Durban Film Indaba analysed


The two day Indaba, convened by the Durban Film Office (DFO), was held to discuss the “perceived gap between Durban training levels and actual skills required on film productions”. My situation is that I am employed as a senior lecturer at the DIT Television School. Our SAQA approved three year diploma course has been offered for 17 years and we enjoy a very high employment rate in industry. Our graduates are primarily employed in the television industry, although some do cross over to film. The vast majority of our graduates do not stay in Durban, but head for the busier production markets of Johannesburg and Cape Town.

There is a rash of institutions offering a variety of film/video/media education in Durban. Obviously, not all institutions offer the same quality training. Some are much better than others. The credible ones are those who have a long track record, have ample resources (including studios, OB vans, post-production facilities and lots of ENG kits), have sufficient, qualified, full-time staff (both academic and technical) and have a reputation built on the achievements of their graduates in the industry. This last point is probably the acid test – any course is only as good as the graduates it produces. Next time you work with a graduate on set, just ask where they trained. You’ll soon get an idea of which the best film or television schools are, and which qualifications are not up to scratch. Also, once Higher Education Qualifications Committee (HEQC) standards have been set for the Film and Television industry it will be very difficult for institutions which are not up to scratch to gain accreditation. This legislation will effectively see the end of the wanna-be film and television schools. But it will be up to industry to attach value to this accreditation and ensure that only graduates from certified schools are employed.

We sometimes hear how ‘lucky’ we are to have the facilities we do at the DIT Television School. I think people sometimes overlook how much initiative, planning and campaigning has to go into obtaining and maintaining such facilities – even in a partially state funded institution such as DIT. It certainly didn’t just fall into our lap. It has taken us years of demoralizing, frustrating battles to finally achieve the level of resources we have. This achievement has a lot to do with the leadership, drive and vision in the department. This is the kind of thing that will set one training facility apart from another. Also, while we do have a budget to manage, we are not first and foremost a business driven by a profit motive. We are focused on the implementation of transformation and producing highly competent graduates who met the needs of the emerging and transforming South African economy. We are here to serve the students and, ultimately, the industry.

AFDA will be opening a branch in Durban in 2007, piggy-backing on the hype surrounding the proposed Anant Singh studio. It is unfortunate that, of all the institutions present, AFDA was the only one given a slot to address the audience, allowing for considerable self-promotion. I am not convinced that a new film school is the answer to the perceived problem of lack of trained crew in Durban. The problem is not necessarily with the training provided, but with keeping good crew in town. No doubt good crew will be drawn to Durban as productions become more regular, with or without an extra film school being set up. It seems the industry is approaching the critical mass required to attract a big enough component of crew willing to reside in Durban. The past 3 years have seen a remarkable 41% growth in film productions in KZN. In addition, SABC has doubled the amount of local content in the past 15 months. With the need to produce regional content KZN must necessarily benefit and, indeed, is scheduled to see some of the SABC dramas shot here.

How will a new film school help the situation? Training takes a long time. A student in first year hardly knows one end of the camera from the other and should not be recommended for work on a professional production. Second year students might be able to work on set, but how will that fit in with the intricacies and logistics of the school’s time table? By third year most students have learnt something and it is at this point that we, at DIT Television School, schedule a 17 week experiental learning, or internship period. – which most students complete in Johannesburg or Cape Town. I believe more students would stay in town if they were offered work on local productions. Right now we are negotiating with one group, who have been commissioned to shoot a TV drama series in KZN, to take some of our third years for experiential training. Currently such collaborations are done on an ad-hoc basis. It would be preferable if we had a commitment from producers to take Durban-qualified interns on KZN based shoots, on a regular basis. This could be facilitated through the DFO. Once work is assured, crew will stay.

One speaker at the Indaba spoke about the lack of skills she encountered among new graduates. Her comments were general and not aimed at any one school. Being able to write English competently. Working well in a group. Having a driver’s license. Most of the things she mentioned as lacking were generic skills that a switched-on, highly motivated person would possess, with or without a film or television school qualification. She bemoaned the lack of technical crew. The problem is, many people who have studied for 3 years don’t aspire to be a technician or operator. On the other hand, if their training is worth anything they will also be well aware that they are not going to graduate and become a director straight away. Anybody who tells a student otherwise would be a bit dof. Then again, some students can resist information, no matter how many times they hear it. Schools cannot be all things to all people. Ideally each school should specialize in a particular aspect of training and service a niche area. The DIT Television School specializes in multi-camera operations and directing, for example, and many of our graduates go on to work on multi-camera productions, either studio or OB. A problem could easily arise with a school that tries to do everything, and ends up doing nothing very well.

I gather that, in some quarters, there is a certain amount of suspicion or even resentment aimed at new graduates entering the industry. Life is not that easy for a new graduate who comes up against a professional who has learned the hard way, on set, day by day, gradually working his way up the ladder, without a formal qualification. Film and television sets are notoriously hierarchical. The self-taught professional possibly harbors some deep suspicion about the ‘young upstart who thinks he knows everything just because he’s been to film or television school”. After all, the long hours and early call times are enough to flatten the creativity in the best of us. And now this graduate arrives, full of energy and creative ideas. It’s enough to make our older professional feel a bit threatened. So he waits for the graduate to mess up. See! He doesn’t even know how to operate a Genny! Don’t they teach you anything at film or television school?

Well, no film or television school can possibly hope to teach a student everything. Nothing can replace the actual hands-on learning experience that comes from working in the industry, not even the internships that the better courses include. But a graduate worth his salt will enter the industry with a wealth of skills and the ability to progress up the ladder faster than someone without such a background. He will understand the importance of a humble attitude and the necessity of paying his dues. He will have an overall understanding of all aspects of the pre-production, production and post-production process. He will have good technical skills in a variety of areas. He will be a critical thinker and possess creativity. He won’t expect to be a director, at least not straight away, but he will have a realistic understanding of his skills and talents. With a bit of mentoring to help him transition into the working world he should soon be an asset to the industry. This is surely what the better institutions are striving to produce in their graduates, and often against pretty daunting practical realities. We are expected to charge low fees in order to make our training accessible, yet we must have funds for resources and maintaining equipment. We are not to select students solely on the basis of matric results, yet we must maintain academic credibility and not compromise our ‘standards’. We must ensure that most students who start the course go on to finish it. We must take predominantly African students whose first language is not English, but we must teach in English. Schools who are not operating in this way are out of step with trends in South Africa. They are not producing graduates who fit the profile of a transformed country. Their graduates will find it nearly impossible to get employment or commissions from the national broadcaster, or access funding from any institution with government links.

Industry should give credit to those institutions that are doing the hard work of providing graduates of a high standard. Many of those students enter the tertiary system with a seriously flawed educational background thanks to the legacy of apartheid. They need a lot of guidance, support and extra tutoring to crack it at a tertiary institution. The fact that they do graduate is a credit to the teachers and to the student’s own tenacity and innate abilities. Industry would do well to give credit for this.

When you look at system for the training of medical doctors, architects and engineers there is an accepted procedure in place that facilitates the transition from training to the working world. Architects, for instance, graduate after a 5 year degree course, which includes an experiential period. After graduation they are still required to work for a further period of time under the supervision of a senior architect and then write a board exam before they are considered professional, independent architects. Implicit in this procedure is that industry takes on some of the responsibilities of ‘finishing off’ the teaching. There is an understanding that the new graduate can’t just go straight into the professional world without this bridge of mentoring. We need a similar system for graduates of film and television schools: the recognition that the new graduate needs a period of mentoring in the working world in order to be fully functional. The graduate must come to the party by being humble and respectful of the experience of others while learning in, and contributing to, industry. If industry accepted the responsibility of mentoring new graduates, as happens in other disciplines, I believe everyone would benefit. And if industry picks its graduates with care, being aware of which school the graduate comes from and the reputation and standards it has, the mentoring process shouldn’t be too painful.

By Carolyn Burnett


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