With Newtown celebrating Women in the Arts, as part of Women’s month, Andrew Worsdale takes a look at how women are moving from the make-up and catering department to become potent players in the industry, and questions the notions of gender and identity in local film and television production.

“I always say that women are the best storytellers in Africa," Masepeke Sekhukhuni claims in Beti Ellerson’s ‘Visualising Herstories: an Introduction to African Women Cinema Studies’.  While director of the Newtown Film School, Sekhukhuni used to tell female students: “It does not matter whether you call those stories gossip or chit chat or whatever; women have these stories…women are also producers and directors in their daily lives. They control the budget at home as well as direct the household, skills they may transfer into film production.”

For years South African women working in film were relegated to the wardrobe and make-up department, or worse – catering. Over the years, however, things have changed. Women editors including Avril Beukes (‘Red Dust’, ‘Yesterday’), Catherine Meyburgh (‘Glow of White Women’, ‘Viva Madiba’) and Megan Gill (‘Tsotsi’, ‘Rendition’), among others, have prospered. In fact, editing has been one of the few crafts open to women because it seems the position involves little contact with male-dominated crews and it requires manual dexterity and an observant eye rather than the brute force of say a key-grip.

Powerful women producers like Helena Spring (see Hot Shots), Bonnie Rodini, Harriet Gavshon, Roberta Durrant, Genevieve Hofmeyr and Desiree Markgraaf fly the female flag high. There seems to be some problem with racial equity there, but players like Kethiwe Ngcobo, head of drama at the SABC, are in some ways re-dressing that. In fact the appointment of South African producer/director Sepaiti Bulane Hopa as chairperson of the Independent Producer’s Organisation in 2000 and last year as secretary-general of FEPACI (Pan African Federation of Filmmakers) was hailed as a breakthrough. Ellerson remarked at last year’s Fespaco in Ouagadougou: “It was a phenomenal event. There was this real sense that this needed to happen and it was time that it should be a woman.”

In South Africa, training initiatives have seen some rural women picking up the camera to tell their stories but examples are few and far between. Because of our well-developed industry, in terms of local content and servicing foreign shoots, there are numerous women now working in key roles in Film and TV production. Increasingly, the bottom-line of delivery and budget are what they reign over.

But there is some mythic, dare one say ‘feminist’, image that holds imaginative sway, and it ties in with the notion that there is such a thing as a ‘woman’s film’ – with a special understanding, perception, references, and points of view that makes for a unique woman’s aesthetic on screen.

Ethiopian filmmaker, trainer and academic Lucy Gebre-Egziabher, best known for her award-winning film, ‘At The Second Traffic Light’, in Ellerson’s doccie ‘Sisters of the Screen’ confesses to a semi-mythical view of the African woman filmmaker. “African women filmmakers are warriors. They face a lot of obstacles. There’s this picture of a Kenyan filmmaker. She was behind the camera, she had her baby tied behind her back, and she was directing. That was the most powerful image. It stayed with me. To me that is an African woman filmmaker. She doesn’t have the luxury to disengage her role as wife or a mother and then become a filmmaker; she has to incorporate everything.”

Johannesburg-based producer/director Jane Lipman agrees. “It seems there are more women filmmakers now in the South African industry and more awareness of a women's perspective, even though we need more young black women to be empowered. It's still really a man's world in the big scheme of things and often quite hard to get taken seriously by the boys .You have to be able to juggle children and filmmaking and life and develop a thick skin, and work hard!”

I e-mailed a few Gauteng based women who make movies four questions:

  1. How has the landscape of the film industry changed over the past decades vis-à-vis women's involvement in film and television?
  2. Do you believe that women have a different 'take' on Film/TV, in terms of production and subject matter?
  3. Related to the above, are women's stories given enough attention by commissioning editors and the like?
  4. Is the industry still dominated by men and male issues, and if so how can that be redressed?

By and large the responses were practical and emphasised the need to deliver good work no matter what. In fact, most of the filmmakers thought their gender wasn’t an issue or a polemic or should be used as defining their aesthetic as filmmakers. As Johannesburg-born writer/director Jann Turner told me: “I guess women have a take on many things in life that differ from the take men have, but we're hardly a homogenous group and I don't think you can generalise about women in any way that is specific enough to be meaningful. If you put together a room full of young women and old women and white women and black women and gay women and straight women and rural women and urban women you would probably have as many different opinions on pretty much everything as you would have individuals in the room.”

Turner’s just wrapped on ‘White Wedding’, a romantic road-comedy that is her feature directing debut and believes that, “beyond the obvious broad differences, I don't think women necessarily have a different take in terms of subject matter. I think to suggest that would be absurdly confining. After all Kathryn Bigelow is one of the best action directors alive and Ang Lee is one of the finest observers of the nuances of domestic life - so gender doesn't and shouldn't confine you to a particular ‘take’ on genre.”

Prolific indie filmmaker Catherine Muller, series producer on ‘Total Soccer’, says: “I think people have good or bad instincts around story-telling and what makes for a great doccie or drama. It’s not down to gender so much as sensibility. I don’t know about women’s stories.  The thought of that makes me cringe a bit because it’s very worthy. Audiences don’t watch films because it’s the morally good thing to do; they watch because they find what they are seeing somehow gripping, challenging or funny ...  I mean, Darrell Roodt made ‘Yesterday’, didn’t he?”

In fact Muller points out, like many others, the scarcity of women film directors: “Television is much more a woman’s domain and there are loads of powerful women producers who kick butt!” Harriet Gavshon of Curious Pictures says the landscape has changed; the industry is generally more diverse so there are many more women working in it too.  However she’s “constantly vexed by the situation of women drama directors. They are still woefully under represented. I think it is because drama shoots are still extremely male - the key departments - grips, lighting, and camera are still such male bastions (for obvious reasons), it takes an extremely uncompromising and tough person to break the barrier. Also - every male drama director I have worked with can say unequivocally ‘this is what I want, so get it for me’  - and women find that hard. They are often, certainly not in every case, willing to find a middle ground.”

Leading animator Isabelle Rorke says you can probably spot a feminine aesthetic in animation. “Women tend to have a softer colour palette to men. Their artwork is warmer and less aggressive than their male counterparts. However, having the balance of that male and female influence can create magic.”

Rorke has been a major player over the past ten years in animation, production and training, winning last year’s ‘Passing The Torch’ award for women entrepreneurs from the Gauteng Provincial Government. She has noticed a seismic change in women’s involvement in the industry. “It has definitely changed over the past decade. I think women have stepped up to the plate and are just doing their thing. I have never allowed the concept of a male dominated environment to hold me back.  It was not something I even acknowledged as an issue. I once experienced discrimination, I saw the glass ceiling as they call it, but it was a BEE ceiling back in the early days of BEE when being coloured was not very high on the BEE list. For me to get the position I wanted, I was last on the list after, black male, black female, white females then coloured female. I wasn't willing to wait around for that or fight that political battle so I left and started my own business to control my own destiny. I have not experienced discrimination since then.”

Turner, an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who also co-created ‘Hard Copy’ and ‘Mzansi’, says, “I do think that being a woman director requires a great deal of physical and emotional strength, an ability to set boundaries with tact and humour and also an ability to choose your battles. A set can be an incredibly sexist place. I remember, when I was much younger, walking onto set and encountering a spark who asked if I was with the caterers and if so why was craft service not set up yet? I was younger than most of the crew and a woman to boot, how could I possibly be the director?”

“Craft roles are still dominated by men, and women are still often type-cast in the management and finance roles.  I’ve never met a male production manager or a male production accountant!” Muller says, adding, “I think the SABC should put a portion of its rather sizable annual profits towards creating bursaries for mentoring women in the industry. There should be two kinds: entry-level training as well as supplementing the skills of women who have shown themselves capable and deserving but who need to grow.  That would help for starters.”

Everyone agreed that it’s harder than ever to develop and produce local movies. South Africa’s foremost female director Katinka Heyns wrote: “It is more difficult than ever to develop and produce a feature film in this country at the moment. It feels like a mountain of sticky toffee. The industry as a whole is dominated by consumer issues...bottom line issues in more ways than one – it is not unique to our country but personally I don’t think in a polarised manner. If you really want to do it, get on and do it!”

What about the representation of women? On television, well that would require a thesis that could range from Agnes Matabane in Isidingo to those naffily, sexy chicks doing the cell phone competition thingies at one in the morning. Certainly in feature film the dominant female movie ‘icons’ are ‘Sarafina!’, ‘Yesterday’, ‘Fiela’s Se Kind’, ‘Katrina’.  All women struggling against their social circumstances.

Casting director and agent Moonyeenn Lee, a Johannesburg powerhouse in the industry for thirty years, thinks there are definitely more women in important positions in the film and TV industry than there were 10 years ago but adds: “It doesn’t mean they are all good!!!”

As for the casting process she finds that women are still being cast to suit the male lead. “I know this happens everywhere. The female lead has to make the male lead look good!! There are obviously some ‘stand alone’ female parts which don’t always have to look like they have been through a wind-machine and eat only celery sticks. There is more of a tendency now in South African TV to want everyone to be ‘good-looking’. And there seem to be too many male writers and directors. I often wince at dialogue written for women by men.”

Some of the toughest producers and line producers making movies on the ground in Gauteng are women. They are the ones who oil the machine and are in effect the power behind the whole production.
Screenwriting guru Linda Seger, who created and defined the role of script consultant and wrote the seminal book ‘How To Make A Good Screenplay Great’, says: “Women generally don’t want power in the traditional way, such as wanting power over others. Many women are highly uncomfortable with the word power. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be in leadership positions. Power with people, not over people…Women want to serve as a catalyst, they don’t want to use power to put down people, or power to bypass how someone feels, and steamroller their decisions through…women have stories to tell, something to say, issues to be dealt with. They (want) the opportunity to do the work and have their work valued in the same way as a man’s work of equal quality.”

The last word is left to the philosophical animator Rorke who believes that modern men have realised that it’s in their best interest to work with, instead of against, women. “When the respect is there from both parties great things are achieved. I think modern men are not threatened by women and have no desire to keep them down.

“We cannot paint all men with this backward mentality, modern men are a completely different breed and eventually it will become commonplace. The war of the sexes is now old stale news. We live in an era where our focus should be progressive. It should be an evolution of emotional development that respects people of any race and sex.”

And then she quotes Robin Sharma, author of ‘The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari’: “There is nothing noble about being superior to another person. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self.”

Women of The Sun are hosting a film festival, workshops and master-classes on the weekend 8 – 10 August, as part of the Women In The Arts festival in Newtown. The cultural precinct will be abuzz with theatre, dance, film, photo exhibitions, poetry, comedy, live music, DJs, late night parties, a craft market with activities for children, live street performances and much more.

The film event begins with a Gala Screening of ‘Land of Thirst’, the 90 minute theatrical version of the SABC 3-part mini-series written and directed by Meg Rickards, based on the 100 year-old novel ‘Margaret Harding’ by Perceval Gibbon, about an inter-racial romance in 1913 Karoo.

There’s a plethora of documentaries, including Jane Lipman’s ‘Courting Justice’, animation courtesy of Isabelle Rorke and Anamazing, an introductory workshop called ‘So you Want to Be A Filmmaker?’ as well as master-classes with Dutch director Ate De Jong and editor and story consultant Susan Korda, who will deliver her master class lecture on editing called ‘Kill Your Darlings’.

For more info go to: www.womenofthesun.org.za or www.newtown.co.za