Director Ross Devenish’s experience with FRU


The internationally acknowledged director, South African-born Ross Devenish provides an account of his experiences with the Film Resource Unit (FRU) which had been tasked to hold money in safe-keeping by funders who had invested in the all-South African film, Nothing but the Truth, an adaptation from John Kani’s play of the same name. It would appear that while the money had been designated solely for this film, FRU decided to “cross-pollinate’ the money. The account is based on questions William Pretorius posed to Devenish for an article which appeared in Die Burger.

How has FRU’s possible demise affected you?

I first got involved in Nothing but the Truth when I was asked by John Kani to see his play when it was being performed in Port Elizabeth just after I had returned to live in SA again. It was suggested that we should make a film based on the play. That was in 2002. Four years later, last December, after John and I had worked together on the adaptation, the shoot began. As we had an incredibly small budget and a very short shoot it meant that we could not afford any disasters or delays. For this reason I had inserted on our daily call sheet, which listed the scenes to be shot, the actors and other requirements, below the main title in bold the words Miracles Are Obligatory. Amazingly miracles were performed as a result of the hard work of all and the film was completed on time; but it was more than hard work as more than once when we were due to shoot big scenes with large numbers of people outdoors and the forecasts had insisted that the entire day would be rained off, the rain remained at bay and the scheduled day was completed – much to our relief, as we would not have had the resources to have tried again.

So, when I was being driven by the producer, Richard Green, to the airport to return home for Christmas I was feeling rather relieved. Miracles had been performed. Then Richard told me something that I later realised had brought the run of luck to an end. He said that something had happened which had almost brought the shoot to a halt. I had had no idea how close we had come to disaster. Not wishing to add to the pressures that I was already under Richard had kept this from me.

He explained that the film had received funding and investments from various sources; among them were several US foundations who had insisted that the money be held until required by an “organisation not for profit”. A local NGO called the Film Resource Unit was chosen for this and the funders had insisted that their funds be ring-fenced for the film. Richard told me that before the shoot commenced it was confirmed in writing by FRU that all the funders money was in place. However, at some stage during the shoot these funds from FRU came to an abrupt halt, even though monies were still owed to the production. Richard told me that when he spoke to FRU to ask why the next installment was not forthcoming, the response was that our funds had been “cross-pollinated”. Whatever was meant by this answer, the effect was we were fast running out of funds.

Richard Green faced a difficult decision: he could bring the production to a halt or try to brave it out. He chose the latter, and put his money where his mouth was. He took out a bond on his house so that the shoot could be completed. But, as he explained to me on the drive to the airport he did not know when the editing of the film could begin. This, he said, could only happen when further funds came through from FRU which he had been assured would happen shortly, most probably early in January. So I went off for the holidays feeling mildly confident although by this stage I had had hardly seen any of the rushes of what we had shot. During the course of a film it is customary to view material shot on the previous day. In the past these would have been “rushed” from the laboratories where the film had been processed. These would have been viewed by the various members of the crew to check on the quality of what had been shot; the visuals, sound, performances. The director would be checking on a dozen things which might have to be modified during the rest of the shoot, an editor would have looked at the coverage of every scene to determine if additional shots might be needed, but none of this could be done as we did not have the funds to do so. For me it felt a bit like what a pilot might experience if he were flying blind. But as we drove to the airport I consoled myself with the thought that it would not be too long before I was able to see our material as the editing would soon begin.

Richard and I also looked forward to what could be done once the film had been finalised. We hoped that the film would be ready early enough in the year to be eligible for several films festivals through the course of the year. Film festivals are crucial as a marketing tool for finding sales for the film abroad.

However my initial confidence began to fade as January became February and the funding from FRU seemed to be nothing but a mirage. Messages reaching me seemed to suggest that FRU found my frustration with the situation unreasonable. The fact that the money had been designated solely for this particular film seemed not to have been a restraint to them – they used the money for purposes they had deemed more important. My experience of film making was that you went from the shoot to the edit as quickly as possible as the production needed to start seeing a return on investment as quickly as possible. Instead I now found myself in a limbo, not knowing when, or if, the production would resume. As I had made a deep commitment to the production I could not walk away from it; the fact that I was still owed money for my work was not what concerned me, I had pledged to complete the film and that was what I was determined to do. Yet FRU seemed to suggest that I had an agenda to harm them. My only agenda was to complete the film as I had been contracted to do. At one stage FRU had insisted that they had not jeopardised the film as I had suggested. But I feel that through their actions they brought the normal film process to a halt. The budget was so small, and all the expenditure had been so finely calculated that an amount that would be a drop in the ocean to a Hollywood blockbuster, was an absolutely crucial part of the financing to our little film. So to use the money for purposes other than our film was to jeopardise the film – possibly irreparably. Eventually in April some funding came through from FRU and the editing could commence; almost three and a half months after the end of the shoot I was able to see what we had shot in December.

For almost four weeks I was able to return to the film. In a darkened room the images from the film occupied my entire waking hours and much of my dreams at night. With Jackie le Cordeur, the editor, we sifted through the material shot, choosing the best, choosing what worked. Not long after we had assembled the entire length of the film, but before we had had a chance to introduce pace or tension the film came to a halt once again. We had used all of the portion of the funds that FRU had paid out to us, and more was still owing, and Richard could not perform another miracle. Fortunately we had come far enough to make a dvd of the rough cut so we now have something that can be seen, but seen in a very incomplete state, without music, proper graded visuals, sound balanced and the thousand other things that a film needs before it can be seen by the public. But we do have something that could be used to find further funding. In the meantime I am once again in limbo, uncertain when the production might resume, or if. Also the creditors are still waiting for what they are owed. Will this film ever be completed? Will I ever be released from it?

So you ask how has this affected me – it is like having half a baby. It has meant days, weeks on the wrack, waiting to hear whether FRU would release the money they regularly promised , and which just as regularly failed to materialise. It has meant that the post-production process that would in normal circumstances by now have been complete, is still not at an end, and there is no end in sight. It has meant that the film will not be completed any time soon – even if the remaining funds became available tomorrow, we still need a couple of months more of post-production work. This in turn means that we will have missed the deadlines for all the major festivals this year, and thus have lost valuable marketing opportunites. Quite frankly, FRU’s misappropriation of these funds has been devastating for a film that is truly and proudly South African – not a Hollywood actor in sight. It is also potentially devastating for the truly South African film industry. There are so few films made that are truly South African. If this is what happens when we try to tell our own stories using our own actors and crews, then we will continually run the risk of having our industry colonised by Hollywood.

Returning to SA, you’ve obviously found a very different scene to the one you left. Better? Worse?

It seems to be as difficult as ever, although in theory the climate should be better. The SABC promised funding for the film in December, but this is still not forthcoming even though the SABC has announced support for feature films, but the administration there seems to be extremely cumbersome and it is said that as many as thirty signatures have to be acquired before funds are released. It seems that administrators there have no understanding of just how difficult it is for independents to get the funding for a film together. In fact it is almost a miracle that any film ever gets made here.

How could the SA industry be improved?

It seems to me that more passion for telling our stories would help a great deal and less concern with making counterfeit American films. The Americans tell their stories best, and they have the resources to do so. Potentially, we have the ability to tell our stories best. In terms of the budget of films like Nothing Like the Truth (R3.5 million) a few less parties at places like Cannes would make a real difference.

What’s the value of a cinema industry in this digital age of delivery systems (ipod, cellphones, Internet etc) in which films seems to play a secondary role?

Whatever the technology humans will always want to be told stories. This started on a mother’s knee at the beginning of our evolution, as enacted around an open fire, moved on to books and plays, then films. There will always be a deep human need for stories. In each of us there is an enormous urge to surrender to a story, and to ask the question: “and then what happened?” “And then?” So the technology or means of delivery may adapt or change, but the need is there, and remains there eternally.


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