Input 2012
Input 2012 was held at the Fox Studios site in Moore Park, Sydney, Australia.

Anton Burggraaf

Two South African productions – In Debt and 90 Plein Street – featured in this year’s line-up at Input, the unique international public forum that brings together broadcasters and filmmakers in celebration of the “highest quality television programming worldwide”, according to the organisation’s mission statement.

The shows were presented alongside other global programming that demonstrates a desire for “television in the public interest”, the hallmark of this festival and conference. Input 2012 was held in Sydney, Australia.

According to its organisers, Input seeks “to support television as a service to the public; to promote discussion and debate about the television craft (because it is) dedicated to the proposition that television should be public service in the public interest”.

This is indeed unique. Unlike MIP, held biannually in Cannes, Input is not a market. It is part festival, part conference. So it screens programmes and encourages debate, where professionals – producers, directors, writers and broadcasters – can focus on engaging on a level of values and ideas.

This makes Input something of a noble cause. The organisation’s guiding principle is that “access to the most honest, innovative, provocative, courageous and challenging broadcasting is a universal fundamental human right”. Delegates were frequently reminded of this and the threat to public television posed by hard-line commercial gains in recent years. Interestingly, the idea of Input originated over 35 years ago in the heyday of European socialism. So the aims, as laid out in the organisation’s statutes, read like an idealist’s manifesto.

The event is so jam-packed with content it can be a nightmarish juggle. It runs over four days with two three-hour slots per day; three sessions run simultaneously in a slot with three to five television programmes in each session. That means there are around 80 shows to choose from. A personal scheduling challenge.

The topics are often cross-generic. They also tend to pick out trends. A good example is a session charmingly titled Fresh Fiction – Join-in Dramas, Soap Noirs and Other Buzz Creators featuring a diversity of new dramatic forms. (See a PDF of the full programme here.)

Each screening is followed by a discussion with the producers or filmmakers. Questions from the floor are often interrogative, and sometimes outright challenging – remember, these are hardened TV professionals with attitude.

SABC1’s In Debt was screened in a session entitled Change Your Behaviour: The Impact of Factual Entertainment Programmes. It was quite something to see this small but potent property alongside two international heavyweights, Hugh’s Fish Fight (Channel 4, UK) and Redemption Inc. (CBC, Canada). Hugh’s Fish Fight is hard-hitting and shocking investigative documentary-making at its best. This challenging environmental series is presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, British celebrity chef, journalist, food writer and “real food” campaigner, who probes why so much fish is thrown back into the sea dead (euphemistically called “discard”) and explodes UK supermarket claims about the fish they sell.

Redemption Inc. is an Apprentice-style reality series in which 10 ex-cons are given the opportunity to set up their own business with a start-up investment from the pocket of Canadian venture capitalist Kevin O'Leary. Of course, only one of them will get the prize and only after some gruelling challenges that expose their abilities and flaws. It is a rough-and-ready caper with all the thrills and spills you would expect from the genre.

In Debt (SABC1, South Africa) is also reality format, taking 10 ordinary people who are about to lose everything through a rigorous debt relief programme. In the vein of Supernanny, these no-hopers are put through their paces by an expert professional debt counsellor, the Debt Doctor, Thoko Nchabeleng. The show was devised by Ochre Moving Pictures in response to an SABC1 brief that seeks to address our growing personal debt crisis.

For Thando Shozi, SABC acting head of factual genre, the programme is an important part of a broader mandate. “This project is one of the shining examples of what PBS programming can be and the role that the SABC can play in generating projects with meaningful public values attached.” The show is also a testament to the visionary work of her department to empower audiences – in this case, financial literacy delivered in an entertainment vehicle.

Watch the In Debt promo:

The response to the screening of In Debt at Input 2012 was positive with comment ranging from the inquisitive (production processes and editorial context) to praise for the host and the candid treatment of a personal issue (see the episode synopsis here). But the main thrust in the feedback was surprise at the ease with which a commercial format is being used to encourage behaviour change. Like Redemption Inc., In Debt shows there is the potential for programming to borrow ideas from proven reality conventions and use them for an educational purpose. Ironically, this is something the SABC has understood and applied for years. This was news to many in attendance.

The only other African programme in the lineup was SABC2’s 90 Plein Street, presented in the session The Thrill of Political TV Drama. If you know the series then you will know it is one of a few incidences of critical political drama on SABC, following the life of Dineo Nkgatho (Warona Seane), a fictional ANC MP who must balance her private life and the strains of a broken family and party loyalty. It is frank about the frustrating business of running a country and reveals the inner workings of parliament, including the often complex highways and byways of our domestic political reality.

Watch the promo for 90 Plein Street III:

The director of the episode chosen for Input, Khalo Matabane, was interviewed on Skype in the session. He acknowledged that featuring political characters from the real world can get tricky. How does one tread the fine line between fact and fiction? For the creators of the show, it is somewhat of a dilemma, especially because of the mix of drama and political commentary (scenes are peppered with politician and pundit interviews).

“We bounced ideas off one another, myself and the writers,” says Matabane. “We all have strong political views, and people are politicised in South Africa. We wanted to give viewers very real characters and create a series that is provocative and not definitive.”

Born Free Media has done that, and very well. The programme held up brilliantly against the others in the session and it was marvellous to see South Africa’s contemporary political complexity on screen among a raft of other political drama at Input that dwelled on the past. The session also featured Chernobyl, Four Days in April (Poland), a drama about the terrible effects that this disaster had on countries downwind of the Ukraine; The Cardinal Files (Chile), part thriller, part telenovela, shot as a dazzling retro pastiche, about the disappearance in the 1970s of thousands of young people after the Pinochet military coup; and The Promise (UK), a view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seen through the eyes of a young girl who discovers her grandfather’s role in it.

Input 2013 will be held in El Salvador.

Anton Burggraaf is an executive producer at Ochre Moving Pictures. He attended Input 2012 to present SABC1’s In Debt, which was selected from over 300 submissions. For posts in this year’s Input check out Ochre Moving Pictures Facebook fan page, date range 7 to 11 May.