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Film as a tool for cultural and economic emancipation

Close your eyes. Try to picture Africa. What do you see ? If the image you conjure up is one of tribal wars, man eating savages, apes, laughing hyenas and wailing babies, then you have been a victim of constant bombardment with negative imagery of Africa by the mass media. Whereas the Western media have since time immemorial peddled the idea of a dark continent, Africa is not the heart of darkness or a place of cannibals who eat babies.

poster courtesy of film producers

There is consensus amongst the stakeholders within the African film sector that the time has come for Africa to tell its own stories. Film can be a force for cultural and economic emancipation but a multi-lateral approach is quite possibly the best way forward for the continent in its bid to diversify its economic activities and create jobs for its rising youthful population.

poster courtesy of film producers

On the Multi choice Talent Factory

One of Zimbabwe’s leading film makers Rumbi Katedza sees the setting up of a film academy as part of the solution toward structuring the African film sector: “The Multichoice Talent Factory is a great initiative that gives opportunities not only for our future filmmakers to hone their skills, but to also be exposed to talent in the region. I like that it is pan-African. However, only a limited number of people are accepted into the programme, so while Multichoice is playing its part, we also need to ensure there are more institutions here and abroad that can train Zimbabwean practitioners to be professional, to be great storytellers and to produce quality content. On Monday, members of the Zimbabwe Film Industry Development Platform (ZFIDP) Executive committee met with Minister Mutsvangwa to engage on issues of a film policy, film commission, content generation and economic growth in our industry. We know that once talented Zimbabweans go through training and other programmes, there needs to be a robust industry with solid foundations and a vibrant broadcasting landscape to absorb them.”
Quality imperative, market place exigencies and politics
Within the context of international giants such iRoko, Netflix, iFlix /Kwese and Multichoice battling for the attention of the millions of viewers on the continent, the need for quality production is imperative however well-meaning national policy frames and productions maybe. National broadcasting stations with their bureaucratic and highly politicized operational environment run the real risk of collapse or worst of all, continuing to be a heavy burden on tax payers. They simply need an infusion of a new corporate culture of excellence along with well trained personnel. In the end, quality trumps sentiment or political considerations when it comes to the question of viewer choices. “Audiences are becoming much more discerning of the content they watch, so we have to up skill and produce competitive content,” Katedza further elaborated.

Brand Africa

The competing narratives about Africa can make the task of a film maker or creative person seem daunting. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is an enduring polemic on Africa’s potential and promise. The counter narrative is vital for gaining respect for the continent on the global stage. “We must tell our stories ourselves. It’s only when we tell it ourselves that we are going to tell the story as it is and not as it is from someone else perspective. African stories have always been told by others. We want to take ownership of our own history. We are not going to tell only about the animals or the famines. From that perspective, the grooming of talent is very important. Multichoice Africa has proven that it is not just making money but also sloughing back into the community and developing the next generation of film industry professional,” noted Milca Mugunda the chairperson of Multichoice Namibia. “We are going to take ownership of our destination not only going to tell about the wars and the famines. Our people who we are training today are the ones who are going to tell the story of Africa’s greatness.”

Economic imperative

The 2015 Ernest & Young report, Cultural Times – The First Global Map of Cultural and Creative Industries, which is its first global survey quantifying the global economic and social contribution of the industries, established that revenue from cultural and creative industries (of which film is an integral part of) generated globally accounts for 3% of the world’s GDP or a total of US$2 250billion. Further, that it also creates a total of 29.5 million jobs worldwide, or 1% of the earth’s actively employed population. Zimbabwe’s southern neighbor South Africa is in tandem, the report says, with the global trend where in 2014, according to some early mapping of the sector, South Africa’s creative economy contributed over R90.5bn to the national economy or 2.9% of the GDP in 2013 to 2014, exceeding, for instance, the contribution of agriculture to the GDP (2.2%).Over one million, or 6,72% of all South African jobs, are housed in the broader ‘Cultural Economy’ as per another report by cultural think-tank, the South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) compiled by Prof. Jen Snowball, the SACO chief research strategist at Rhodes University and Serge Hadisi, an independent economist affiliated to Rhodes University.
Ultimately, countries with struggling economies such as Zimbabwe must seriously consider the creative sector’s capacity for socio-economic development taking advantage of the obvious intersectionality of the content creation industries with new media and ICTs in terms of distribution and monetization. The case for including these nascent technologies in the definition of the creative sector is a foregone conclusion.

Vital Fact file

• A 2010 United Nations report on the global creative economy posits that trade in the creative sector continues to grow citing Information Technology rising from US$267 billion in 2002 to US$592 billion worldwide in 2008.
• Developed countries account for 83 percent of exports in creative services and 56 percent in creative goods.
• The entertainment sector of the U.S. contributed US$74.3 billion to the economy in 2012.
• The U.S. has 40,000 movie theatres whilst India has 20,000.
• China has 13,000 movie theatres
• Africa has less than 1,000 movie theatres- a ratio of 1 cinema per million people.

THE ADZE UGAH INTERVIEW

Adze Ugah is one of Africa’s finest filmmakers whose artistic vision is responsible for some of the most widely followed productions in South Africa and indeed across Africa. What separates the grain from the proverbial chaff as pertains  Ugah is his growing repertoire of television and film helming productions such as Society II and III, Zone 14, Tshisa II, Skwizas II, My Perfect Family II, Isibaya, Room 9 within the context of an environment that is generally hostile to African immigrants. A past Best Achievement in Directing – TV Soap winner for Isibaya in the South African Film and Television Awards, Ugah is a pioneering Nigerian creative plying his trade in South Africa.    His critically acclaimed pan African television series Jacob’s Cross is perhaps his crowning achievement in a glittering film career in terms of forging pan African relations. The 2008 documentary The Burning Man garnered international notice and earned several awards.His first feature film Gog’Helen was released in late 2012 and he is currently involved in various stages of production of other film and television projects. This creative visionary is a little lauded articulate giant of African film. Culture Beat Africa editor Addy Kudita manages to prise him away from his busy schedule for an insightful one on one.

CBA: How did you get your break in the cut throat world of television, it’s cut throat isn’t it?

ADZE UGAH: Every industry is cut throat, but for one to make it in TV and film, I feel one must always start with believing that one has something to offer.So it is not about entering the industry with the notion of what one can get out of it. I lived, breathed and ‘slept’ film and TV.Everyone around me could see it.So after film school in Nigeria, I sought to increase my knowledge base, and that’s what led me to do my honours in SA. After graduating, I sought more knowledge by volunteering to be a trainee for little or no pay on the film and TV sets.As long as it meant I could learn more about making TV and film from a practical perspective without having to pay for it.It was very hard considering that I had no support system in SA and relied on just the kindness of God and others for survival. And those who allowed me to work as a trainee could see my potential in even the most menial of film and TV functions and just saw it fit to assign bigger responsibilities to me.When the time came, that’s what happened and that’s how I started. It all began with Home affairs and the producer of Home affairs, Roberta Durant, for seeing that potential and giving me that opportunity.

CBA: Can you recall for me some of the projects you have worked on aside from famous ones such as Zone 14 and others such as Society which I enjoyed thoroughly?

ADZE UGAH: My first work experience in SA Television was on a SABC 1 show called Home affairs, as a trainee assistant director. I recall being nervous when it was time to apply for a work permit to work on that show because I thought the department of Home affairs might think we were making a show about them and be worried about being shown in a negative light on TV and maybe refuse the permit. But the show had nothing to do with the department.In a way; it was like Society, just about the four disparate lives of women living in SA. I then went to work as an assistant director on an SABC 2 show called Heartlines that was where I met Angus Gibson, the creator/director of Yizo Yizo. He also directed the Oscar nominated documentary on Mandela and he has since been my mentor. He was intrigued by my passion for movies and TV. He then invited me to meet his business partner and producer Desiree Markgraaf. At the time they were creating a pan African series for MNET, and they invited me to contribute to the project. It went on to become the acclaimed pan-African series that we know today as Jacob’s Cross, and I became one of the anchor directors of the show. Since then I have done Tshisa season three, some episodes of Room 9, the supernatural detective series set in a future dystopian South Africa. I have done some episodes of the sitcom, My Perfect Family and Skwizas. Also directed an anti xenophobia Mfolozi Street and have directed feature films for SA cinema such as Gog Helen, Mrs Right Guy, and 10 Days in Sun City.

CBA: As a migrant, what obstacles did you have to overcome to get to a place where you could “eat” from the craft?

ADZE UGAH: Firstly for me, it wasn’t about what and where I could “eat”, I was about what I could give others to “eat”, even though at the time I virtually had nothing, but I had my ideas, my point of view on things, my creativity, i had my vision and my passion and that’s what I believe created the opportunities for me

CBA: Did you train in S.A. or Nigeria and how did you cut your teeth in the business?

ADZE UGAH: My first degree in film was from Nigeria, at the National Film Institute, in Jos. I was able to make one film after I graduated with money from my parents and I used my family as the cast.The film went on to win some awards in Nigeria at that time but didn’t really make me any money.But it was a great learning curve that led to the desire to seek more knowledge in making films.

CBA: What kind of a premium do you think as Africans are placing on our own narratives?

ADZE UGAH: Not nearly enough as we should, other countries like Asia, Europe and the Americas see their narratives as a commodity.For them their art and culture and entertainment is not just a government mandate, it is big business. It is something to invest in and to export to other nations. It grows their economy and shapes their identities -the best of both worlds as far as I am concerned. It’s about time Africans saw it as more than just stories told round a fire place or under a tree or just a novelty. It is big business.

CBA: What in your opinion is the importance of story telling from a developmental point of view?

ADZE UGAH: Story telling shapes emotions, identity and consciousness.America has used it to colonize the world, advance its notions and ingrained itself into the global psyche. We have the same opportunity to do like wise.

CBA: What stories do you believe need to be told more insistently about Africa?

ADZE UGAH: Historical ones for starters and even contemporary ones.

CBA: How do you view issues around xenophobia?

ADZE UGAH: Just like any other malady, you can’t endorse something that every one agrees it is a social ill. Even those who are xenophobic know that it is a negative attitude, and just like any other social ill, it is mostly fueled by ignorance and the only way to counter ignorance is to inform and educate.That’s why platforms like film and TV become very important.  I meant,  I directed an anti-xenophobia documentary called The Burning Man, and feature films for SA cinema such as Gog helen, Mrs Right Guy, 10 days in Sun City.

CBA: The work of yours that I have seen tends to have a gritty realism to it. The characters tend to be the most interesting ones and a good example are the Zone 14 ones such as Spinach…Do you deliberately seek out scripts with strong memorable characters?

ADZE UGAH: I think i have just been lucky to work with people who are also drawn to the same issues as I am. That’s what it’s really all about at the end of the day.

CBA: What are currently working on?

ADZE UGAH:  I am working on Isibaya at the moment and working towards releasing a feature film in 2018

CBA: Are you eating from this?

ADZE UGAH: I think it’s more important that I know others can eat from the projects I am work on first and foremost.That is the only thing that guarantees that I can also eat from it eventually.

CBA: What inspires you personally?

ADZE UGAH: Good films, good books and good television series, but most of all the human experience in all its permutations mostly inspire me.