Shoot the Enemy; Not the Public!

Last Winter we were shooting a movie titled Cast The First Stone in and around Johannesburg. Being an under-funded local production meant we had to beg and borrow to access some crucial filming locations. One such location was the renowned Regina Mundi church in Soweto where a confession box scene was to be shot.
Cast The First Stone was a low budget Mzansi Magic production that explored the moral cost of forgiveness; a concept that is daily preached in Christendom. The film was, without sounding Calvinistic an undeserved free promo for the Catholic Church’s self-assumed role of mediating between God and the sinner. However, irrespective of such divine intentions; even places dedicated to God have to be paid for if utilised as film sets. Regina Mundi is a tourism destination.

That was forgiven because the Church Council did not demand to read the script which afforded us an opportunity to smuggle a knife in and record some crude dialogue that wouldn’t have made it past many church’s gatekeepers.

More scenes were filmed in Alexandra, CBD and private homes which were offered to be converted to movie sets. But the support that failed to materialise was that of the SAPS.

According to an ambiguous security regulation; filmmakers are not allowed to impersonate police officers and dress actors in SAPS uniforms – even if that’s supplied by wardrobe. They are not allowed to temporarily brand vehicles in the insignia of the SAPS. What filmmakers should do is request SAPS to provide required props (wardrobe included) to create the right ambience.

That was the undoing. Producer/Director Shaft Moropane spent countless months being sent from pillar to post by SAPS in Gauteng about whether they will make a showing. A showing meant providing an interrogation room; optionally providing a consultant who will advise on protocol during filming. It also meant providing those token cops who will be in uniform so that when our actor/detective tries to pick a needle in a haystack viewers can see some extras fiddling with a police sedan or van.

It also meant permission to take an establishing shot of a police station in Alexandra, the two flags, cars parked on the driveway and cop traffic. That took months of waiting for a simple ‘red’ stamp that never transpired. We started wondering if those films we saw with SAPS co-operation had someone bribing their way past the red tape.

This is the undoing of South African filmmakers; they hardly get co-operation from government. I remember seeing a beautifully made television series titled Homeland in the 1990s which was exploring SADF’s cross border raids. The series, according to the producers did not get any government backing, either technical or infrastructure since they required a Puma helicopter and coaching to portray how Special Forces carried out their missions. I thought I understood because the series was shot in early-‘90s and the Government of National Unity had reasons to conceal some of these activities since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had not yet happened.

However when it becomes impossible in a democracy to get state backing and assistance to tell South African stories one starts to wonder whether there is any will to grow this industry in South Africa?

In the United States there is a Department of Defence Hollywood liaison office whereby studios can facilitate Pentagon technical support; from access to multi-billion dollar military hardware and free consultancy including permission to film at key government installations. You don’t get that in South Africa and that’s a concept killer for a talented filmmaker trying to make an independent project in a province like Mpumalanga which does not even have a film office.

The night we wrapped Cast the First Stone we were driving around Sophiatown when we were twice stopped by police wanting to search our car ‘for guns’, “because people have been using guns to shoot at cops and shit”, that’s what the dramatic constable said. And I thought, ‘here is an animated cop we could have used as an extra’; but his co-operation is bogged down by Lieutenant-Generals in ivory towers.

And then our cinematographer told me they experienced the same let down before and were annoyed when after they wrapped they bumped into a police road block where the cops demanded they open the film case. “We told them they better arrest us because we can’t allow our rushes to be exposed and ruin the project”, Mike Sono remembered.

Maybe as a measure to grow the industry a liaison office to facilitate a relationship between government and filmmakers should be set at provincial Arts and Culture offices instead of dealing with a police force that seems not to understand the tourism value of the country as a filmmaking destination.

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