It takes a lot of passion and persistence to make a film in Africa. Very few succeed; many more fall by the wayside in a tough game.
Carolyn Carew, CEO and executive producer of Born Free Media (BFM), is one of the survivors with 25 hard years in the film business. It has been a lifelong love affair with film, which began when she was a child.
“We’d put up a little white sheet in the sitting room and watch movies on our 16mm projector. Around the World in 80 Days and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were among my favorite movies. We also had a local cinema in Krugersdorp, where I grew up, called the Vordet, and we used to go there every Saturday—it was like an outing for all the girls and boys.”
Carew’s path into working in movies was more difficult. She left the University of Cape Town with a post-graduate degree and worked for 10 months as a social worker. Through her sister, Carew snuck into the film industry in 1987, as a driver on a film called African Farm.
“I would also observe on set what the first and second assistant directors did; and from there I went and applied for other jobs. I then worked as an assistant director for a few years—and that’s basically how I got in,” she says.
Carew is now established, but life on set is far from easy.
“SA is one of those countries on the continent where you get the patriarchal attitude. I think sometimes people don’t really like to take advice or take direction from a woman—so that can be quite challenging. For me it wasn’t so much the gender issue that was challenging, but the amount of hours. When I look back on my 25-year career, I think I’ve worked an average of 14 to 15 hours a day, a good six to seven days a week. It’s been an incredible commitment that one has had to put into it. SA’s has got a competitive edge; we’ve got very good crews here, very good locations and we’ve got very good equipment. On average per year, we service at least 10 to 15 feature films—big ones; and about five or six co-productions,” she says.
Money remains the industry’s greatest problem.
“It would be the most amazing thing if we could get local individuals, people who have money and want to invest in cinema, to invest in the film industry. I think a lot of the time, the risks can outweigh the profits, so people don’t really want to invest in film. It’s quite a challenge,” says Carew.
Taking advantage of the Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRIC) relationship is another way to build and grow SA’s film industry, Carew says. South Africa already has a co-production treaty with India, but not with China and Brazil. “I think if we could find a way even within those four countries to exploit our content, we’d be able to achieve a lot because therein lies a huge industry.”
She reckons the markets where South African or African products could do better are Europe, some parts of Asia, India and Latin America.
Carew is at the legacy stage of her career. She helped to found the Newtown Film School in Johannesburg in 1992, and has won several awards. Her most memorable achievement was in 2007, when BFM won Best Director for the TV drama series, When We Were Black, at the South African Film and TV awards. Recently, BFM won the Amnesty International Award for Human Rights for a documentary called The Life and Times of Robert Sobukwe.
Despite the industry being so tough, Carew says she would encourage her son to follow in her footsteps.
With three feature films in the pipeline, her life’s work is film, and with it, the hope that one day an Oscar for Africa will shine through the financial worries and long hours.
Many drift into making movies, including Carew, but for Kutlwano Ditsele, it was all he ever wanted to do.
“My mother says she stopped watching television with me when I was about nine years old because I was already spotting things that people wouldn’t normally see. By the time I was 11, I had more VHS tapes than I had toys; I even started building towers with my tapes, that’s how many I had,” he says.
It was also tough getting his mother to support his choice of career.
“My mom knew how difficult the industry was, so she didn’t want me to pin all my hopes on film knowing that a lot of people don’t make it; she wanted me to have security,” Ditsele says.
First he went to study public relations at Varsity College, and media at Boston Media House. But because his heart wasn’t in it, it wasn’t long before he applied to the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles to follow his dream. Ditsele then worked at a Johannesburg production company before co-founding Ripple Films in December 2010. He believes it can tell the great untold African stories.
“The first stories were told in Africa; we love telling and hearing stories. We no longer sit around fires and tell stories; the fires have now become the screens. I think we’ll be telling stories for a very long time to come in Africa; filmmakers will always have jobs. The main thing is finding a way to get the original stories out there.”
But this is proving to be difficult. For many people, African stories live in soap operas, where the viewership figures are high.
“The key is to get those people who are sitting and watching soap operas to sit in the cinema. South Africa doesn’t have a cinema-going culture and due to our small industry, our institutions don’t have the liberty to take as much risk as Hollywood.”
Ditsele says the African film industry needs to take more risks, but all too often creative freedom is choked by cautious investors.
“Our biggest problem here is we have too many people telling us what the audiences want and what we should do. They say, ‘This guy made a movie like this and it did well; you should make a movie like that guy too.’ No variety will come out of that and audiences will end up watching the same thing over and over again.”
“I still have the opportunity to live and make films in Los Angeles, but I choose to stay here because of the promise and the talent that the South African industry has. I think we have what it takes to get to the Nolly, Bolly or Hollywood level. Sticking to our guns, knowing exactly what we want to do and not giving up is what will get us there. You also need to find mentors – and don’t be arrogant; take notes.”
Ditsele believes it is also all about distribution.
“You can make the next City of God or Avatar, but if you don’t have distribution, it means nothing. Our own distributers don’t play our films enough because of quality control. But as it is, we don’t have enough films, and the two or so films that we do make are screened for a week and then taken off because X-Men is coming out,” he says.
For Ditsele the challenge is to make an African film that is better than X-Men.