Fatherless children find their voices on film

“The struggle today is more important and more difficult than it was under apartheid, because back then you knew who you were fighting,” said Sanele Makhubu, a filmmaker with Little Pond Production Trust.

“Today, corruption, HIV/Aids, fatherless households, drug abuse and alcohol abuse is all around us and there is no clear way to fight it. It is a hidden enemy,” he said.

“A monster is growing and, one day, fighting this monster is going to be a bigger struggle than the one fought back in 1976.”

The trust, which is predominantly funded by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund, was set up as a production company for former students of the Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking in Johannesburg. Students have been producing films since 2007 about adolescent sexuality, illegal abortion, rape, transactional sex and the conflict between traditionalism and modernity, among other subjects.

A topic that is strongly embraced by the students is that of young people searching for their fathers.


“This is a huge theme,” said Melanie Chait, the school’s chief executive officer. “Also, young men wanting to be proper fathers but not knowing how to do this because they grew up without a father. There seems to be a great interest among young men wanting to take this on to be a different kind of man who is responsible, accountable and dependable.”

Makhubu said the problem of fatherless households was “everywhere”. “If you go into the townships, you will see that almost every child was raised by just one parent. It’s weird to be raised by both parents these days; it’s almost not cool.”

My Father’s Son
His film, My Father’s Son, is about an up-and-coming singer from a small North West township. Raised by his mother and grandmother, all he knows about his father is his surname and he embarks on a journey to find out about his father’s family. With his new-found understanding of his heritage and knowing that his father does not want to know him, he writes a song acknowledging his father’s name but giving all the credit to his mother for his success in life.

Another filmmaker, Unathi Vilakazi, made a film called Joe’s Fatherhood Journey about a man searching for his father and wanting to be a good father to his own estranged son.
“I asked myself: ‘What is important about fathers?’ I grew up with both parents and I remember my father hugging me and feeling his beard on my face. I wondered how it must be to not have that.”

The film concludes with Joe finding his father, who helps him to negotiate with the family of the mother of Joe’s 12-year-old child so that he can marry her.

“We know that this problem is happening, but the reasons for it happening are complicated,” said Vilakazi. “It can be that the man’s family does not accept the woman, but it is not always because the man is shirking responsibility. You can’t just assume why it’s happening and you can’t just assume what the effects on the children are either.”

Chait said the films produced by the students “give us a sense of the challenges and concerns that young people have”.

Boosting of self-esteem
A theme that emerged in many of the films was that of identity. “This generation of young people is desperately trying to negotiate modernity with traditionalism,” she said. “These young people want to be modern, new, progressive South Africans, but they have also been told by family members who have strong traditional beliefs what to believe and how to live.”

Chait said a student had made a film about a young married woman who wanted to focus on her career instead of having children. “The mother-in-law was saying things like: ‘If you don’t want kids, I will find another wife for my son.’”

Young people have been told they can do anything they want, Chait said. “But many of them still received a terrible education, and they often lack aspects of social or cultural capital and are not part of networks that can help their professional lives …. They lack confidence and have low self-esteem. Our students sometimes ask themselves: ‘If I can do anything I want, then why aren’t I doing anything?’” she said.

“Big Fish does a lot of boosting of self-esteem in students. We try to teach them that they can be the agents of their lives. Once that is done, you can free the creativity.”

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