Puo Pha Productions' 'total onslaught' at the SAFTAs
“A total onslaught,” is what an elated Vincent Moloi called his production company’s nine wins at the 12th edition of the SAFTAs, which took place in Sun City over the weekend. “No production has dominated fiction and non-fiction at the same ceremony,” he said to Mail and Guardian on Monday afternoon.
For the documentary Skulls of My People, Puo Pha Productions won best documentary feature, best director and best cinematographer, while the TV drama Tjovitjo won best actor, best drama, best sound design, best production design, best editing and best cinematography. “If there is anyone who is still doubting us, this says, you have to believe in people. Before these SAFTAs, I had won more awards outside this country than inside it.” The status quo for black professionals is a central theme in the following interview, in which the director stressed that his ethos – one that partly drove Tjovitjo to be the success that is – was based on a level of egalitarianism that filters through to various levels of production at Puo Pha Productions. Although Moloi was clearly basking in the moment, he remained sober about the imbalances that continue to haunt his profession and the work that remains to be done to combat them.
Tjovitjo was by no means a smooth ride. There were financial issues which were written about untruthfully. For you, what does it mean to come out on top like this and what have you learnt about the media from how it treated that episode?
I think it’s a reflection of how black professionals are treated in general. The media is very eager to go to print with statements of negativity without substantiating, when it’s time to print positive stuff, then they lack excitement in printing those stories. It’s a reflection of what I have always known. It is ten times harder for black professionals. And it comes not from just white people.
As black people also, we have a big psychological problem in terms of how we treat ourselves. It’s also a reflection of the time we’re in because when you are more negative, you are more popular because you are chasing those likes and retweets. You don’t really consider the impact of what you’re writing.
The positive out of this was that it showed the amount of unity that the crew and the cast and the people that we surrounded ourselves with have and we believed in the project so much that the haters couldn’t stop us.
The fact that you guys won technical awards as a black production house, does it signal a change in the industry for you, as far as the spread of talent goes?
I think there are enough technical skills out there. I think it is the willingness that is a problem. Some of the people I am working with, this is not the first time I am working with them. They have been as great as five, six, seven, years ago when I first worked with them. It’s just a matter of production companies and broadcasters and producers to believe in black talent. A lot of these people that are winning technical awards and are white are also young. So it’s not even an experience thing, it’s all about being given an opportunity and having someone believe in you. When I pick my crew, no matter how inexperienced they are, I believe in their talent because of their energy and their attitude. If you work with someone who doesn’t believe in you, you cannot flourish.
You guys won so many awards and were nominated so many times for just two productions what does this mean to you in your work, especially for the drama series Tjovitjo?
It means you mustn’t believe the haters. We need to start telling unconventional stories and not just in the three act structure. In Tjovitjo when we first started, people were like, ‘There is no story.’ Then came, ‘We don’t understand the story.’ Then it was, ‘Oh it’s confusing,’ but it was just criticism. We knew we wanted to tell the story in a different way. We knew it might be uncomfortable, it might be awkward because people aren’t telling stories that way. We basically pick a moment and then we intertwine those moments to make a whole story. You also have to participate in connecting the dots. It’s not the easiest but we are glad that the professionals acknowledge our skill in telling it. South African television has to be diverse. We can’t stick to a formula because we are comfortable with it. What that does is kill creativity. You are basically growing a robotic audience.
It’s been very draining but we feel validated by these awards. Not that we didn’t know that we were great and that we know what we are doing, we are just so glad to be having the last laugh. I just want to quote that Kwesta song, Spirit, when he says “Isinamuva liyabukwa.” I love that song because of that message. That opening line, that’s our situation right now.
What is on the horizon as far as the next seasons of Tjovitjo?
We are working on season three. We have made some mistakes mainly because we didn’t have money to do some of the things that we wanted to do. So in that season, we are hoping to make it bigger and better. But also, we want to aim for the international market so that the production can be more major than the last two. Also now, we have people that believe in us, that know what we are capable of and are now willing to put the money in. We are hoping to change the landscape of South African TV with season three. We might not win six awards but we are definitely aiming for a big production value.
What was the secret to Tjovitjo’s success for you?
Ninety percent of our supporting cast were actually on TV for the first time because they are actually dancers. We trained them to be actors. With seasons two, I see how mature they are now. In the upcoming season, they will surprise a lot of people, which is what I mean when I say we need people that are willing to take risks. It shows with the kind of acting that we see from the dancers and the kind of texture that they have been able to give which professional actors can’t because they don’t live in the environments we are projecting. We wanted Tjovitjo to be as real as possible. And it is.