An apology to accomplished black filmmakers

Two weeks ago, like on every Friday morning, I stole a quick look through the Mail & Guardian during my exciting SABC1 management meeting, when I stopped at Dr Florian Schattauer’s article (“Close encounters of an old kind”). I read the first paragraph, which stated boldly: “An SABC1 brief to black documentary filmmakers is patronising.” Never having heard of his name, I went straight to the end to read his credits.

When I read that Schattauer is “an adjunct professor at Webster University, Vienna’s visual culture programme, and teaches arts and culture management at the Wits school of arts”, I felt a deep sense of fear and anxiety. I had no idea what an “adjunct professor from Vienna” was, but I had no doubt that it had to be terribly important. The adjunct professor says very clearly in his article that SABC1 has alienated accomplished black filmmakers. The adjunct professor knows this “fact”, presumably from interviewing accomplished filmmakers. It is obvious that he was not speaking for himself.

To the accomplished black filmmaker(s) the adjunct professor interviewed, I apologise for having alienated you.

This was not our intention. The idea of both the training and the brief (Black on White) came from a few black filmmakers, but I’m afraid they weren’t necessarily “accomplished”. What we really meant in our brief was the following:

  • We are looking for black directors (male or female and “accomplished or unaccomplished”) with great ideas in response to

    the brief;

  • We have money for the six best film ideas (being accomplished, regrettably, does not guarantee you a commission);

  • We will provide opportunities for dialogue, debate, discussion (what we call training) through a series of master classes or workshops. Do not be afraid — this is not a boring university lecture where someone who has never made a film will teach you about filmmaking. We will bring out accomplished filmmakers like yourselves, not to shove things down your throat but to teach in the best sense of that word: share their filmmaking experiences with you.

    Sam Pollard, editor of some of Spike Lee’s most accomplished films, has agreed to work on this project. Pollard is a black man with great experience, matched only by his great humility;

  • If you are selected, you would need to be available to attend these sessions (not dissimilar to the mandatory requirement to attend to Schattauer’s lectures, if you were fortunate enough to be selected for his master’s class). This is simply to ensure that we maximise the use of our limited training resources; and

  • Once finished, we will market and broadcast your film. We will find an audience for it.

    To those “unaccomplished” black filmmakers — those of you who, to Schattauer’s mind, haven’t “reaped in award after award at prestigious film festivals” — or those who “either do not mind compromising or do indeed need training” — beware! We will patronise you. We will “institutionalise how the knowledge by and of the other is generated” (I am personally looking forward to achieving this!). You, says the adjunct professor, are merely meek black people “who do not mind compromising”.

    Schattauer’s most devastating question was: “Have you seen them (Ramadan Suleman, Ntshaveni Wa Luruli, Dumisani Phakati, Zola Maseko or Teddy Mattera) on television?” Then he says: “Unlikely.” Again, the professor may be right. It’s possible that M&G readers may have missed the documentary on Generations made by Suleman for SABC1 last year, but the majority of the TV-watching population did. We have pre-bought Suleman’s next film, Zulu Love Letter. Maseko’s The Foreigner and The Return of Sara Baartman played on SABC1 last year to great viewer response. We have also pre-bought his next film and are presently evaluating scripts for his next TV series. Phakathi’s Wana’wina played three times on SABC1 and we commissioned Bajove Doketla. Moreover, he is presently completing his next film Don’t Fuck With Me for us (due for broadcast in August). Mattera directed SABC1’s Townhip Soul, broadcast earlier this year. He has also just completed a feature film for SABC2. Lionel Ngakane’s Jemima and Johnny played twice on SABC1 with incredible ratings.

    There is no doubt in my mind that we do not do enough to celebrate and support the careers of accomplished black filmmakers. But can we afford to create an elitist culture brokered by award-winners? In my view, an accomplished filmmaker is anyone who has finished a film (an incredibly hard thing to do) and found an audience for it (no matter how small). Over the past eight months, several black directors completed documentary films for SABC1: Kethiwe Ngcobo, Rud-zani Dzuguga, Omelga Mthiyane, Asivanhzi Mathaba, Lederle Bosch, Zulfah Otto-Sallies, Khulile Nxumalo, Sipho Singiswa, Sello Molefe, Khalo Matabane, Madilakhe Mjekula, Beathur Baker, Lucilla Blankenberg, Vincent Moloi, Beverley Mitchell and Vaughn Giose. This year some of their films have been selected to play at the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, the Cannes Film Festival, HotDocs, the TriBeCa Film Festival and Vision du Reel, among others.

    While international awards are important, they cannot define who is accomplished and who is not.

    South African television is at too important a stage in its transformation to either alienate accomplished filmmakers or to close itself off to new voices.

    Learning, however, is a life-long process — equally important for the accomplished and the new; black and white. I hope South Africa rids itself of that European, elitist notion that training is for the “unaccomplished” only. I would like to take up Schattauer’s offer of training for white commissioning editors, but I’m afraid I don’t qualify.

    Having read two proposals for documentaries submitted unsuccessfully by the professor, I would love to offer him training on how to write decent proposals.

    But he is quite an unaccomplished European filmmaker. And I wouldn’t want to patronise him.

    Siven Maslamoney is head of programmes for SABC1. He created the channel’s weekly documentary strand and Project 10. He was juror at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was commissioning editor on international award-winning series such as Yizo Yizo, Get Real and Africa’s Child

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