Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

Who’s who in the film zoo?

Discop Africa, a Pan-African film and television market for African and international sellers and buyers of content, took place at the Sandton Convention Centre over three days last week. The organisers plan to keep the Sandton Convention Centre as their permanent venue, which is all very good news for the South African film industry. If you are part of the Big Five club, that is.

The Big Five are the major film companies in South Africa. They produce the most content, get the most contracts and basically enjoy the bulk of the film industry privileges in SA. They even own the bulk of the stories of South Africa. These include the struggle history, access to the apartheid archives, the black township and tsotsi story and mostly the Aids story. This content is what they have built their empires upon.

These companies, along with the public broadcaster, are largely the gatekeepers of public television and film consumption. They are owned by people who all lay some sort of claim to the struggle. They will proclaim loudly in their character references that they chose to live in exile as a protest against apartheid. But dig a little deeper and you will more than likely find albums filled with joyous back-packing photographs that follow their lives in Paris or on the Kibbutz — where really, their parents sent them to keep them out of the army and out of harm’s way.

Nonetheless, when they returned to South Africa after a jolly good holiday they more than likely walked directly into their family trust funds. They then, with this supportive infrastructure, began to compete for the limited resources that were available for the development of the post-apartheid film Industry — and boy, then the struggle credentials abounded. No doubt struggle resumes would ensure matching funding to their bloated trust fund accounts.

And so the post-1994 South African film industry was born right in the middle of the sweaty clutches of plump privileged white hands.

Now, 18 years later, at the biggest film industry market in Africa, one would expect to see many more black South African faces in kiosks and doing business with the big buyers.

The fact is that there were plenty of black faces at this venue. It just so happens that very few of them were South African. And wow, what a field day this gives our sanctimonious white filmmakers who pat themselves on the backs and say that it is not their fault that black South Africans lack the will power to make it … that they must pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get it together.

Their smug discourse seems oblivious of the fact that the entire African continent’s film industry is a fairly recent phenomenon — and this in countries where the white folk were chased out and not invited to meddle in black affairs and resist transformation like our white middle class do. Even so, the African market is still in its fledgling state as Nollywood film producers now join the international market where certain standards of filmmaking are not acceptable and often frowned upon.

That is until it becomes apparent that there is money to be made and suddenly the Big Five move in like predators and corner that market for themselves. They are now moving into Africa at an alarming rate in what can only be described as a new gold rush — the gold being the African story.

While observing local matters at Discop Africa I began to feel that I was indeed on Safari. I noticed how the Big Five have got subtle swagger and the understated polite kind of confidence that comes with old money. They are mainly silver-haired, well-kept, middle-aged, white folk — the lions, a few lionesses, the rhinos (horns intact), the elephants, leopard and buffalo. They are there with their briefcases and expensive shoes. They do business and they do it well.

Lurking around this elite cartel are the frazzled and desperate hyenas and jackals. This lot are always scheming and looking for projects with mega-funding potential. Sometimes they plagiarise other people’s ideas and repackage them. There is a lot of bullshitting going on in this echelon. These guys run democratic organisations that look after their own interests. They prey on unsuspecting young black filmmakers with ambition and draw them into their schemes. They need black rubberstamping on their projects and boy they will get it — even if there are a few carcasses left in their wake. Their eyes are always on the move. They are hungry for what the Big Five has but even they cannot break that glass ceiling.

Beyond that are the walking wounded. These are the rhinos that have had their horns sawed off by the elitist poachers who have dispossessed them of their authentic struggle history. These are the foot soldiers that were too busy fighting the struggle to benefit from it. They were also too busy trying to heal their war wounds to notice all the resources disappearing into wealthy white companies who were making a living out of their experiences.

The walking wounded have got struggle ethics. They did not fight the struggle or spend their youth in prison to become the lackeys of the privileged class. They are not part of the elite struggle icon children. They grew up in townships or informal settlements and they simply cannot compete with the economic privilege that all those above them have access to. They shake their heads in pity when they see the “pawn industry” of desperate young, black, entry-level filmmakers getting sucked up by big companies to join the “chocolate factory” (what many trainees call the companies that employ them as eternal trainees and cheap labour).

The public broadcaster does not help either. It consistently relines the pockets of these Big Five companies that have more than enough already. They even allocate massive budgets to train black filmmakers thus creating another cash cow for the uber-wealthy class.

There is no end to the money these empires can make off the suffering, poverty and sweat of the black population of South Africa.

So when I was at Discop Africa and saw many of the Big Five, more than a few hyenas, and only one (maybe two) walking wounded, it dawned on me that ours is indeed the least transformed film industry in the world despite the millions allocated to the top companies to spend on endless training.

It all came to a head in the last presentation of the week titled “The world loves content made in Africa”. The first thing I noticed was that the title of the presentation was wide open for neo-colonial interpretation. The second thing was that the entire panel, bar one lonely face, was white. The third thing I noticed was that they referred to themselves as African — as if that made the problem of race equity go away.

The facilitator was black, I think, but with my eyes closed I could not differentiate between his discourse and that of the white Africans on the podium, laying claim to Africa’s story treasure chest and he shot me down when I asked about the complexion of the panel.

I also enquired from the one lone black face up there as to how he intended to ensure an authentic African narrative, as he had preached, when he was clearly working with the white film industry. He said he had to go to where the money was. Is there anything more to say?

The Black Filmmakers Network is one organisation lobbying for transformation and equity for black South African filmmakers and is calling for an industry transformation audit. It wants to know why, after so many years of training, many black filmmakers are still nowhere in this country. It wants to know which companies are paying meagre salaries to black filmmakers, often less than half of what white practitioners are earning — as has frequently been reported to it.

They say transformation is not about endless training of black filmmakers. It is about access to funds and means of production. It is about a complete reworking of the entire film industry and implementing equity policies from all stakeholders. It is in fact, about redistribution of wealth.

They want transparency and equity around the allocation of budgets and funds — and they are calling on state film funders and the public broadcaster to support their efforts to finally transform the industry.

If not, then, like the mining industry, it will take another 127 years to finally see more black faces than white faces in top positions in our industry. For now black filmmakers have largely been reduced to a cheap labour market.

The fact that this lack of representation was not even a point of embarrassment for the South African participants of Discop Africa says a lot about how this problem is being swept under the carpet.

In the meantime, that Discop Africa is choosing its home in Sandton, is only good news for the Big Five and the hyenas.

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    • Dave Harris

      What an eye-opening perspective of the SA film industry! Thank you!
      I was beginning to wonder when someone would muster the courage to speak about the hegemony of our local film industry by the old guard, just like our local media mafia is controlled by a single corporate conglomerate.

      I was absolutely disgusted when I saw the recent documentary made by two middle aged white South Africans called “Searching for Sugarman”. This movie not only excludes black students, it airbrushes history in the most insidious way to make it look like white students started the the student uprisings against the apartheid government after hearing Rodriquez’s songs!!! When in reality no white school ever took part in the student uprisings of the 80’s that spread like a wildfire across our land!

      I guess just like our media mafia, their domination of the film industry is yet another strategy for them to once again indulge in creating their own version of our liberation struggle where the “Great White Savior” sets us free! LOL

    • Moipone

      Thanks Gillian for the candid analysis of the South African film industry. It makes me sad that nearly 20years of democracy very little has changed. I’m an emerging screenwriter living overseas and I can’t wait for when I start making pictures, pictures told by a black South African about South Africa.

      Everything film i’ve seen showcasing black south africans whether its been produced by Hollywood or own so called white Africans typecasts black South Africans as objects of pity, who often live in squalor and riddled with social problems. My own personal experience and that of my peers has moved on and progressed from that, but its like a very well kept secret that not all black South Africans have a sad story.

    • Tim

      Gillian, your articles touch on subjects which other writers tend to avoid or don’t have enough knowledge of to comment on, which is commendable, however, there is such a clear agenda to your pieces that it is difficult to take what you write seriously and detracts from and discredits the message that you are trying to relay.

      #Dave Harris you and your media conspiracy, it’s too funny, you will latch onto anything that you think supports your theory. I’m sure you haven’t been waiting with baited breath for such an article, you’ve just jumped on the bandwagon. While I haven’t seen the documentary you refer to, I’m sure the writers were merely telling their story as they experienced it. By the way UCT was invaded by the security police in 1987 after protests broke out and was the first ‘white’ university to be censored in such a way since 1972. Please refrain from making such broad sweeping statements in future.

    • Karney

      Dave your writing is like a schizophrenic word salad; I enjoyed ” Sugarman” , it took me back to my youth and parties dancing to his music. Yes I’m white and middle aged but so what. There is more to the life of a youngster then political activism and fury.

    • sipho

      Dear madam,
      Thank you for your article, as much as it speaks a lot of truth, I was at the world love Africa panel sesssion. I also noticed the one black face on the panel. Firlsty ,were you the white woman who asked the black question? If u were, I remember clearly that the black guy never said he is going where the money is. He said that the white males are the ones whove always had money and that is why they made all the programmes,he also mentioned that the tv industry has always been geared for white people,and many people like yourself benefited.
      Having said all that I agree with you on the issue that the white males have monopolized the industry and that needs to change. Our government should start supporting black filmmakers.

    • Grant

      Yet the ANC runs the SABC and no platform can be created for black film makers in a country where BEE is more important than profit? Please. Stop swatting white South Africa, the people who introduced film and its concept to this country…the body is almost lifeless already from all the angry kicks and punches. Lobby those in power to get the SABC/MNET to accept a portion of content from black film makers only.

      Or vote for a party that will make it happen.

    • Marjorie Jobson

      Thank you for this powerful blog. It resonates. One of the most extraordinary experiences for Khulumani was its participation with scriptwriter Professor Bheki Peterson from African Languages at WITS University and filmmaker Mr Suleman Ramadan in the making of the film, “Zulu Love Letter” – a TRC-related story. This has been the first film that has resonated with the experiences of the ‘walking wounded’. The funding was from church organisations.