A year ago, I wrote an opinion piece on my experience of the 32nd Durban International Film Festival.
I felt compelled to communicate my thoughts on the myths and maths of our film industry.
I also felt compelled to speak directly to my fellow film makers and challenge our misplaced high regard for our own work.
I argued that we are still not educating ourselves as film directors, we do not watch enough cinema and we do not broaden our horizons as feverishly as I believe we all should.
Our work still fails to sell to international distributors, grace the red carpets of A-list international film festivals or resonate with thinking minds on the other side of the planet.
Since then, I have developed an aggressive and cutting attitude toward the industry around me, seeing the false hype of so many films that were “sure-fire local box office hits” falter and be removed from our multiplex cinema screens in less than a fortnight.
It is the nature of film people to sermonise about our business while we stand sipping on free rosé at film festivals and markets.
And all the while, no one talks of the audience.
A great film maker is said to be the test audience of their film. It is our job to mitigate each one of our creative decisions with the audience in mind – telling our stories in such a way that our imagined audience is hanging on to every frame we generate.
The audience is not necessarily the one we already know, but also the one we hope to create.
If you ask anyone who actively works in the local film business who the South African audience is, any answer other than “I wish I knew” is an outright lie.
Like so many other industries in this country, race, culture and politics are at play in the development of the film sector.
We have discovered that the Afrikaans audience is a worthy and loyal market for a R5 million film.
This market, which comprises those best described as “Kyknetters”, has been fed a diet of films ranging from the Boer War to the untimely farts of pranksters in Benoni.
The last few years have been highly productive in this regards and have seen a significant audience cultivation – hence the market has been flooded with cinema tailor-made for it.
This is not cinema that I, as a 30-year-old coloured South African, connect with in any way.
It is culturally landlocked and rooted in the lives and history of white South Africa.
The films that are most successful in this category are those that take the Afrikaner back to the platteland.
Black faces disappear, and the current social and political landscape is replaced by scenes and stories that make the middle-aged Kyknetter feel right at home again.
I recently attended the Silwerskerm Filmfees hosted by kykNET at the Bay Hotel in Cape Town.
Now in its second year, it has become the annual summit for what is essentially our private film sector.
The major prerequisite for the audience is that the films are in Afrikaans, so you can imagine the limited opportunities this avenue offers non-Afrikaans-speaking film makers or simply film makers who wish to tell stories in other languages.
kykNET is the first port of call for many producers seeking finance for their films.
Our national broadcaster is hopelessly counterproductive and there is little chance of getting an honest dime out of them.
My next film will not be in Afrikaans and so my financing can only come from foreign countries or government bodies.
We have done nothing to generate a new South African audience.
Back at Silwerskerm, drink in hand, I stood with other film makers and actors, and suggested a system of public shaming – a cruel, graceless name-calling of all those who milk the system and generate work that does not make us want to be better at what we do.
Dare I say it’s the beginnings of a manifesto. – Karen Meiring
» Note: next year, the organisers of the Silwerskerm Filmfees plan to include other languages at the festival. Let’s hope the audience will follow
We share Hermanus’ concern, but you cannot be all things to all people.
The Silwerskermfees was started three years ago by kykNET, M-Net’s Afrikaans-language channel.
At the time, the Afrikaans film industry was in the beginning stages of its revival, the energy of which was last witnessed during the prolific film-making years of the late 70s and 80s.
This resuscitation resulted in a slew of commercial films being released – some of dubious quality, but other stories of poignant high-production values.
The intentions of the Silwerskermfees were clear.
It wanted to lend acknowledgement and support to the growing Afrikaans film and TV industry.
But it’s also dedicated towards creating platforms and opportunity for new, emerging film makers from any race working in the Afrikaans medium.
To this end, the festival’s short-film competition was introduced, which is open to all new film makers.
Successful entrants receive a modest budget with which to produce their films, but also mentorship from an industry expert.
The completed works are then screened and a discussion between film makers and the industry audience follows.
In celebrating the Afrikaans film industry, we believe that it is important to invite not only the up-and-coming generation of industry creatives, but the iconic and legendary film makers.
In doing so, we have curated a space in which the new generation is exposed to and inspired by the older generation.
The Silwerskermfees has achieved four days of vibrant discourse, be it through discussion forums, mentorships, screenings or casual conversations between generations who seldom meet, and it has proved extremely fruitful.
Yes, this festival is still in its infancy and many objectives await realisation.
We believe, however, that if we nurture this process of change, stimulate it and give it the required time to manifest, we will achieve our goals.
Despite its proactive efforts towards change, the Silwerskermfees has now come under fire by a fellow film maker, Oliver Hermanus.
Here, we have a passionate and talented film maker, clearly upset with the lack of funding, support and audience education in South African film.
This is a concern we share, but after reading his manifesto, as Hermanus refers to his letter, I was confused as to who exactly is he angry with or blaming for this state of affairs.
The fact is South Africa has a deeply fragmented film and TV audience and industry, and virtually no national film identity.
Within this reality, however, KykNET has managed to identify and engage its unique and loyal audience.
We are not complacent, and this year alone we premiered 13 short movies ranging from the zombie and thriller genre to the absurd, surrealistic and melodramatic, comedy and drama … all works that expand our market.
As a TV channel, KykNET’s mandate is to create Afrikaans entertainment for Afrikaans viewers.
Our audience is central and core to what we produce.
Target markets and resonance with the target market is what it is all about.
You cannot be all things to all people.
Not even Hollywood tries to do that.
kykNET forms media partnerships and authorises films based on the resonance of the scripts to our target market.
Broadcast rights have a role to play in the life and revenue model of any film regardless of language or nationality.
There were many other language films in the open section of the Silwerskermfees this year, among them Durban Poison, which premiered at the Durban International Film Festival.
kykNET cannot and does not want to operate in isolation from the rest of the South African industry, that is why we announced the short-film competition in any language for the next festival.
In many ways, I do understand Hermanus’ frustration. However, it would have been great if we could view and discuss a film like Skoonheid at our next festival. – Oliver Hermanus
» Meiring is head of kykNET
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