Blockbuster or bust

In 2002 the pool of the moving image industry was disturbed by a series of ripples, generated by pebbles of discontent. The uneasiness came in the form of the debate around language and representation with the public broadcaster, the perennial concern with jump-starting a film industry in South Africa, and the contest for production opportunities between rival companies who are acutely aware of limited financial resources and distribution channels.

At a glance, none of these seem distinguishable from the challenges of any other year.
In fact the events of 2002 in the film and broadcast industry will soon become a vague memory. But the implications of the decisions made in 2002 will, and already have, set the path for some radical changes in the way moving images in film and television will be manufactured in 2003.

The policy strategies adopted in the last year have the potential to create a local industry that is not only vibrant and diverse, but offers opportunities for creative talents to be identified and nurtured. The National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) has augmented its commitment to developing the film industry by securing R27 million for script development and productions. The budget increase is coupled by another NFVF development a training initiative. A new committee is now dedicated to creating and developing strategy around training programs. These developments will give aspiring scriptwriters, directors, producers and cinematographers the institutional infrastructure they’ve craved for so long.

That said, there are still a number of support mechanisms that have to be secured. Distribution channels and exhibition spaces remain a pressing concern for most independent producers. The key to this dilemma lies not so much in targeting the theatrical film distributors, but in securing the support and commitment of the national broadcaster.

‘Made for TV’ films are a solid financial option for a fledging moving image industry. This option has been clouded by ideas of ‘the grand theatrical release picture’ (sic) which will rescue and resurrect the embryonic industry. The ‘big picture’ aspiration is fueled by the idea of foreign markets and foreign returns on local investment. Of course, the cultural value of this endeavour is to root South Africa securely as a film-producing nation. But like the pebbles of last year, the sporadic pictures we manufacture are soon forgotten in a foreign context, easily replaced by the distractions of a new year.

For this year to be different, the NFVF must encourage filmmakers, producers and production companies to make smaller films for the local market. There must also be a tie-in commitment from the SABC to showcase films funded by the NFVF. Through such a mechanism, the issues of regionalism, local community representation and diversity are inevitably addressed, and often in more innovative and creative ways.

The BBC’s Channel Four films are an excellent example of a successful relationship between film production and a national broadcaster. Strengthening the model as the ideal to which the SABC should aspire is the fact that our national broadcaster is also committed to stretching its footprint across the African continent: film (whether shot on DV or celluloid) remains the most seductive cultural transmitter of all media.

So, we should remain sober in the face of the Hollywood mirage and create an oasis of small independent films made accessible to a wider audience through television. Perhaps this will be the year we shatter our illusions of short cuts, quick fixes or singular seminal pieces with international appeal. Small pebbles in steady supply are more effective in maintaining ripples that can eventually turn the tide for the local industry.

Jyoti Mistry is the Head of Television in the School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. She holds a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from New York University.

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