Late 2008 -- Zimbabwe’s political-economic fabric is in shreds. Zimbabwean crafters have nowhere to sell their products. Barter, not cash, becomes their primary currency. However, critical items such as school fees, clothing, medicine and transportation require cash. A local crafts promoter brings news of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market to two rural villages, Masenduand Siansundu. The Folk Art Market, held in Santa Fe, New Mexico each July, is the largest folk art market in the world. The villagers are intrigued by the opportunity to go to America to sell their baskets.
In 2009, the leaders of Masendu and Siansundu gave Cristina McCandless and her crew unprecedented access to their communities to film the story of their basketmakers taking advantage of the Folk Art Market opportunity.
“From Zimbabwe to Santa Fe,” a 75-minute documentary, opens with the Masendu management committee gathered under the broad thatched roof of their community center where they are discussing who is the best person to represent them, Gogo or Sindiso. Eight hours by car across Zimbabwe, the basketmakers of Siansundu meet under their community tree, where the young leader of the basketmakers, Matron, reluctantly accepts her group’s appointment as their representative. Over the next year, each community and their chosen representatives navigate a bumpy road littered with the unexpected complexities of global commerce.
Each heroine begins her journey with naïve enthusiasm and little comprehension of the obstacles ahead. Neither language, internet, transportation, bureaucracies, expenses, cultural misunderstandings, commercial realities nor political prejudices deter the women. They creatively bridge the inevitable cultural and economic schisms between village life and the “western world,” simultaneously illustrating humanity’s commonalities and diversity. Their journey leads everyone to surprising destinations.
Gogo is one of Masendu’s master basketmakers and a respected elder. In her sixties, her face a map of life’s experiences, she is the story’s “sage.” Widowed early, she supported her children and now supports her grandchildren by bartering her baskets for food. Gogo manages her homestead, raises grandchildren and serves as a cultural leader. Because Gogo doesn’t speak English and doesn’t read or write well, the charming Sindiso is chosen to accompany Gogo should The Folk Art Market accept Masendu’s application.
Sindiso, an attractive ambitious middle-aged mother whose husband is a domestic worker in South Africa, lives an orderly, busy life on her homestead with two of her three sons. As head of Masendu Ward’s natural resources, a volunteer position, Sindiso enjoys special social standing. Sindiso speaks a little English, hence her role as Gogo’s interpreter. As the story unfolds, Sindiso becomes the most effusive and accessible character, generous in revealing her thoughts and emotions; she's the audience’s cultural interpreter.
Across Zimbabwe in Siansundu lives Matron, a twenty-two year old orphan who parents her two younger sisters and leads the area’s basketmakers. The story’s most complicated character, you can’t help rooting for Matron who tells us “courage” is her mantra. Matron is surrounded by a circle of engaging teenage girlfriends. This closely-knit group is shepherded by the nurturing middle-aged women Matron calls her “grandmothers.”
Gogo, Sindiso and Matron are “From Zimbabwe to Santa Fe’s” primary storytellers. In narrating their own story, speaking in multiple languages, including English, they guide us through their world with such honesty and charm, we soon think of these women as our neighbors, identify with them as they face the same daily challenges we face – work, family, food, community - striving daily for economic security with whatever resources are available.
“From Zimbabwe to Santa Fe,” a cinema vérité documentary, uses the distinctive physical environments, activities, ambient color/light/sound, native music and, of course, basket making that surrounds each character to enrich our understanding of their lives and communities.
As we follow the heroines’ travels toward economic opportunity, we experience life in each village and witness the seasons transition across an agriculturally-based calendar as the women plant, tend and harvest their crops. The story flows between milestones related to each heroine’s preparations for the Folk Art Market and their daily routines that are universal to the human condition.
Composer and Sound Designer, Federico Chavez-Blanco, elegantly weaves the daily rhythms, squeaking ulala reeds, melodic cowbells and locally recorded folk songs sung by the villages’ women and children into his lush original soundtrack.