Actress Ayanda Seoka
Johannesburg - While women are seen to be making strides in the film industry, behind the scenes sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour haunts them.

Local film-maker, director and member of Sisters Working in Film and Television (Swift), Tiny Mungwe, said sexual harassment is part of the experience of women in the film industry.

“It’s an industry that has been historically predicated on the exploitation of women’s bodies visually and, as such, the culture has been embedded deeply into the workings of the industry,” she said.

On the other hand, she said there were a lot of women who were taking the lead in the industry and she was hopeful they could turn things around.

“(Sexual harassment) is just a symptom - an indication of a deeper problem - and it is a manifestation of power dynamics and power relations within the industry,” she said.

Mungwe said the vast majority of women working in the film industry, particularly black women, do not enjoy much power “and this makes it very easy to see why sexual harassment is prevalent”.

“Only when we seek to allow women to take leading, creative roles of owning content, writing, directing and producing can we then give women a voice. Sexual harassment cannot be handled as a stand-alone issue without asking where all the women of colour in the forefront of this industry are?”

Pietermaritzburg actress Ayanda Seoka said her personal experience of sexual harassment began at university with certain lecturers, because “the very nature of our studies is personal, hands-on and physical”.

Filmmaker and director Tiny Mungwe

“It kind of leaves room for physical contact, more than other fields of study. There was a lecturer who had a reputation for untoward behaviour with students,” she recalled.

This made it hard for students when they had to do exercises in class which entailed taking off their clothes and having the lights off, she said.

As a result, some students felt uncomfortable and dropped out.

“We lost a lot of talented performers. When I’d get home he (the lecturer) would text and he was naturally poetic. I would just not respond. At rehearsals he would ask why I didn’t reply to his texts,” she said.

Because she was not entertaining the lecturer’s advances he dropped her from the lead role and gave her a smaller part instead.

“This particular lecturer did this to many girls. Because he was in a position to make young girls believe he could get them jobs in the industry or believe the claims he made about upcoming projects, they fell prey to his stories and claims. Some of the girls would have sex with him, thinking he could help their careers. In the industry, victims were often afraid to speak out about sexual harassment.”

Seoka said if they talked and complained too much, no one wanted to work with them. She said having organisations like Swift around was a start in dealing with this age-old problem.

More recently she had an encounter off set with a seasoned crew member, who smacked her bottom.

“Luckily I now have an agent who is also a member of Swift. I emailed her about the incident, telling her it had made me uncomfortable. She had a confidential conversation with the production company and it was dealt with.”

She said she spoke up about this specific incident for all those times she had not in the past, for all the other women who had not, and for the women in the future who may find themselves in similar situations. She added that the senior crew member had apologised in writing.

From her conversations with other women on what can be done to curb these incidents, she found that women in the industry need to support each other.

“We need to share information on how to handle these things because most of the time men are in management positions and nothing is said or done by their victims.”

Seoka also highlighted the importance of making men more aware of what constitutes inappropriate behaviour towards female colleagues.

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