When modelling enthusiast Mercy Mushaninga funded promotional materials for a Zimbabwean romcom Lobola 10 years ago, she did not know that her good deed was paving the way for her then four-year-old son Eugene Zimbudzi to enter into the film industry.
Eight years after her act of good faith, her son auditioned for a supporting role in another humble film Cook Off. He nailed and landed the role of Tapiwa, the son of a talented but downtrodden single mother whose life’s turmoil are just a microcosm of the inherent socio-economic and political mess inherent in Zimbabwe.
Ironically, the film was shot in November 2017, the last days in power for the now late autocratic Zimbabwean leader, Robert Mugabe, who had made the presidency his birth right. Mugabe had ruled for 38 years, the better part of which he oppressed and impoverished his people leaving the former bread basket of Africa a desolate basket case.
Strikingly, the storyline epitomises, the strife of a resolute Zimbabwean woman, played by Tendai Chitima, whose eventual success in a cooking competition is determined by how she traverses both natural hurdles and others thrown by villains surrounding her.
Its her son Tapiwa (Eugene), her friends, boyfriend, played by rapper Tehn Diamond, and family who keep her going.
An authentic Zimbabwean story where success is never handed on a silver platter but one must navigate multitudes of pitfalls, Eugene plays the role with astounding ease.
That the film eventually became the first Zimbabwean production on American streaming platform Netflix, sums up the story bliss after some real hard work.
Mushaninga remembers one of the producers, Joe Njagu and his now United Kingdom based friend, Rufaro Kaseke working hard several years ago in Harare on different film productions.
“I was inspired by their hard work,” said Mushaninga. “I used to see them (Njangu and Kaseke) at my Internet Cafe at Speciss College, so I decided to help them. I believe if the film industry is supported, then it would thrive because it has so much potential.”
Mushaninga is thrilled by the Njagu’s success. In fact, she views it as her own.
“Their success is my success and we celebrate together.”
The founder and director of various modelling pageants among them Miss Curvy, Mushaninga is still having “goose bumps” each time she remembers the feat that her son has achieved.
“I have produced brands through my modelling agency and I have celebrated but the thought that my son made it onto Netflix gives me goose bumps, and I thank God everyday for answering my prayers. When Eugene auditioned for Cook Off, I was surprised by how he read the script and took his role; he did it like a professional who had done it before,” said Mushaninga.
While his mother is ecstatic, Eugene, now 14, believes this is the beginning of bigger things and is already preparing himself for bigger film roles by enrolling into karate classes.
“I am excited, I have always wanted to see myself on the big screen and my dream came true through Cook Off. I have now started learning different languages and karate skills and my mom said she will find me an acting school.”
But even before his recent success, Eugene had always wanted to be an actor and would be coached for oratory and poetry by his mother.
“Ever since my mother started coaching me on poetry, motivational speech and voice over for cartoons, I developed interest in acting and now here I am.
“Even now, I still do some rap lines because the rhymes are similar to those of poetry. I do not write but I perform poetry and rap music.”
Eugene has now inspired all his friends and peers at Groombridge Primary School in Harare where he is in the seventh grade.
“Several friends and school mates now all want to be actors because of me.”
He now describes himself as an actor, model, poet, voice over artist and a motivational speaker.
“I am the youngest Zimbabwean actor to feature on Netflix and I am excited. I appreciate how Joe and Tomas (Brickhill the director) worked hard to put the movie on Netflix,” said Eugene.