DFM2018: Are there any scared cows in filmmaking?

L-R: Lwazi Manzi, Patricia van Heerden, Katrina Hedren, Sechaba Morejele and Jean-Pierre Bekolo.

On day two of Durban FilmMart (DFM) 2018, running until 23 July – alongside the 39th Durban International Film Festival at the Elangeni Hotel in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal – the South African Screen Federation (SASFED) held a panel discussion titled ‘Are there any sacred cows in filmmaking’.

In recent times the film industry has seen a number of productions, dealing with culturally sensitive subject matter, spark intense debate and challenge laws regarding freedom of expression – this is the difficult and often messy part of working with cultural content. The panel discussion brought together a group of informed African speakers who presented opposing arguments about filmmaking and cultural sensitivity. The questions posed included, where is the line drawn and when can it be pushed; and by whom?

The panel, facilitated by Jean-Pierre Bekolo, included filmmaker Sechaba Morejele, film programme curator Katrina Hedren, member of the Documentary Filmmakers’ Association Patricia van Heerden, and producer Lwazi Manzi.

A large part of the debate was centred on the recent controversy surrounding previously banned, award-winning South African film Inxeba (The Wound). Panellists made the point that when dealing with issues surrounding culturally sensitive content there are three important aspects to consider:

  1. Who is making the film and what is the intention in making it?
  2. Who is funding the film?
  3. The cinematic gaze.

With the aforementioned in mind, the overarching question is ‘what is the function of art in society?’ While to some (filmmakers), it is to ‘disrupt, to spark debate, to push boundaries’, to many – particularly in a country like South Africa, with our history of Apartheid – art is there to enforce Ubuntu, to challenge the status quo, to give a voice to the oppressed. Manzi said that because of our history, we need to ask ourselves ‘how do we protect freedom of expression while still protecting human dignity?’

Morejele said that when approaching the issue regarding how we deal with culturally sensitive content, context is always important, and in this instance the ‘white elephant’ in the room is that the issue – to many South Africans – is largely who is telling the story. “When a previously dominating group, decides to tell the story of a previously oppressed group, and dominate that perspective, problems will arise,” he said. “Especially in SA… in such a historically unequal society, who is telling the story is such a sensitive but important issue that we need to talk about,” he added.

Van Heerden argued that “the right to freedom of expression supersedes the right to be offended” and added that it’s a slippery slope to say that certain stories and cultures are off limits to certain artists.

In response Manzi said that “life really brings out nuance and finesse when you are faced with restrictions.” This means that as filmmakers, we need to approach certain subjects with respect: “work through those restrictions and limitations and still tell your story while being respectful of the culturally sensitive issue,” she said.

“The common misconception is that a ‘sacred cow’ is a secret, it’s something to hide. It doesn’t occur to us that it may be a ‘sacred cow’ because there are things to preserve… because there are beautiful things that should not be misappropriated,” added Manzi.

Hedren concluded saying that as artists, filmmakers and storytellers, we are by nature empaths, and we should use our empathy to guide us when telling these culturally sensitive stories.

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