« To rely only on ourselves »

Interview with Eddie Mbalo, Chief Executive Officer de la NFVF (National film and video foundation), South-Africa, by Olivier Barlet

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Eddie Mbalo, good afternoon. Could you tell us about the importance of cinema in South-Africa? Do the people find it important? We know that under the Apartheid, Black people had no contact with cinema. Is this changing quickly?
Fortunately, our government has recognized the importance of cinema: for the development of the country’s identity, for the creation of jobs, for public diplomacy. The only problem left is the issue of access: do ordinary South Africans have acess to cinema? Is it developing at a fast rate? No. The number of people going to the cinema depends on cinema being established where the people are. For the moment, most people have to drive five to ten kilometers to reach the nearest cinema. If they can’t drive, they need to take one or even two taxis.
There are new possibilities for watching films, such as television or cellphones. Are you willing to explore these new directions?
Yes. South Africa has a very sophisticated television system. The top-ten television programs are always from South Africa. People still watch a lot of American Hollywood cinema because it is available in cinemas. The emphasis is more on cinema than television because, thanks to the big screens, it is a special experience. People need to understand that cinema can be something else than just an after-work activity. It has become part of our daily lives; some even make their living out of it. We have to produce the films but, more importantly, we need to create facilities. I’m proud to say that, this year, we have budgeted to set up a pilot project in Soweto, where we are going to adopt the same strategies as multiplexes. However, we want to do this on a smaller scale. We want those multiscreens to be where the people are. They should be like your regular cornershop: people need to be able to walk to the cinema.
In this country, Leon Shuster’s very commercial films are quite successful both in the Black and White communities. At the same time, there are less commercial films. Is there a tension between these two kinds of cinema?
Over the last five years, we have thought about developing two parallel economies for cinema: we need to develop purely commercial films and movies that are not necessarily commercial but are important to the country, as a form of public diplomacy, to tell people who we are. At the end of the day, it costs a lot of money to make movies so we need to recover some of that money. If filmmakers want to survive, they need to think about that. Making commercial movies will give you the money to make the films you are passionate about!
Is the NFVF (National Film and Video Foundation)’s main goal to bring cinema to the people?
The NFVF has many goals. We need to train people to make movies, get people to watch those movies and take our films abroad. The major part of our work is to promote and develop our culture. This is done by making movies but also by setting up facilities.
Do you have sufficient means to do that?
We never have enough! If we want the state to invest in cinema, we need to justify our request. In South Africa, we have to show economic viability, that we are aligned with national imperatives. We have to explain why money should be invested in cinema when there are problems of electricity, for example. We need to find a balance. We have managed to do a lot with very little. We are committed, passionate and we work hard. Money alone will never be enough.
Do you have a policy concerning the way you connect with other African countries?
Our government has been a driver of unity in Africa; it has been concerned about the development of our economy, so we align ourselves. If we are to survive, we need to cooperate and align our programs. South Africa’s problem is that it has been isolated from the Continent for a long time. We still need to adapt and understand our brothers and sisters from the Continent. Last year, we hosted the African Film Summit. There was a real will for unity amongst the filmmakers. African filmmakers need to determine their destiny, to talk about the future they see for African cinema. West African cinema has been influenced a lot by Europe and France in particular; South African cinema by Hollywood, America and England; so it is important that we release ourselves from the bondage of these colonial powers to rely only on ourselves. When Africa co-produces together, we can say we are getting somewhere. As long as we plead for support in Europe and America, it impacts on the kind of films we make. But at the same time, we are still willing to coproduce with Europe because we are trying to establish ourselves as equal partners.
There is a lot of talk about the M-Net initiative of creating the African film library. What is you opinion?
M-Net is running a business and it is important that filmmakers be conscious of the implications of signing away their rights. It’s a private entreprise, a free market but the challenge is what determines the price. I am only concerned about M-Net’s intentions, but there is nothing we can do as we live in democracy.
The general feeling is that all the institutions that help African cinema didn’t grasp the issue in time. A lot of filmmakers sold their rights without really knowing what the implications were.
There is another reality: African filmmakers have had difficulties in finding support for their films. People need to realize the implications for their future when they enter an agreement or an arrangement. Most African filmmakers are desperate. In Africa, some institutions protect individuals against big corporations. If people feel that the agreement was not fair, they can go and see their regulators or the competition commission, etc. Those issues need to be dealt with at the level of the African Union. They are World Trade Organization issues: if African filmmakers were familiar with its workings, they could put their case forward and go to the UN. That is why they are encouraged to be organized and united. Africa needs activist organizations, not « talk-shops ».
This also applies to film critics.
Yes. I have worked for organizations so I understand the importance of belonging. Sometimes, we cannot fight as individuals but we can fight as a collective. We all depend on others for funding, commissioning or broadcasting, so it is important for individuals not to compromise themselves.
In South Africa, television invests a lot in cinema. What is your relation to television?
Most of our work wouldn’t be a success if we worked alone. Part of our success is due to our partners. We have a great relation with the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation). We have had a very successful relationship with M-Net for the New Directions scheme. Television is a very good training ground for a lot of filmmakers. Broadcasts also give access to the audiences out there so it becomes a central element in the structure. Most of the funds we have had were landed thanks to our partnerships.
What are the big challenges for the next few years?
Redefining the model on a business basis. As I said before, making films costs money so we need to think more about the audience we need to address to bring more people into cinemas. We need to fight more for investment. Filmmakers have to think of audiences, not just of themselves.

///Article N° : 6693


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