Docs

A Sleeping Giant

Africa's history with documentary filmmaking is sketchy at best. As one Zimbabwe-based filmmaker describes it, documentaries in much of Africa traditionally meant 'underfunded programs for an NGO that built a toilet in some rural area and wanted a film about the achievement.' However, Chris Haws, special consultant to the Creative Industries Initiative within the World Bank, predicts the continent's riches - cultural, political and geographical - will eventually spur Africa to emerge as a strong base for documentary film.
August 1, 2002

Africa’s history with documentary filmmaking is sketchy at best. As one Zimbabwe-based filmmaker describes it, documentaries in much of Africa traditionally meant ‘underfunded programs for an NGO that built a toilet in some rural area and wanted a film about the achievement.’ However, Chris Haws, special consultant to the Creative Industries Initiative within the World Bank, predicts the continent’s riches – cultural, political and geographical – will eventually spur Africa to emerge as a strong base for documentary film.

Haws’ current post lends some insight to the prediction. Most of his day is spent looking for ways to help build the production infrastructure needed by doc-makers based in developing countries. Despite dealing with a myriad of regions, all with their own challenges, he sees Africa as the one to watch in the future. ‘Wherever people are struggling with themselves or with any kind of oppression, traditionally that’s where the good stories are told,’ he says.

The catch-22 is that the very elements and conflicts that provide the bones of a good story also stand in the way of documentaries being made – or seen. Zimbabwe offers a perfect example. President Robert Mugabe recently bullied his way into his 22nd year in office, and on June 16 his government announced that all media organizations and journalists must pay steep fees to be accredited to work in the country. Foreign organizations will be charged about US$12,000; local press ZW$520,000 (US$9,500).

Nonetheless, Zimbabwe’s filmmakers are finding ways to complete projects. ‘A lot of people are hungry to find out what’s going on. We can take advantage of the great dramas happening at the moment,’ says Zimbabwe-based producer Nakai Matema.

Matema founded Ice Films in 1998 along with partners Joel Phiri and Dan Jawitz. When Phiri and Jawitz moved the distribution arm, Ice Media, to South Africa, Matema decided to stay in Zimbabwe. ‘I concentrate on small documentary pieces and short films, because that’s the only thing possible in the current climate,’ she explains.

Ice Films contributed the 26-minute doc A Fighting Spirit, about Zimbabwean boxer Gilbert Josamu, to the Steps for the Future project (a collection of films about the cultural impact of aids) and is currently editing Zimbabwe: My Land, My Life, a 52-minute film that examines the country’s politically charged struggle over land reform. ‘Our intention is to have it air in Zimbabwe, because we have all the necessary permits from the relevant officials,’ says Matema, who admits the few problems the film crew had with war veterans (groups of which have occupied white-owned farms) were overcome only because she had the official backing of the government. ‘But, that’s not the end,’ she continues. ‘You have to also get an international audience. That’s the only way you can make a sizeable amount of money. What broadcasters tend to pay in Africa is not enough to sustain.’

My Land, My Life carries a budget of about US$105,000 and was completed with funds from SBS Australia (US$4,000), the Jan Vrijman Foundation, CIDA, OTI/PACT, and others. Matema is also speaking with Canadian pubcaster CBC and France’s ARTE, and says the BBC and Channel 4 are both interested in the U.K. rights. Without international assistance, Matema estimates she would have been limited to a budget of $50,000 – a figure closely echoed by Christa Joubert of Red Pepper Pictures in Johannesburg, South Africa. ‘The average rate here is $350 per minute for a documentary. That’s about $20,000 for an hour-long film,’ says Joubert. ‘If we want to produce world class documentaries, we have to spend more money.’

Accessing the funds available through the international market isn’t easy. As former head of programming and scheduling at South African pubcaster SABC3, Joubert knows the industry and its participants. Despite her connections, finding partners for Whispering the Wild – Taming the Untouched Horse, a $150,000 doc about a wild Namibian horse that’s tamed by horse whisperer Kelly Marks, is taking longer than expected.

‘We tried to get an international broadcaster involved, but because nobody knew the company or the director, it was very difficult,’ recalls Joubert. Discovery Europe eventually picked up the doc and Joubert notes that the finished film has won interest from Germany and U.S.- based parties. ‘If you build up relationships with certain people, they get to know your product,’ she notes. ‘I’m sure next time will be much easier.’

Still, broadcasters around the globe are turning ever inward to reflect the immediate concerns of their constituents, limiting the number of opportunities – and dollars – given to international fare. Says Haws, ‘When you move externally, you rely on the good will of a few documentary commissioning editors.’ SBS Australia, ARTE France and the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand are among the few Haws says continue to make space for a variety of work. ‘I am of the view that organizations such as Discovery, National Geographic and PBS need to take more risks,’ he continues.

Overcoming preconceived notions of Africa is another problem. ‘Many people are blinded by the glare of AIDS, malnutrition, poverty. Persuading people to get into other human stories is a challenge,’ notes Haws.

Additionally, the traditional infrastructure for creating and funding docs in southern Africa produced a film community largely unversed in the business of documentary film. ‘In terms of our filmmaking skills level, we can compete anywhere,’ says Eddie Mbalo, CEO of the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) in South Africa, a government funded organization dedicated to growing the country’s film and video industry. ‘Where we’re lacking skills at the moment is in the business of producing. We don’t have deal-makers. We don’t have people who are able to go out there and negotiate funding or coproductions.’

Mbalo blames a reliance on funding from non-governmental organizations and the aftereffects of apartheid for the industry’s shortcomings. The lack of opportunities available to South Africa’s black filmmakers forced many to become self-taught, he argues. He also says the sabc has been slow to change its commissioning practices. ‘To an extent, it’s like donor funding from the broadcaster,’ he explains. ‘The broadcaster gives you all the money to make the program and then takes all the rights, so you just work for the broadcaster. We need to change that. SABC has to adapt to the new challenges.’

The NFVF is one organization helping things evolve. The foundation financed about 20 filmmakers from South Africa to attend the Banff Television Festival in June. For MIPCOM, a mentor program is being established and a booth will be available for meetings. The NFVF is also providing partial funds for projects so producers can retain some rights. ‘Our budget increased 50% this year and is now R18 million ($1.7 million),’ says Mbalo. ‘On May 24, the government announced another R35 million ($3.4 million) for the development of features and shorts. That means more money for documentaries.’

Mbalo also wants to conduct a study to determine the size of South Africa’s film industry and what it contributes to the country’s GDP. Available stats are at least three years old and, says Mbalo, inaccurate. The figures put production turnover at R1.5 billion ($145 million), with an estimated 20,000 people employed by the industry.

While most recognize international coproduction as a must if docs that meet international standards are to be produced, they also concede the need to strengthen the domestic market. Says Haws, ‘Time and again, at events around the world, I see stories being presented that are, in fact, the responsibility of the national broadcasters to deal with, not the international community.’

An abbreviated survey of South Africa’s broadcasters yields a mixed outlook. SABC3′s 9:30 Sunday night doc slot, ‘Expressions’, has been reduced from one hour to 30 minutes, effective September 2002. But, the per-minute commission rate was increased from R3,500 ($350) to R3,800 ($380). At M-Net, a pay-TV outlet, about 150 hours of docs are broadcast each year, roughly 30% of which are produced locally. ‘The argument we hear is that documentaries are not economically viable. That’s nonsense, because at the end of the day it’s scheduling,’ says Mbalo. ‘With the broadcast of Steps for the Future we saw that even though it is scheduled for late at night – 10:00 P.M. – the audiences for that time of the evening have grown. If you have a permanent slot for documentaries, it will be popular and it will attract advertising.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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