“I always say that women are the best storytellers in Africa,” says Masepeke Sekhukhuni.
While director of the Newtown Film School, Sekhukhuni used to tell female students: “It does not matter whether you call those stories gossip, chit-chat or whatever, women have these stories … women are also producers and directors in their daily lives. They control the budget at home as well as direct the household, skills they may transfer into film production.”
For years South African women working in film were relegated to the wardrobe and make-up department, or worse — catering. Over the years, however, things have changed.
Women editors including Avril Beukes (Red Dust, Yesterday), Catherine Meyburgh (Glow of White Women, Viva Madiba) and Megan Gill (Tsotsi, Rendition), among others, have prospered. In fact, editing has been one of the few crafts open to women, perhaps because it requires manual dexterity and an observant eye rather than the brute force of a key grip.
Powerful women producers such as Helena Spring, Bonnie Rodini, Harriet Gavshon, Roberta Durrant, Genevieve Hofmeyr and Desiree Markgraaf fly the female flag high. There seems to be some problem with racial equity there, but players such as Kethiwe Ngcobo, head of drama at the SABC, are in some ways redressing that. In fact, the appointment of South African producer/director Seipati Bulane Hopa as secretary general of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers two years ago was hailed as a breakthrough for women and movies at Fespaco — Ouagadougou’s celebrated showcase for African film.
But there is a notion, and dare one call it feminist, that somehow, somewhere there is a genre called “women’s film”. This would please the new generation of readers who actively seek out titles on the shelves of chick lit.
Ethiopian filmmaker Lucy Gebre-Egziabher confesses to a semi-mythical view of the women’s screen aesthetic. “African women filmmakers are warriors,” she says. “They face obstacles. There’s this picture of a Kenyan filmmaker. She was behind the camera, she had her baby tied behind her back, and she was directing. To me that epitomises an African woman filmmaker. She doesn’t have the luxury to disengage her roles as wife or a mother and filmmaker.”
Author, scriptwriter and director Jann Turner says: “I guess women have a take on many things in life that differ from the take men have, but we’re hardly a homogenous group and I don’t think you can generalise about women in any way that is specific enough to be meaningful. After all, Kathryn Bigelow is one of the best action directors alive and Ang Lee is one of the finest observers of the nuances of domestic life. So gender doesn’t and shouldn’t confine you to a particular ‘take’ on genre.”
Harriet Gavshon of Curious Pictures says she’s constantly vexed by the situation of women drama directors. They are still woefully under-represented, “because drama shoots are still extremely male. The key departments — grips, lighting and camera — are still male bastions. And it takes an extremely uncompromising and tough person to break the barrier.”
Turner admits that a set can be an incredibly sexist place. She recalls: “Encountering a spark who asked if I was with the caterers and if so why was I not set up yet? I was younger than most of the crew and a woman to boot, how could I possibly be the director?”
South Africa’s veteran female director Katinka Heyns says that in fact film production is limited, not necessarily by gender but by the constraints of the industry itself: “It is more difficult than ever to develop and produce a feature film in this country. It’s like a mountain of sticky toffee.”
While women battle it out behind the camera they have, of course, enjoyed iconic status on the big screen and on the box. Lovers of local film have literally grown up alongside Leleti Khumalo, witnessing her development from the angry revolutionary girl in Sarafina! to the hapless Aids-ridden mother in Yesterday.
Yet the story of South African women in film begins with the appearance of Miriam Makeba as the country’s first celluloid shebeen queen in Lionel Rogosin’s docudrama Come Back Africa (1959).
While Makeba played a singing underdog in the ramshackle apartheid world of Sophiatown, it was precisely this film that acted as a springboard for world fame. When the Italian government invited her to the premiere of the movie at the Venice Film Festival she took the break, not to return until the old order had collapsed.
And so a legend was born.
Truth is, some of the toughest people making movies on the ground in South Africa now are women. They oil the machine and supply the power for production.
American screenwriting guru Linda Seger, who created and defined the role of script consultant, says: “Women generally don’t want power in the traditional way, such as wanting power over others. Many women are highly uncomfortable with the word power. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be in leadership positions — in power with people, not over people.
“Women have stories to tell, something to say, issues to be dealt with. They want the opportunity to do the work and have their work valued in the same way as a man’s work of equal quality.”
A feast of film
Women of the Sun is hosting a film festival, workshops and master classes this weekend as part of the Women in the Arts festival in Newtown, Johannesburg.
The film event begins with a gala screening of Land of Thirst, the 90-minute theatrical version of the SABC3 miniseries, written and directed by Meg Rickards, based on the 100-year-old novel Margaret Harding by Perceval Gibbon about an inter-racial romance in the turn-of-the-century Karoo.
There’s a plethora of documentaries, including Jane Lipman’s Courting Justice, animation courtesy of Isabelle Rorke, and an introductory workshop called So You Want to Be a Filmmaker?, as well as master classes with Dutch director Ate de Jong. His lecture will focus on the dynamics of Hollywood versus the European film industry as well as film-funding structures in small countries such as The Netherlands and developing countries.
Editor and story consultant Susan Korda will deliver a master class on editing called Kill Your Darlings where she uses clips from Hollywood movies to explore the editor’s process.