An actor’s perspective


South African actor FANA MOKOENA became known to South African viewers through
roles on television series such as The Lab, and has gone on to star in feature films
including Hotel Rwanda, State of Violence and Safe House. He talks to LINDA
LOUBSER about his views on the local film industry and his experiences working on a
Hollywood blockbuster.

Fana Mokoena believes there is a shortage of challenging work for actors in South
Africa and that the industry as a whole is not taking enough risks.

Says Mokoena: “There’s nothing stopping me as an actor and producer from
approaching another actor, producer or crew member and saying: “Listen, I’ve got a
low budget, but let’s make this film and do it as well as we can and make as much
back as we can’. It’s important that we realise that we carry the baton. If we don’t
create worthwhile work, we’re not only starving ourselves as artists, but we’re also
starving our audiences of great work.’

Mokoena appeared in two feature films screened at this year’s Durban International
Film Festival – Inside Story directed by Rolie Nikiwe and Man on Ground directed by
Akin Omotoso.

He explains how he chooses his roles: “The most important thing is that I have to
connect to the project. It ranges from an emotional attachment, to political, to social.
It’s a vast array of things, but it’s also in the relationships with the people who
approach you. If you build a relationship with a producer or director, you’re almost
certain that there’ll be an understanding of the work, which is paramount.’

Worthwhile projects

Mokoena’s career has been evolving as he looks for more worthwhile acting projects.
“I’ve found myself doing less and less television work, and more and more film in the
last four or five years, but I know it’s not an easy decision for a local actor to make,
because there are bread and butter issues.

“There’s also a very strange trend developing in South Africa, especially among black
actors, where we are slowly brewing actors who are not interested in the profession –
for them it’s really about the fame and the limelight and all that nonsense. I think
soapies are a great space for that kind of actor, but it’s sad to see amazing artists
being stuck in that position.’

When asked what type of work the industry should be creating, Mokoena cites Man on
Ground as a good example. “We need to create work that actually matters and not
just do projects for the sake of entertainment.

“I think we have to make these films and we have to tell these stories by any means
necessary – that’s a motto that Akin (Omotoso) has adopted and it’s also a motto
that I’m adopting. There are also young filmmakers coming through the ranks and
operating on that motto. I think the more films we make, the more of a groundswell
we will create, and that’s a movement on its own. Once we have a movement, we’ll
have an industry,’ explains Mokoena.

He emphasises that every person in the industry should shoulder the responsibility.
“We cry wolf a lot, and we blame a lot of people and say that government is not
doing enough to support the industry. But the more we do for ourselves, the better.
This is how apartheid was defeated, and this is how we’ll defeat this monster we

As to which “monster’ he was referring to, Mokoena elaborates: “I’m working on the
film version of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom now. We were
talking about the role of Mandela, and it occurred to me again that he has never been
played in this country by a South African actor. That’s the monster that we’re facing.
We’re not telling our own stories. We’re not telling the important ones, and we’re not
even telling the small ones.’


Following his recent experience on the set of Hollywood zombie blockbuster World
War Z – directed by Marc Foster and starring Brad Pitt and Matthew Fox – Mokoena
explains how it differs from a South African film set: “They’ve still got the glitches,
the normal kind of production glitches – those are universal – but there’s a certain
amount of sophistication that they’ve reached.

“I had a conversation with the director, and he said that they’ve got the big budgets,
but they still don’t feel that they have enough time. That’s amazing, because in South
Africa we’re trying to shoot seven scenes in one day because our budgets are so
small. On a Hollywood set you sit waiting for almost a whole day for them to prepare
for one scene. Then they shoot that one scene and go home.’

He adds that he heard the cost of a set that was used for two days on World War Z.
“With that figure, we could shoot four films here in South Africa.’

Mokoena learnt an important lesson from working with Brad Pitt. “I think it’s
important for me to start creating and producing the work that I want to act in,
because there’s a lot of work I still want to do. That’s the trend, and I think it’s a
brilliant idea.’

By Linda Loubser

Screen Africa magazine – November / December 2012


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