Picture : Simone Kley

I wish I could write about the beautiful side of my industry. I really do. I love the South African arts scene. I don’t mind getting lost in all its textures and various shades. From music to dance, theatre, drama, paintings, sculptures, traditional crafts, wood carvings, film, television and more. I love art and I live for it. I have never been the kind of artist that locks themselves in a sectorial block.
My whole life has been shaped at one point or the other by very close interaction with different forms of art. My grandmother Vho-Nyamaala was a great poet, a singer and the most extraordinary storyteller I ever knew. I have her to thank for my love for telling great African stories today. I also have to thank my pottery queen, grandma Vho-Mususumeli for her beautiful visual artistry. She had a way with clay but could also weave and carve. I unfortunately never got a chance to learn her craft.

I want to write about the artistry of village women one day. I want to tell the stories of unknown artists whose works we don’t get to see on television magazine shows or read about in big art features in our favourite glossies. My point? I want to focus on so many other things but I find myself drawn back to a familiar spot of bother, the working environment of the local creative industries practitioner. So, I have to park my wish to write about the clay women of Vhembe and focus on matters immediate.

A distress call from an actor on set a few days ago sparked my angry note to the industry today. In an ideal situation I really would like to do beautiful reviews of the work my peers are putting out instead of being a self-appointed voice of concern for matters behind the scenes. There is a lot that is right about the South African television scene. We produce world-class programmes across all available platforms. Our film crews know their story.

We can proudly declare that we have the best in the game when it comes to the technical side of film and television production. We also don’t have a shortage of quality talent to bring the most complex of characters to life. We could be blazing much further ahead in the television game but we seem set on sabotaging ourselves.

In 2018 I honestly do not see why broadcasters and funders allow the kind of producer thuggery that one hears about from set to set. There is a disturbing trend in TV production that will kill the industry if broadcasters are not alert. I say this hoping that the prevalent thuggery is not in any way accepted or condoned by the channels that commission these rogue producers.

I’m using the term rogue quite decidedly because in my view any producer of film or television works who decides to abandon the route of professional norms and standards in producing works for a corporation as big as the SABC is clearly opting for rogue ways.

In an industry with so many knowledgeable professionals, from writers and directors, technical crew and on-screen talent, why are we still needing to deal with issues of calamities and disorder on filming locations? The distress call I mentioned earlier painted a chaotic picture not too dissimilar to what was described to me in another complaint about conditions on a set just over a month ago.

Unfortunately the chaos on the other set resulted in a most unfortunate tragedy. Week after week hard-working men and women, professionals in television and film, are being forced to stoop to lower lows in this increasingly alarming new trend where basic production standards are simply disregarded by producers. What has happened? Who threw out the book of standards that working in an environment where delayed pay days become the norm? What production budget plans are these producers, if one may call them that, submitting to broadcasters? There’s a clear discrepancy between the budget that gets submitted to channel and the one being used on the ground.

You’ve got to be working under really scary circumstances when you can have a production running without a production manager. Or one where the line producer also does the work of the production manager, production assistant, bookkeeper, wardrobe standby and runner all at the same time. This while being paid below industry standard rates for that one job title that appears on their contract. How and when did we allow things to deteriorate to such a state? We make jokes about inadequate services on sets as if those are additional luxuries and still expect stellar work out of cast and crew.

When did it become okay for producers to veer so far away from the traditional production norms to a point where a director is expected to complete work while not getting paid? Where actors carry out their work with anxiety because they cannot know for sure that their salaries will get paid? I can count four different productions recently where actors and crew were frustrated beyond reasonable measure because the production systems they were working under could be best described as alien to the industry.

What puzzles me the most is that these are either DTI-funded productions or big broadcaster commissions. Which makes me want to ask this; Why are those at the top looking away when such situations unfold? If you are a channel executive responsible for any broadcast property that is in production right now and in the future, I have a challenge for you. Go to the set regularly. Look around and listen to the cast and crew. Go to the set unannounced.

Eat the food that your producers are feeding their cast and crew on a daily basis and judge for yourself. Sit in those uncomfortable corners where actors get huddled because production budgets no longer accommodate green room facilities for talent. Oh, and please, do make a turn to the art department kitchen and see the totally unhygienic environment in which food that must be eaten by actors during a scene gets prepared. Please do this.

Acquire the knowledge on how professional production ought to work. It’s silly that one even needs to mention this, but yes, it’s clearly necessary. Ask questions when you get on that set. Ask the director if all is well. Enquire on the well-being of your crew. Check that your cast gets the very basic tools they need for comfort on set.

And sadly, we need to repeat boldly, too, that you please insist on seeing a health and safety plan.

The absence of a fully functioning industry body for this sector is seriously worrying. Now is not a good time to tell me about CCIFSA (Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa) and Saga (South African Guild of Actors). That’s another article for another day. There should be a vehicle through which such matters get reported and dealt with. Broadcasters should not continue to keep a distance while practitioners get treated unfairly by the producers they contract to create their programmes. The quality of work that gets put through to our screens is beginning to bear evidence to the all these issues.

Professionalism is compromised by people whose only interest in the television business is their own pockets. Despite hectic budget cuts by broadcasters over the years it is still possible to maintain a decently-run industry where production protocols are still respected.

Ultimately quality will be the greatest victim of all this. Real talent is getting compromised in the pursuit of cheap rates by producers who do not know the first word about film and television production.

One wonders how these types are getting contracted while reputable show creators and producers are struggling for work. We are not growing, this is regression. We need to edit these ugly bits out while we can, if not, the chaos will become the norm and the industry will surely suffer.

* Masebe is an award-winning actor, a creator and producer of television and film content. She is the author of The Heart Knows

The Sunday Independent