In line with June being Youth Month, we feature an in-depth look at the Bafundi TV & Film Festival 2009, written by Keyan Tomaselli, a senior professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and two media MA students at UKZN, Sarah Dawson and Jonathan Dockney.

An overview of student film festival, Bafundi TV and Film Festival 2009

By Keyan G. Tomaselli, Sarah Dawson and Jonathan Dockney.

The Bafundi TV and Film Festival, a national gathering for young filmmakers in the making, brought delegations of students to Johannesburg in March 2009. The Festival is sponsored by Wits Theatres, SABC Education, and the Gauteng Film Commission.

The first observation made by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) students upon their arrival in Johannesburg, however, had little to do with cameras. It was the bus service that intrigued them. Buses were running - here, there and everywhere - in stark contrast to Durban, which is surely the only large city in the world without a functioning service. Once designated as the best managed city in Africa, it is now possibly amongst the worst. Politics gets in the way of service delivery, politically motivated street re-naming being more important than sanitary beaches, housing or road maintenance. Watching the buses go by in Johannesburg reminded us of a Durban University of Technology (DUT) video screened at Bafundi in 2008. The video's topic was street re-naming that demonstrated how students resist discursive restrictions. Its presenter asked questions more seasoned professionals might have suppressed. In the video the Durban city manager whom ratepayers love to hate, who seems unable to separate his party political and professional hats, got a royal working over by the student interviewer. But, the same star-struck interviewer giggled her way through an interview with an embarrassed Durban media celebrity who was trying to take the interaction seriously.

This contradictory consciousness perhaps defines Bafundi. Students who control their predictable student worlds are rarely adequately prepared for hard-nosing their way beyond the protected environment of academic and training cloisters. The appropriate time to be serious, to be playful and getting the noise-to-signal ratio correct, are issues which need due attention.

Work, Exhaustion and Sleep

The enthusiastic opening speaker, Mokopi Mothoagane (SABC's Content Hub) talked about the breaks that came her way, how she seized her opportunities and made them work for her. Her story reminded us of educationist Jonathan Jansen's column in The Times (26 March 2009), which we had read on the plane that brought us to the Festival � both Mothoagane and Jansen emphasized the need for students to show initiative, to make things happen, to take personal responsibility.  Mothoagane put it more bluntly � success means working like a slave, coping successfully with unrelenting pressure, and dealing with lack of sleep. These kinds of exhortations tend to make often disbelieving comfort-led students anxious � the spectre of doing real work in real time under real conditions is for them a long way off.  For them, the world is simple: `work� simply means earning a huge income, and is restricted to eight hours a day including lunch and tea breaks.  The notion that one will work passionately with consistent professionalism under extreme stresses for long periods is rarely appreciated. The real world can be a real shock, especially for those working in media.

During some of the screenings of the films, this attitude became apparent; productions which stood out not only in terms of technical quality, but also aesthetically, were often those films which were produced on little to no budget or resources. However, what made these films noticeable were the students' initiative, passion and drive to create films that were of outstanding quality.

Coping with exhaustion requires passion. Passion requires commitment. Commitment requires professionalism. Bafundi could not have been organized without these qualities and long-hours put in by committed staffers way beyond the normal working day. This is what development means. The SABC, a co-sponsor, supports industry development. Bafundi is one such project, initiated to identify and support young film and video makers. Thinking about audiences and engaging viewers with programmes that resonate, are key.  The language and regional representation and local content mandates are important, and producers need to respond to these. How can local producers leverage these opportunities? Local content can be universal � �we are interested in people who are interested in documenting the South African aesthetic � please don't pitch the same old tired ideas� the students were told. �Bring concepts, propose thirteen week series based on multiples. Keep the proposals cost-effective�, explained the SABC's presenters.

�What we are looking for is your own voices, in their uniqueness, the truth of your own life experiences�.  We need programming which tells us who we are, African stories� (Mothoagane).  This discourse recurs in the context of the production of universally relevant content. The notion of �African stories� recurs, though except for one hotly contested presentation by a highly animated speaker, the audience was largely spared the essentialist discourse of `African values�. Students were told that cost-effective programming is ensured by format licensing; to a complaint about the Westernized nature of some of the SABC�s content, namely imported game show formats, or interpretations of Shakespeare, Mothoagane answered, �We chose William Shakespeare because it is free � not copyrighted. We used the spines of these dramas to adapt them to South African situations�.  This is a factor in affordability and audience identification.

While Bafundi was a place where student filmmakers could come together, it also proved to be a place where lines were drawn between them. It was a chance for students to meet and discuss their activity as emerging media professionals. But also it became clear that different institutions are producing students with highly varied ideological standpoints in relation to production, varying standards of production quality, and overall varying understandings of what it means to be a professional in the media industry.

This variation was exemplified in the floor discussions, where students emphasized their viewpoints in relation to the different speakers: some opinions leant towards creative purism, some towards ethical production values; with many towards economic viability or audience popularity. Few seemed concerned with critical reception. Another way to illustrate this is in a brief summary of the kinds of student film that was seen at the Festival. In the programme, there were documentaries that ranged from the barely watchable to the intelligent and powerful, and (relatively) high budget fiction action films, to charming no-budget comedies.

In the disjuncture between the content, some of the prestigious film schools� producers, and the mandate of the SABC (which was made emphatically explicit), it became clear that these students are perhaps being led into some naivety about the nature and state of the South African film and television industry. Certain institutions provide their students with the privilege of seemingly limitless technological facilities and big budgets. Certainly, their intention is to initiate their students as early as possible into professionalism. But we wonder to what extent this causes them to have an inflated sense of the opportunities of the world they are soon to enter. Too rosy a picture perhaps deprives them of the invaluable skills in dealing with the industry�s hardships � lack of funding, making do with nearly nothing, having to bend creatively to the constraints of funders� mandates.

One point of entry is the SABC�s late night �Student Reel� slot. Ren� Williams (SABC Industry Development & Social Projects) explained how �Student Reel� on TV2 is aimed at showcasing entry level producers. Copyright issues were mentioned � students were concerned about who owns the rights. Williams explained that while the SABC works with the producers on marketing, thus building their exposure and profile, students retain their own copyright. (Later in the Festival�s programme, copyright issues in relation to the SABC emerged as a point of serious contention and discussion.)

Operationalising Opportunities: Film Commissions

Jaques Stoltz, of the Gauteng Film Commission (GFC), spoke about film commissions and film offices. Commissions deal with locations and location planning, as well as offering a clearing house for information, data, and support to the industry.  There are two models for the development of such agencies: i) regional, strategic, provincial bodies such as the GFC: and ii) film offices, which focus on the operational side of location filming. The latter works mainly in issuing film permits to enable productions to deal with local by-laws.

Stoltz indicated that producers should work with commissions that support pilot projects of promising proposals. These pilots then could be used to raise finance. GFC is building a database of proposed projects and communicates with international producers to facilitate funding. Co-production treaties can be leveraged through commissions, and the commissions will assist identifying the appropriate state departments that sponsor the development of business plans, opportunities etc, and funding the productions.  He suggested that students subscribe to the relevant publication to enable them to network, participate in workshops, indabas etc.

Isaac Mabhikwa (FEPACI) talked about organizations that need to protect and promote the rights of practitioners in the industry.   FEPACI serves the continent as a whole, which has less than 10 organizations like the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF).  FEPACI aims to persuade governments to establish such bodies. Good arts management builds professional people and the industry, and should develop inter-sectoral synergies. For example, the NFVF can�t access the R300 million allocated to the DTI which offers rebate schemes as it is administered by a separate government department.  The National Arts Council gets far more than the NFVF in a sector where music production costs are far less than producing a film.

The floor discussion that most clearly revealed students� broad differences in understanding aspects surrounding reception rather than production followed a session on the topic of film criticism. In 2008, CCMS students who were not producers drew attention to the lack of discussion given to audiences, theory, history and criticism.  These sites were certainly on the agenda at 2009 in both the scheduled presentations and in the points made by students (especially as far as the issue of audiences is concerned). Thus the second Festival was more rounded with regard to the circuit of culture model:  regulation, production, distribution, interpretation, reception.

What needs to be included in debates about meaning is, what do audiences do with texts? Recent audience reception theory has placed (or perhaps, finally acknowledged) tremendous power in the hands of the audience to make meaning. An understanding of textual reception, from the active and engaging audience to how texts enter interpretive frameworks (cultures, subjectivities, identities etc) can provide more nuanced understandings of what happens to a text and meaning when it enters the life-worlds of respective audiences.

So You do Theory �?

Two constituencies inhabited the contradictory consciousness. These were identified by students from the purely practical and technical side of filmmaking on the one hand, and theorists and theorist-practitioners on the other. This unacknowledged yet very apparent dialectic between the two groups occurred throughout the Festival. Students tried to engage each side by asking questions such as �so you do theory...what exactly do you do in filmmaking then?� This was by no means a bad thing. By the end of the Festival students left a little more aware and enlightened as to the need for praxis � the application of theory in practice. But perhaps this awareness needs to be capitalized on more for forthcoming festivals. Rather than focusing only on how to get into the film industry, students need to be engaged in analyzing the greater meanings of their art/craft. What is film? What is filmmaking? What/who is a filmmaker? These are questions that could perhaps provide measures for enablement that mere tips and 'do's and don'ts when entering the industry cannot necessarily provide. The filmmaker is equipped with a greater arsenal of skills if s/he knows what she is doing, why s/he is doing it and how to go about doing it, rather than just how to do it.

Indeed, students need to be aware of the buttons they push when they push buttons.