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For Black Women in South African Film Biz, Equality Still a Struggle

Filmmakers share thoughts on racial, gender gaps at Durban FilmMart

DURBAN   — When filmmaker Zamo Makhwanazi takes meetings with execs at some of South Africa’s biggest production companies, she finds herself asking a simple question: “Where are the black women?”

For an industry grappling with questions of racial and gender transformation that cut to the heart of the current global debate, South Africa has still struggled to address the unique challenges facing black women.

In recent comments made to industry body Sisters Working in Film and Television (SWIFT), which arose as part of an often contentious round table at the Durban FilmMart on July 20, Makhwanazi attacked “the unacceptably lopsided power relations rampant in the industry,” noting that “sexism and racism are happy bedfellows,” and that black women can continue to be marginalized in the South African industry because “no one cares” about them.

Speaking candidly on Friday about the glass ceiling in the local biz, where “black women do not get commissioned by broadcasters to run our own productions,” she shared both her own experiences and the examples of others in the industry. “We’re all stuck in the same writer’s rooms, where we’re worked to death,” she said. “How is it that we’re carrying the industry on our backs, we are the creators, we are the hardest-working people in the industry, but we have the least power?” Black women looking for bigger roles as directors and producers, she said, are met by “dead silence.”

SWIFT’s Zoe Ramushu acknowledged that the plight of black women in the industry is “an intersectional issue that needs to be dealt with as such.” She talked about efforts by the year-old body to be more sensitive toward the issues facing women of color, noting, “Although we are fighting for the same thing as women, we have to understand that women are not starting from the same starting point. There are different struggles for women.”

SWIFT has a robust presence in Durban this year, months after it launched a campaign to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace that includes an industry-wide code of conduct that’s garnered the support of government institutions, trade groups, and broadcasters. The group led a second panel during the Durban FilmMart on Saturday and created a series of PSAs around the hashtag #ThatsNotOk, featuring instances of unacceptable workplace behavior, that are screening before every movie in Durban.

Film critic and festival programmer Katarina Hedren cautioned SWIFT and other industry bodies about working within “an enabling system that is by design oppressive, exploitative, abusive.” She said, “This ecosystem that is the film industry is…one where empowerment and transformation initiatives have become permanent fixtures… and also sources of income. I don’t think there’s a real expectation, or a real clear model that this has to be changed—exclusion and marginalization based on gender, based on sexual orientation, based on ethnicity.”

Citing “no leadership and no vision about real transformation” at the highest levels of government and industry, she warned about a “leadership that ticks boxes,” claiming progress in the fight for equal rights by “outsourcing” transformation initiatives to civic groups like SWIFT.

“I think that SWIFT and other organizations have to be very careful not to fit too well into that system, and not be complicit and be part of that,” she said. “And that’s where I think we have to be very careful…about how we perform our activism. Those who advocate who fit too well into that system, you become part of an ecosystem that is not helping.”

Hedren took special aim at the #ThatsNotOK social-media campaign, singling out the SWIFT-produced PSAs in Durban as a “lost opportunity” because they were directed, shot and edited by white women. “Are we performing our activism, or are we living it, and are we considerate and mindful of every aspect of that?” she asked. “Because if SWIFT does not understand that, who is going to?”

Makhwanazi’s own testimony offered a blistering critique of a system that, while making tangible gains in advancing the careers of black men and white women, has left black women behind.

“There isn’t a single space where I feel that we’ve been treated fairly, we’ve been represented, whether it’s because of our gender or because of our race. We are black and we are women all the time. We don’t get to take a break,” she said.

“Unless we’re speaking about those things together, you are not speaking to me. I don’t exist in that space.”

Pictured (l. to r.): Lwazi Manzi, Zamo Makhwanazi, Zoe Ramushu, Katarina Hedren

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