/ 6 July 2006

Shooting print

It’s difficult to remember when exactly it began. At some stage in the past two months there were well-known actors in the Mail & Guardian newsroom, attending weekly conferences, peering over shoulders, helping themselves to tea. This was SABC3’s Hard Copy bunch and they were there to learn how news is made.

This week, with the airing of the first episode, it was humbling to witness how actors have been able to create a multidimensional reality from the smallest clues. This is not to suggest that the Mail & Guardian is half as conflict-ridden as The Bulletin — the independent, weekly paper at the centre of the series. But show me an office worker who has not bitched about a colleague in the smoking room and I’ll show you a saint.

Hard Copy is shot in a reconstructed newsroom, set in the disused Rissik Street post office donated as a location by the city of Johannesburg. In a month production designer Emelia Weavind and crew created a busy, layered working space where issues and temperaments can play themselves out to the full.

Newly appointed editor Joe Dlamini (James Ngcobo) arrives for his first day at work and has to deal with the disappointment of hard-assed news editor Dorothy Wilcox (Fiona Ramsay) who wanted his job. After an initial pep talk to his staff Dlamini chooses his lead for the week: a sports story about soccer match-fixing over Wilcox’s choice of impending strife in Togo. Temperatures rise.

A documentary about the making of Hard Copy was aired on February 20. Directed by Lloyd Ross and Lomin Saayman of Shifty Studios, it showed the unorthodox methods of the Hard Copy creative team. Producers and past newspaper editors Anton Harber and Justice Malala, together with scriptwriters Jann Turner and Malcolm Purkey, threw auditioning actors into the deep end. There were no scripts and so an ability to improvise was the key.

In the documentary you can see the actors, desperate for work, doing what actors do: they invest too much and overact. At the first script reading director and writer Tim Greene told his wide-eyed cast, ‘I don’t want to know what the fuck you’re feeling while you’re acting. There’s this enormous myth about showing it all. Do not show me anything. If I need more from you I’ll ask for more. Show me less.”

On February 21 Curious Pictures producers Harriet Gavshon, David Jammy and director Greene watched an almost completed version of episode one. I went along for the ride. Funky reggae and a graphic printing press in full motion kick-start the series, followed by gritty shots of the inner city in decay. Unlike its competitor Scandal on e.tv, Hard Copy is not out to glamorise. As with previous groundbreaking works such as The Line, Yizo Yizo and Zero Tolerance, the series is a bold attempt to get real. The question of its success hinges on whether South Africans need a dose of hard reality or whether we’re looking for escape.

On February 22, I attended a creative brainstorm session at Curious Pictures, at the crack of dawn. Legendary journalist Hunter S Thompson had killed himself the previous day and Harber was brandishing a relevant quote from this master of overstatement: ‘I have spent half my life trying to get away from journalism, but I am still mired in it — a low trade and a habit worse than heroin, a strange seedy world full of misfits and drunkards and failures.”

Harber motions that Thompson gets a mention in a future episode. Greene wants to know, ‘Who’s going to remember Thompson next week?”

‘Jeez, that’s hurtful,” Harber says.

Researcher Palesa Shongwe has collected the week’s top stories that could form the basis of the upcoming script: the Budget speech, Zimbabwe’s impending elections. While they’re making a television series, in reality Curious Pictures is functioning as a newsroom.

‘Newsrooms must be debating how to cover Zim,” Harber points out. ‘Do we send people underground or do we apply for accreditation?” They endeavour to bring in a plot line about a well-known, real-life correspondent in Harare. Someone suggests that Hard Copy news editor Dorothy Wilcox would call her ‘that old bitch”.

In Ross and Saayman’s documentary the country’s influential editors summarise life on the press. City Press editor Mathatha Tsedu says, ‘One thing that people don’t realise about journalists is that they’re just lousy, ordinary people like anybody else.”

While the team brainstorms, the fine line between fact and fiction is continually blurred. Greene tells his colleagues that ‘it’s less important to be topical and more important to have something to say”. And that’s the balancing act.

The Hard Copy concept has opened itself to guest appearances by distinguished personalities and celebrities. Names on the table include Oscar-nominated film director Darrell Roodt (‘I’m sure he’s in Los Angeles already”) and Mbhazima Shilowa (‘Is he sexy enough?”). Later the conversation turns to another question of balance — an equal distribution of types in terms of their special guests.

Omnipotent editors throw stories into and out of their newspapers. The creators of Hard Copy do likewise, but they also throw people into and out of the mix. Now that’s power.