DURBAN — As the Durban Film Fest and its parallel industry program, the Durban FilmMart (DFM), unspooled this weekend in South Africa, a focus on issues facing women in the industry has dominated the program.
“DFM is unapologetic about putting women on the agenda,” said producer Zoe Ramushu, who moderated a round table on transformation in the South African industry on July 21. Assessing the state of the local biz – a day after a similar discussion sparked a divisive debate on the industry’s track record for promoting black women – Ramushu noted that in spite of the challenges that still exist, “women are succeeding, women are being given space, women are being given opportunities” more than ever before.
“It’s so important to take into account the successes that exist for women in the industry,” she said.
Illustrating that point was veteran producer Bridget Pickering. Born in Namibia, and trained in the New York film biz before returning to southern Africa in the late ‘90s, Pickering was among the first black women to blaze a trail in the local industry.
“You always felt that you were on the periphery of that world,” she said, of a time when the South African biz largely skewed white and male. Rather than deterring her, though, she used her unique position as inspiration. “I developed my own voice and my own strength, and I had a very strong sense that this is what I wanted to do…so no one could feel that I didn’t belong,” she said.
Nearly two decades later, Pickering “absolutely believe[s] in creating a female agenda. It’s non-negotiable to ensure there’s always women on my productions, and I work with female directors.”
She added, “If a crew sees that there’s a woman who’s in charge…there’s just a different environment, because they know that they have to behave. They know that there’s already someone who’s the boss, who’s paying their salary. That’s why it’s…not just about people in front of the screen. It’s about [when]…there’s a woman that’s a DoP, there’s a woman that’s a producer, and therefore immediately creating a different space.”
Pioneers like Pickering helped set the stage for young filmmakers like Lwazi Mvusi, who arrived in Durban this week for the world premiere of her feature debut, “Farewell Ella Bella.” “I never had to deal with patriarchal issues [on set],” said Mvusi, who’s largely worked with female-owned production companies. “I haven’t had to go through it, because I’ve been in the position where women have created spaces that are equal.”
To its credit, the South African government has introduced a rash of initiatives through the years to create opportunities for young black women like Mvusi. Her first short was made through the National Film & Video Foundation’s “Women in Film” scheme, while “Farewell” was financed through the government’s Emerging Black Filmmakers Fund, which grants R5.2 million (around $388,000) to six projects a year for production and marketing.
That support for black films, however, doesn’t reach across the industry, according to Sheffield Doc/Fest program manager Sarah Dawson, who pointed to the dearth of South African movies in local cinemas. Noting how “our stories shape our sense of identity,” she asked, “Which films do we need to see as a society? Is it South African? Is it African? Does it speak to our reality, or are we giving ourselves this weird, alienated sense of disconnect by constantly reflecting back images that are imported into our space from outside our space?”
At an industry gathering largely focused on financing and producing new movies, Dawson noted that while “we speak a lot about making films…we don’t talk a lot about when do they get seen, how do they get seen, who do they get seen by. Not just in relation to gender, but also in relation to reflecting our national identity, our local identity, our racial identities in South Africa.”
It was a point that Pickering picked up on as she addressed her own childhood in front of the screen. “I was a little black girl, so [I saw] absolutely no images or stories about myself that reflected…the complexity of my life, and its humor, its dimensions,” she said. Decades later, that shortfall fuels her as a producer. “That’s why I do it. That’s why I get up every morning.”
“In South Africa, young black girls are extremely marginalized,” said producer Mary-Ann Mandishona. Last year, as part of the “Girls Go to Cinema” program started by industry body Sisters Working in Film and Television (SWIFT), she helped hundreds of young black girls from South African rural areas and urban townships see “Hidden Figures,” which she described as “a movie about empowered female figures who are aspirational.” Ultimately, she said, such images give young black girls a way to imagine a different future for themselves.
Other obstacles still remain. Even as one of the country’s most accomplished producers, Pickering said that while working in a mostly male environment, she constantly faces “the assumption that you can’t do anything…[and] your position, your thought, your opinion is undermined.”
She added, “It’s not someone just saying you can’t do it; it’s the assumption of it that’s really problematic.”
Producer Cait Pansegrouw admitted to stealing a page from the male playbook, frequently asking herself, “How would I go about getting what I want if I was a man?” It’s a survival skill that comes with its own challenges. “Being ruthless or strong or upfront are qualities that we are made to feel ashamed of, but if we were men, we would be respected. That’s the thing that I’m trying to fight against the most,” she said.
Citing a patriarchal system as the biggest challenge she faces, both as a producer and as a woman, Pansegrouw noted how a competitive industry with limited opportunities for women breeds a toxic workplace culture, pitting ambitious women against each other. However, she added, “One of the ways we can overcome that is by uniting as women.”
Mvusi agreed. “It’s all about those relationships, and trusting in each other as women to work together in order to transform the industry,” she said. Speaking of “Farewell,” she added, “It’s been a real journey of being surrounded by women who said, ‘There’s something in you, and we’re going to cultivate that, and we’re going to support you on this journey.’”