Women who work in the South African film and television industry have always
sought to make their mark in a highly competitive and difficult field. In
celebration of Woman’s Day this month, Karen van Schalkwyk posed some
questions to a few key players in the industry.
Question 1: How did you start in the industry?
Question 2: What did you have to do to prove that you could make it to the top?
Question 3: What have been some of your highlights?
Question 4: Do you think women are making a greater mark on the industry
XOLISWA SITHOLE – Producer, Naya Naya Pictures
1. I started in the film industry as an actress in anti-apartheid films such as Cry
Freedom, Dark City and Mandela which were shot in the 1980s. Then I went to
the US and was accepted to do an MFA but did not pursue it as I fell in love. In
1994 I came to South Africa and worked as a receptionist on the Cecil John
Rhodes films and the rest, as they say, is history. I knew that I wanted to be a
producer and was lucky to be mentored by Letebele Masemola Jones, Richard
Green and Charlayne Hunter Gault and steadily worked my way up.
2. The issue of being a woman has not been a problem for me. What I have
done successfully is to surround myself with very supportive industry people.
These include True Vision TV, a company I work with in the UK, Bongiwe Selane,
Harriet Gavshon, Mickey Dube, Carolyn Carew, Michelle Whitley, Sizakheke
Moruthlele, Ramadan Suleman, Dr P Dgola
and Basil Ford.
3. Career highlights include winning my first BAFTA in 2005 and then winning
another BAFTA in 2011. This year I also won a Peabody award. However, most
important is that the work that I do has enabled us to raise millions of pounds
for children in need, whether it is through the Elton John Ball using a clip of my
work to raise about 3.5 million pounds each year for two years for Aids
Research. I also work with Richard Curtis (founder of Make Poverty History, Red
Nose Week and screenwriter of Notting Hill) to raise money for schools in
4. Women who have made a mark in the industry include Bongiwe Selane,
Helena Spring, Christa Schamburger, Dezi Rorich, Bridget Pickering, Karen Slater,
Pearl Munonde and Natalie Haarhoff.
DEBORA PATTA – Investigative journalist, Third Degree
1. I began working as a freelance reporter for Radio 702 and was instantly
hooked. My first job was decidedly unglamorous – monitoring the wires during
the Gulf War from midnight to 4am but I was lucky – Operation Desert Storm
was launched on the first night of my new job. It took a lot of hard work and I
was originally told that I “did not have a voice for radio’ but I think I proved my
first boss wrong.
2. Women are their own worst enemies – if you believe there is a glass ceiling
then you will be hindered. I have never been prevented from doing anything in
my profession because I am a woman. My career includes positions in senior
management, running a newsroom and participating in the setting up of e.tv’s
24-hour news channel. All of these have been as a result of incredibly hard work
and not because of, or in spite of, being a woman.
3. I have been incredibly lucky and am enjoying a wonderful career in
broadcasting. I still feel excited every time we put a new Third Degree episode
4. Women are a little timid sometimes when it comes to demanding top jobs and
board positions in media houses. My advice has always been, “don’t knock on
the door, bash it down.’
MANDISA ZITHA – Director, Encounters South African International
1. I began at the Independent Producers’ Organisation (IPO) and then did a
short stint at Women in Film and TV and then Women of the Sun. These
organisations are an ideal place to learn about the industry, meet key role
players and appreciate film. I also worked as production manager on an SABC3
series. This experience helped realise my strengths and weaknesses, and
enabled me to identify the area of the industry that I was most interested in.
2. To prove myself I had to hone all the skills I acquired throughout my career.
Experience and personal traits are more critical in the film industry than anything
else. I have also gone back to university mid-career to complete a BA in Film and
Media Studies at UCT. This has proved very useful in the position I hold as the
Festival Director for Encounters.
3. My highlights include being invited to international panels and forums to
speak about the scope of (South) African cinema.
4. During my tenure at Encounters we have seen a significant number of women
filmmakers in our programme. There is still a concern about women gaining
access into the film industry and getting the support necessary for them to tell
their own stories. As an industry we are still lacking enough films made by
women of colour.
DESIREE MARKGRAAFF – CEO, The Bomb
1. I started in the industry as a runner. Although I was a hard worker and did
not mind putting in long hours, I woke up one day and realised that few of the
projects I worked on resonated with me. I decided it was time to find projects
that audiences would love and to use my skills to bring them to life. Basically I
was a producer looking for something good to produce. Then I met my partners,
Teboho Mahlatsi and Angus Gibson, and I love everything we produce together.
2. Work hard, be a straight talker, deliver on my promises and have integrity.
These are the same qualities that anyone, be they man or woman, who aspires
to make it has to have. I think you have to love what you do and have great
respect for your audience.
3. A highlight for me is when an audience responds to my shows, or when they
change someone’s life for the better. Standing at the back of the cinema
watching people sing, cry and rise up from their seats to “toyi toyi’ during
Amandla – A Revolution in Four Part Harmony; taking the proceeds from sales on
The Burning Man to Ernesto Namhauve’s family in Mozambique. Reading Twitter
conversations about what a character in Zone 14 or Jacob’s Cross did that night
on TV; having a soccer team call themselves Yizo Yizo; these are all wonderful
4. Yes – look at the success of White Wedding directed by Jann Turner, or the
Durban International Film Festival’s opening night film, Otelo Burning directed by
Sara Blecher. Gcina Mhlope, Terry Pheto and Thandiswa Mazwai are just the tip
of a long list of talent that is forging new paths. Inspiring women like Harriet
Gavshon (Curious Pictures), Lebo Ramafoko (CEO, Soul City), Basetsana
Khumalo and Patience Stevens (Tswelopelo). I think that woman have a natural
emotional intelligence that is useful in the creation of story and in managing
NICKY GREENWALL – CEO of Greenwall Productions and presenter
1. Almost 10 years ago I sent a proposal to e.tv’s Debora Patta relating to the
entertainment coverage on what was then eNews Live at 7. I started working
as arts and entertainment anchor for the evening news that same year and
have been on-air ever since. In the years that followed I was fortunate enough
to be able to develop and produce a number of entertainment and arts related
programming for e.tv and the eNews channel. I started my own production
company in 2009. So far it has produced The Showbiz Report, The Style Report,
The Tech Report, The Close Up and Inside Art.
2. While I did come up against the odd bit of sexism during my time in
advertising, my experiences in the television industry have been nothing but
positive. I think in general I’ve always looked inward rather than outward for
approval. The biggest challenge is always to stay cost effective, consistent and
relevant and to always deliver what you promise.
3. I’ve had a great career so far and I hope it continues.
4. I think it was harder to be taken seriously as a young person with relatively
no experience rather than the fact that I was a woman. Generally I’ve always
just tried to deliver whatever it is my client is looking for – while at the same
time trusting my own judgment. Once you have earned any kind of positive
reputation – you need to hold onto it for dear life.
JYOTI MISTRY – Director and lecturer
1. I have always had a love for cinema and a passion for films. However, the
opportunity to make films started when I was in graduate school at New York
University. I was fortunate to have made a number of films while I was there
and, when I returned to South Africa, I continued making films even though I
took an academic appointment at Wits University.
2. For women filmmakers the challenges remain a gender prejudice about
content or the “kind of films’ that women make, like romantic comedies or
women’s issue films. The other prevailing assumption is that women make for
better film administrators, like producers, production managers, rather than their
ability to be creative visionaries in their capacities as directors. Tenacity and a
clear sense of what the creative project is are perhaps the most significant
qualities that drive women in film production to be successful.
3. I am not formally in the film or entertainment industry, I make projects that
treat film more as a medium of creative expression rather than solely as a
vehicle for entertainment. My hope is that the kind of films I make can have
qualities that are about enjoyment and pleasure.
4. In my observation there are more women in recent history who consciously
choose careers in the entertainment industry but this of course must be seen in
light of the broader changes and opportunities that have developed for women
in the film world over the
past 25 years.
AMANDA LANE – Director
1. I began my career as an actor and a theatre maker and also worked a lot as
a street performer. Magic, belly-dancing, fire eating, clowning and stilt-walking
were some of the other deeply serious rabbits in my hat. When I was 29 I
decided to make the transition, so I went to film school for a year.
2. Luckily our industry has some fantastic woman at the top of it. Desiree
Markgraaff and Harriet Gavshon have been great inspirations to me. Desiree in
particular has been a wonderful mentor and champion of mine. As a director you
have to earn respect from your cast and crew whether you are a man or a
woman. I think respect comes from having integrity for the vision of the work,
yourself and others.
4. Jann Turner has made some delightful films and that first season of Hard
Copy was also great. Desiree and Harriet are consistently making fine television
and continue to raise the benchmark under increasingly challenging situations.