimbabwe at the time of the film. Her inspiration for the film really took off when she befriended a female ex-combatant who shared her writings with her. This particular woman was bitter about the treatment she and her comrades had received post-war in comparison to male comrades and would help in the film’s production. Sinclair interviewed this woman and three others who only spoke with anonymity as they saw their information about rape as dangerous and were worried about being identified. They said that until then, nobody had ever asked them about their experiences. These women were adamant that their life struggles and lack of recognition was reflected in the film.
Although Sinclair was white, the ex-combatants felt comfortable having her represent them in film as she was an outsider with no connection to them or the government. She shared the script with those she interviewed and made some changes with how the men were represented; some ex-combatants had stressed that not all the men were thugs and that they should not be stereotyped. Male veterans were less satisfied and , who wanted a male protagonist and for the rape scene to be removed.
Upon release, many male veterans denied the rape scene as fictitious and Sinclair was branded a traitor. She felt she was an easy target as she was white. There were calls for a reshoot and police confiscated the film, denouncing it as pornographic. Fortunes changed though after a screening in Belgium which was well-received whilst across Africa it resonated with many who felt it told the story of their own struggles. It did eventually gain acceptance in Harare, partly as veterans liked the ending as it generated sympathy for them as they sought compensation.
Sinclair, in her own words, had acted as a mouthpiece for female combatants and the struggles they had been through despite their achievements and the key roles they had played in the liberation.
Flame (1996) [DVD} Directed by Ingrid Sinclair; Interview with Ingrid Sinclair
Flame| Human Rights Watch
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