‘Ladies’ leaves Botswana in the lurch

With HBO show gone, Kgalewood biz considers its options

The scene from Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” begins with the words, “Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.”

That hill rises on the outskirts of Gaborone, Botswana’s diminutive capital, and the detective agency itself — or, at least, its Hollywood reproduction — still sits in a dusty lot at its foot.

But with producers of the HBO skein relocating to Cape Town last month, Botswana’s fledgling film and TV industry is left with a mystery that Mma Ramotswe herself would be hard-pressed to solve: What’s next for the industry locals affectionately refer to as Kgalewood?

“Right now, it is really a bit slow,” says Ndipo Mokoka, director of Gaborone-based production company Just Between Us, who worked as production manager on the HBO skein. “It’s so demoralizing. After working so hard and being so patient in the industry, all of a sudden it just dies.”

A year ago, hopes were high that “No. 1 Ladies” would add much-needed vitality to the southern African nation’s budding industry.

“The feeling — and (director) Anthony (Minghella)’s vision — was not only to shoot the series in the country, but also to contribute to the country by helping to build a mature film industry,” says Vlokkie Gordon, of the South African production services company Film Afrika, which worked on the series.

Nearly 200 students received hands-on training during filming of the pilot in 2007, she said. Many returned to work on the HBO skein when it

lensed the following year.

But with the production’s departure, the program ground to a halt. Execs say that after contributing $5 million toward financing the pilot, the recession-strapped government of Botswana balked at coughing up coin for the skein.

As negotiations dragged on to try to keep “No. 1 Ladies” in the country, Gordon says, it became clear that the effort to convince the government to find more money was a “wild goose chase,” considering that the South African rebate had been doubled.

Producers are now hoping to lens two 90- minute “No. 1 Ladies” features in South Africa, with occasional shoots on location in Botswana. Pre-production is set to begin later this year.

According to Mokoka, industry execs in Botswana are frustrated by the lack of government support.

The TV industry, led by pubcaster Btv, is dead, he says. A proposed film commission has failed to gain traction, and despite plans to introduce rebates, there are still no incentive schemes to compete with its neighbor to the south.

Still, Mokoka is encouraged by the continued interest of foreign filmers, with a major U.K. production company planning to scout locations in the country in August.

He also had hopes that the government might change its tune. During the filming of “No. 1 Ladies,” the country’s vice president, Mompati S. Merafhe, visited the set, where some 600 locals were employed on both sides of the camera. Merafhe, says Mokoka, was impressed.

“That’s when (the government) realized this is a serious thing, and it can sustain us for a long time,” he says. The question remains when that support will become tangible.

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