Cut­ting cor­ners and killing the craft in SA’s art scene

Rogue pro­duc­ers are set­ting in­dus­try stan­dards back, while ac­tors, crew mem­bers suf­fer, writes Florence Masebe

The Sunday Independent - - Dispatches -

IWISH I could write about the beau­ti­ful side of my in­dus­try. I re­ally do. I love the South African arts scene. I don’t mind get­ting lost in all its tex­tures and var­i­ous shades. From mu­sic to dance, the­atre, drama, paint­ings, sculp­tures, tra­di­tional crafts, wood carv­ings, film, tele­vi­sion and more. I love art and I live for it. I have never been the kind of artist that locks them­selves in a sec­to­rial block.

My whole life has been shaped at one point or the other by very close in­ter­ac­tion with dif­fer­ent forms of art. My grand­mother Vho-Nya­maala was a great poet, a singer and the most ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ry­teller I ever knew. I have her to thank for my love for telling great African sto­ries to­day. I also have to thank my pot­tery queen, grandma Vho-Mususumeli for her beau­ti­ful vis­ual artistry. She had a way with clay but could also weave and carve. I un­for­tu­nately never got a chance to learn her craft.

I want to write about the artistry of vil­lage women one day. I want to tell the sto­ries of un­known artists whose works we don’t get to see on tele­vi­sion magazine shows or read about in big art fea­tures in our favourite glossies. My point? I want to fo­cus on so many other things but I find my­self drawn back to a fa­mil­iar spot of bother, the work­ing en­vi­ron­ment of the lo­cal cre­ative in­dus­tries prac­ti­tioner. So, I have to park my wish to write about the clay women of Vhembe and fo­cus on mat­ters im­me­di­ate.

A dis­tress call from an ac­tor on set a few days ago sparked my an­gry note to the in­dus­try to­day. In an ideal sit­u­a­tion I re­ally would like to do beau­ti­ful re­views of the work my peers are put­ting out in­stead of be­ing a self-ap­pointed voice of con­cern for mat­ters be­hind the scenes. There is a lot that is right about the South African tele­vi­sion scene. We pro­duce world-class pro­grammes across all avail­able plat­forms. Our film crews know their story.

We can proudly de­clare that we have the best in the game when it comes to the tech­ni­cal side of film and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion. We also don’t have a short­age of qual­ity tal­ent to bring the most com­plex of char­ac­ters to life. We could be blaz­ing much fur­ther ahead in the tele­vi­sion game but we seem set on sab­o­tag­ing our­selves.

In 2018 I hon­estly do not see why broad­cast­ers and fun­ders al­low the kind of pro­ducer thug­gery that one hears about from set to set. There is a dis­turb­ing trend in TV pro­duc­tion that will kill the in­dus­try if broad­cast­ers are not alert. I say this hop­ing that the preva­lent thug­gery is not in any way ac­cepted or con­doned by the chan­nels that com­mis­sion these rogue pro­duc­ers.

I’m us­ing the term rogue quite de­cid­edly be­cause in my view any pro­ducer of film or tele­vi­sion works who de­cides to aban­don the route of pro­fes­sional norms and stan­dards in pro­duc­ing works for a cor­po­ra­tion as big as the SABC is clearly opt­ing for rogue ways.

In an in­dus­try with so many knowl­edge­able pro­fes­sion­als, from writ­ers and di­rec­tors, tech­ni­cal crew and on-screen tal­ent, why are we still need­ing to deal with is­sues of calami­ties and disor­der on film­ing lo­ca­tions? The dis­tress call I men­tioned ear­lier painted a chaotic pic­ture not too dis­sim­i­lar to what was de­scribed to me in an­other com­plaint about con­di­tions on a set just over a month ago.

Un­for­tu­nately the chaos on the other set re­sulted in a most un­for­tu­nate tragedy. Week af­ter week hard-work­ing men and women, pro­fes­sion­als in tele­vi­sion and film, are be­ing forced to stoop to lower lows in this in­creas­ingly alarm­ing new trend where ba­sic pro­duc­tion stan­dards are sim­ply dis­re­garded by pro­duc­ers. What has hap­pened? Who threw out the book of stan­dards that work­ing in an en­vi­ron­ment where de­layed pay days be­come the norm? What pro­duc­tion bud­get plans are these pro­duc­ers, if one may call them that, sub­mit­ting to broad­cast­ers? There’s a clear dis­crep­ancy be­tween the bud­get that gets sub­mit­ted to chan­nel and the one be­ing used on the ground.

You’ve got to be work­ing un­der re­ally scary cir­cum­stances when you can have a pro­duc­tion run­ning with­out a pro­duc­tion man­ager. Or one where the line pro­ducer also does the work of the pro­duc­tion man­ager, pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant, book­keeper, wardrobe standby and run­ner all at the same time. This while be­ing paid below in­dus­try stan­dard rates for that one job ti­tle that ap­pears on their con­tract. How and when did we al­low things to de­te­ri­o­rate to such a state? We make jokes about in­ad­e­quate ser­vices on sets as if those are ad­di­tional lux­u­ries and still ex­pect stel­lar work out of cast and crew.

When did it be­come okay for pro­duc­ers to veer so far away from the tra­di­tional pro­duc­tion norms to a point where a di­rec­tor is ex­pected to com­plete work while not get­ting paid? Where ac­tors carry out their work with anx­i­ety be­cause they can­not know for sure that their salaries will get paid? I can count four dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tions re­cently where ac­tors and crew were frus­trated be­yond rea­son­able mea­sure be­cause the pro­duc­tion sys­tems they were work­ing un­der could be best de­scribed as alien to the in­dus­try.

What puzzles me the most is that these are ei­ther DTI-funded pro­duc­tions or big broad­caster com­mis­sions. Which makes me want to ask this; Why are those at the top look­ing away when such sit­u­a­tions un­fold? If you are a chan­nel ex­ec­u­tive re­spon­si­ble for any broad­cast prop­erty that is in pro­duc­tion right now and in the fu­ture, I have a chal­lenge for you. Go to the set reg­u­larly. Look around and lis­ten to the cast and crew. Go to the set unan­nounced.

Eat the food that your pro­duc­ers are feed­ing their cast and crew on a daily ba­sis and judge for your­self. Sit in those un­com­fort­able cor­ners where ac­tors get hud­dled be­cause pro­duc­tion bud­gets no longer ac­com­mo­date green room fa­cil­i­ties for tal­ent. Oh, and please, do make a turn to the art depart­ment kitchen and see the to­tally un­hy­gienic en­vi­ron­ment in which food that must be eaten by ac­tors dur­ing a scene gets pre­pared. Please do this.

Ac­quire the knowl­edge on how pro­fes­sional pro­duc­tion ought to work. It’s silly that one even needs to men­tion this, but yes, it’s clearly nec­es­sary. Ask ques­tions when you get on that set. Ask the di­rec­tor if all is well. En­quire on the well-be­ing of your crew. Check that your cast gets the very ba­sic tools they need for com­fort on set.

And sadly, we need to re­peat boldly, too, that you please in­sist on see­ing a health and safety plan.

The ab­sence of a fully func­tion­ing in­dus­try body for this sec­tor is se­ri­ously wor­ry­ing. Now is not a good time to tell me about CCIFSA (Cul­tural and Cre­ative In­dus­tries Fed­er­a­tion of South Africa) and Saga (South African Guild of Ac­tors). That’s an­other ar­ti­cle for an­other day. There should be a ve­hi­cle through which such mat­ters get re­ported and dealt with. Broad­cast­ers should not con­tinue to keep a dis­tance while prac­ti­tion­ers get treated un­fairly by the pro­duc­ers they con­tract to cre­ate their pro­grammes. The qual­ity of work that gets put through to our screens is begin­ning to bear ev­i­dence to the all these is­sues.

Pro­fes­sion­al­ism is com­pro­mised by peo­ple whose only in­ter­est in the tele­vi­sion busi­ness is their own pock­ets. De­spite hec­tic bud­get cuts by broad­cast­ers over the years it is still pos­si­ble to main­tain a de­cent­lyrun in­dus­try where pro­duc­tion pro­to­cols are still re­spected.

Ul­ti­mately qual­ity will be the great­est vic­tim of all this. Real tal­ent is get­ting com­pro­mised in the pur­suit of cheap rates by pro­duc­ers who do not know the first word about film and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion.

One won­ders how these types are get­ting con­tracted while rep­utable show cre­ators and pro­duc­ers are strug­gling for work. We are not grow­ing, this is re­gres­sion. We need to edit these ugly bits out while we can, if not, the chaos will be­come the norm and the in­dus­try will surely suf­fer.

Masebe is an award-win­ning ac­tor, a creator and pro­ducer of tele­vi­sion and film con­tent. She is the au­thor of The Heart Knows


DIS­TURB­ING TREND: Week af­ter week hard-work­ing men and women, pro­fes­sion­als in tele­vi­sion and film, are be­ing forced to stoop to lower lows in the alarm­ing new ten­dency in which ba­sic pro­duc­tion stan­dards are sim­ply dis­re­garded by pro­duc­ers, some­times with un­for­tu­nate con­se­quences, says the writer.

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