The introduction of small format video production facilities to South Africa in the early 1980s provided crucial links connecting the common experiences of oppressed communities through this medium. Cultures of resistance have developed in terms of production practices, and the ways that films and videos are viewed and interpreted. Video has become an aid to wider political education.
Prior to 1980, little ‘alternative' (what I will call 'progressive') media production occurred. This was largely confined to Super-8 such as Wits Protest (1970-1974) partially funded by the National Union of South African Students. This film documented the liberal protests of students and was initially shown in unedited form within 36 hours of events. In the absence of television or cinema newsreel coverage, it helped keep the Wits academic community and church audiences informed of the nature of police-student clashes during times of protest. Edited copies were subsequently screened by the National Union of South African Students, and to other audiences by the Christian Institute in small group situations.
The article by Shaun Johnson in this issue of Media Development provides the background to 1980 as a benchmark in the progressive media. The same processes - together with the availability of relatively cheap video and the introduction of film and video courses at the liberal English language universities - facilitated the use of video in documenting and aiding strategies of popular resistance, Video production since 1980 has been a co-operative effort with white students and lecturers working with black individuals, community groups and church bodies (eg the SA Council of Churches).
Production is undertaken for little or no pay. Only the Interchurch Media Programme, Afrascope and the Community Video Resource Association (CVRA) have any full-time staff. Often, a video is the result of a collective (eg the Ad Hoc Video Group which made Mayfair, 1984) composed of professional technicians. Others are drawn from universities.
Funding the films
The costs of individual productions range from R50 - R2 000. Unlike other countries, no state or public money is available to makers of short films. Towards the end of the 1970s, the Interchurch Media Programme obtained external funding for a Super-8 production facility. The Human Awareness Programme of the SA Institute of Race Relations funded Fosatu: Building worker Unity (1980) and assisted with other films. Personal investment led to The Dispossessed (1980), which deals with the inter-relationship of re-settlement and the economy, Diagonal Street (1971) on how the Group Area Act has destroyed an Indian community in Johannesburg, while Crossroads (1980) documents conditions in a huge squatter camp.
Grandfather, Your Right Foot Is Missing (1984) and Last Supper at Hortsley Street (1981) deal with the demolition of District Six and dispossession of coloureds in Cape Town; Alan Boesak: Choosing for Justice presents the views of the President of the World Alliance of Churches. All these films were made on l6mm and have, with the exception of Fosatu, had a limited South African distribution.
The Interchurch Media Programme and Afrascope secured some external funding, while a Centre of Direct Cinema funded by the French government was established at the University of the Witwatersrand in January 1984. Additional Super-8 film stock was provided by the International Communications Agency. The Centre’s productions tend to follow an individualist approach and are not necessarily rooted in popular movements, though its black students come from all walks of life.
The CVRA at the University of Cape Town is involved with educational, investigative, documentary, and trade union videos. Established in 1977, it secured an 'establishing' grant from the United Church of Canada. It has since obtained grants from the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and the Anglo American and De Beers Chairman's Fund. This facility is very closely involved with the groups it serves and its videos are rarely seen beyond the subject communities.
Other sources of finance have been the SACC's This We Can Do For Justice and Peace, (1980) and If God Be For Us (1984), both in l6mm, various internationally financed trusts (eg Awake from Mourning, 1981, and Tsiamelo, 1984) and the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in South Africa. The Inquiry, which met in April 1984, financed about eight films and videos made around the country (eg. Shixini December: Responses to Poverty in the Transkei, The Tot System and I am Clifford Abrahams, This is Grahamstown, Reserve 4).
Other sources of sponsorship are university films and video teaching departments. Only two such departments exist, one at Witwatersrand University and the Rhodes Department of Journalism and Media Studies. Both have attempted to involve black communities in the production process, the latter more successfully. [i]
An attempt to establish a SA National Film School under the auspices of a proposed Institute of the Arts and the development of a National Culture is under way. Funding has been allocated by the SACC and the School will be staffed and organised primarily by black South Africans in Cape Town. An initial workshop and seminar was held on 31 May 1985.
Production and distribution
National distribution of progressive material is difficult and not always desirable. Most of the more recent videos have been made to meet an organisational need, to facilitate links between organisations, not the need to make a video. As one video maker put it, 'if you are always thinking of a national network - be it alternative or not - you are not going to produce the same kind of product as you are if you are only localising around a particular struggle of short-term interventions' [ii]. Peter Anderson calls this 'trigger video' where small units respond to the immediate needs of organisations. This kind of distribution depends entirely on the degree of organisation existing at grassroots levels and has, therefore, all the attendant problems of transport, liaison, electricity, inadequate projection facilities, police surveillance and so on which afflict many groups and communities.
The videos are rarely submitted for censorship clearance and so distribution is ad hoc with each producing body screening its own material at academic conferences, the occasional film festival, universities, churches, trade unions and private homes and civic association meetings.
Videos are circulated between organisations as well. No catalogues exist and titles are known mainly to the producers and subject communities. Many video makers argue that the only valid audience for such material is the subject community and similar communities who are united in their opposition to apartheid. National distribution would simply alert the police to these videos and would detract from the more crucial task of local community organisation.
However, the poor quality of the signal often prevents more than a few copies of each video being made in any case. Videos are seen to be merely one element in the struggle for democracy. Rather than assuming centre stage, video is held subordinate - in support of - popular political organisation. Most media workers thus tend to regard themselves as organisers first, and video makers second. Some of the implications of this ranking are dealt with below.
Poverty, justice and trade unions
Content ranges from highly structured documentaries such as Justice and Peace which outlines the efforts of the South African Council of Churches (particularly through Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Reverend Peter Storey) to combat structurally induced poverty and the appalling consequences of state-enforced resettlement; the film on the Reverend Allan Boesak whose quest for peaceful resolutions resulted in the formation of the non-racial United Democratic Front in August 1983, through an [auteur] expression of anguish at being absent from District Six when it was being demolished (Dear Grandfather); historical documentaries examining the origins of dispossession (Kat River: The End of Hope); through to on-camera harangues by re-settled homeland dwellers (Reserve 4 and Place of Tears).
Crossroads, Diagonal Street, Mayfair and others concentrate on urban community conditions. In contrast to conventional documentary is a reflexive television of de-construction where the traditional separation between subjects and crew is collapsed, according to the principles of participatory cinema, as in I am Clifford Abrahams, This is Grahamstown.
The vast majority of films concentrate on urban communities, trade unions and related issues. This geographical bias is inevitable given the urban location of universities, film and video facilities and technicians. It is, however, paradoxical, in that the cities have become the points of (limited) reform and co-option of the so-called Indian, coloured and black middle classes. While there is a struggle in the cities themselves, one which is being negotiated through trade unionism, the UDF and other popular political groupings, it is the rural dwellers and marginalised black population which is largely engaged in an unequal struggle for survival itself.
Videos like The Tot System (1984), Future Roots, Kat River, Place of Tears and Shixini December are under-represented in their concern for a rural and homeland perspective. While made in the rural areas, these videos are mainly shown in the towns, thus connecting the rural with the urban experience. One oral 'lament' in Kat River by an aged coloured peasant farmer resisting dispossession has communicated the plight of his community to wider audiences throughout the reproduction in print in both progressive English- and Afrikaans-language journals of his anguished lament.
An experiment in using video in direct face-to-face communication is Passing the Message. The video was made with the SA Food and Canning Workers' Union during a strike. Messages were passed by video from the workers in Cape Town to their families in the Ciskei and vice versa.
What is omitted, however, from many productions is the relationship between the events documented and the processes operating within the political economy. Even films dealing with the uprooting of entire neighbourhoods, like Diagonal Street and Mayfair, although explicitly blaming apartheid legislation, neglect to examine the economic determinants of that legislation. In the homelands there is a double repression of black inhabitants via the South African state and the homelands governments themselves, but these areas are little more than labour reservoirs.
These issues are the subject of Future Roots which exposes the structural constraints on bottom-up development schemes. By concentrating on a specific scheme in the Ciskei, the producers argue that they are designed to reduce the social and labour costs of mining and industry in the white areas by creating the conditions for a viable subsistence economy in the homeland. Shixini December identifies the tightening grip of poverty as the subject community in the Transkei is caught between the evil necessity of migrant labour and the enforced participation of 'betterment' schemes.
These, and the Kat River video, seem to be among the few productions made within an explicit epistemological framework which identifies methodology and historical context. Ultimately, however, their contribution is more to the development of theoretically based production strategies and to informing urban audiences of rural conditions than they are to community organisation in the rural areas. There is little systematic organisation in the country areas and this lack makes it very difficult to use video to its full strategic potential.
The educational activities of Afrascope involved 'viewing nights' with community and youth organisations when discussion was structured around particular films. Media workshops - such as how to make silkscreens and posters - were videoed and the tapes made available to groups who wanted to learn these skills. During the anti-election campaigns against the tricameral parliament in August 1984, video was used to show people how to approach home dwellers to dissuade them from voting. The trainees then watched their mock performances on video and tried to improve their methods of communication.
Afrascope also covered many of the UDF meetings. Apart from conscientising, the co-operative aimed to 'keep records of our history of resistance in this country'. These videos were often screened to local organisations and the discussion generated was mainly of a 'political nature, not so much about communication perspectives'.[iii]
Problems of oppositional decoding
Because the media are a prime site of ideological conflict, the struggle is not only for meaning in a general sense, but specifically at the level of documentary conventions, and beyond that, the sign itself. It has happened that the state has allowed the production of oppositional films, only to co-opt them later. This happened with Justice and Peace. The Directorate of Publications passed the film stating that 'the one-sided presentation and lack of balance is unfortunate, but it is likely to prove counter-productive' (emphasis added). The film was expected to fuel charges of subversion made by the state against the SACC, specifically while the SACC was under the scrutiny of a commission of inquiry.
Extracts from this film, and 10 others mostly made by outsiders, were presented as evidence by the security police against the SACC during the inquiry. Towards the end of 1984, the security police raided the CVRA, Afrascope and an independent news organisation, confiscating film and video footage of UDF meetings. It is anticipated that this material may be used in evidence against the 16 UDF Executive members brought to trial in July 1985 for treason.
At the level of production, the state has countered criticism through the subtle co-option of foreign films. To Act a Lie, for example, denounces the 'bias' of foreign films critical of South Africa by using the same techniques of persuasion that it discredits. This and other films have fine-tuned the documentary and its conventions, parodying the official discourse of 'communities' being 'autonomous', 'self-governing' and paradoxically, 'the same but different' - hence the solution of apartheid being necessary to create a stable social and political order which guarantees 'own freedoms' in the context of the beseiged 'constellation of states' that is South Africa.
The state strategy of co-option has serious implications for progressive filmmakers. Conventional documentary is usually ahistorical. Where history is recalled, it is displaced in terms of the dominant interpretation. In A Place Called Soweto, for example, the traumas of enforced urbanisation, overcrowed, insanitary conditions and minimal social services are acknowledged briefly and then displaced through the use of nostalgically elicited signs created through the colourful brush strokes of a black artist recreating a romanticised past.
This paper takes the view that historical assumptions should never be taken for granted by oppositional film-makers no matter who the audience. The contextualisation of historical process is a crucial semiotic defence mechanism against co-option. This was done in Kat River, providing a context within which the remarks, grievances and hopes of the present community make historical sense, and are thereby credible to whichever audience.
In other words, not only is there an internal consistency of logic in the argument presented, but that logic is both understood by and interpreted in terms of the experiences of the community itself. The comments made by the interviewees in Kat River consistently recall their history, and the subjects are often both critical and in awe of it. Interpretation is thus not an idealised imposition of the film-makers and thus open to charges of 'bias', though audiences may disagree with the argument presented. Such presentations are credible to both the subjects and other audiences.
Most oppositional films have problems with coding. They lack visual-sound matching, hardly ever use graphics and maps to explain South Africa's peculiar geography, and rely too much on long, dense verbal narration to create contexts. Few local video- or film-makers have taken dialectical advantage of either the way that documentary codes and conventions are employed by the state or of the form itself. They are thus inevitably outmanoeuvered by the states-sponsored films within the form - which becomes the site of semiotic struggle.
While not doubting the potential of those films/videos I have mentioned to cement community solidarity in the face of oppression, particularly where they are the expressions of popular movements, filmmakers have an ethical responsibility to protect the integrity of their subjects. In fact, the recording of people at meetings singing freedom songs and so on provides the police with a vast reservoir of evidence to be held against dissidents.
There is vigorous debate on the question of form. Many video makers dismiss form as an important site of struggle. Their argument is that this level of struggle is inappropriate and may result in losing touch with progressive organisations through alienation from grassroots conditions. Others argue the need for a greater theoretical understanding, particularly in terms of the experiences of, and theoretical strategies followed by, South American film-makers, and that the reorganisation of society needs to extend beyond property relations into production practices and the very form of the code itself.
The latter argue that unless this is done the result will be the substitution of one realism for another (one vested interest for another), while the former contend that oppositional media should set out to provide an alternative realism in the short term to specific communities which acknowledge the real conditions under which the majority of South Africans are living.
The struggle for signs and codes is not considered important at this stage and neither is the visual education of wider audiences a major concern. How this debate will be resolved will depend on the kind of relationship that will develop between intellectuals and grassroots organisations and whether this alliance sees any place for change occurring through the institutions of society at a variety of levels [iv]. The church-related media organisations are important here as is reflected in their workshops and educational activities.
Calvin Prakasim of Afrascope observed that their audiences 'laughed off' documentary because of its down-grading by the dominant codes and conditioned preference for narrative films. He argues for more feature-based material 'as a means of attempting a much broader-based communication, and developing a style of feature suitable to our situation - a counter-mode' to deal with the 'cultural onslaught' from Hollywood. This concession to non-documentary is both a defence against use by the state of documentary images against their 'actors' in commissions of inquiry and in court and an attack on the dominant Hollywood-derived codes which have destroyed urban audience capacities to regard film and video as anything other than entertainment.
What Prakasim is saying is that the dominant code itself is as much the enemy as is apartheid as it manifests itself 'on the ground'. Theory - as with the South American case - he argues, is one way of developing counter-codes and production directions which can be deployed at a variety of levels including and beyond the organisational level.
Progressive film-makers have always had to contend with police surveillance and interference. It was rare, however, that film-makers were raided or their material confiscated, This has changed since 1980. Police raids of video-producing groups has become the norm. According to one media worker, ‘I think that it's quite a deliberate and calculated attempt by the police to stifle the independent media'. In line with the crude and deterministic equation by the state of the UDF with the ANC and Moscow, it appears that the police see a communist conspiracy behind the progressive media in South Africa. According to one ex-detainee, it would appear that the police have assumed that video workers are getting direct instructions from hostile organisations outside South Africa. The state seems unable to comprehend that local inhabitants are organically responding to inherent injustices, and are not puppets of external 'agitators'.
The raids on Afrascope, Afrapix, IMP and the confiscation of video cassettes from foreign television crews, the detention and lengthy interrogation of media workers is probably part of an information- gathering phase by the police to mount a nation-wide crackdown on political activists, community, cultural and media workers. By insisting on conspiracies where none exist, the police are trying to establish a case for their ultimate objective: the banning of the UDF. Such an action would have a devastating effect on community organisation and communication, for the Front is to a large extent the national expression of hundreds of affiliated communities, associations and bodies of various kinds drawn from different classes and cultures which despite their differences have banded together against common injustices and oppression.
Even as this paper was going to press, the government tabled a Publications Amendment Bill empowering the police to embargo publications for 96 hours prior to release, or even, it would seem, before the video has been submitted for official censorship. Furthermore, fines of R20 000 or five years imprisonment are to be imposed on people found to be in possession of 'undesirable' films. These are drastic measures enacted by a desperate government. The laws are designed to curb the massive nation-wide resistance that was sparked by the elections for the President's Council in August 1984. They are unlikely to succeed as the momentum for change is growing daily and appears unstoppable.
[i] See Keyan Tomaselli, 'Media Education and the Crisis of Hegemony in South Africa', Media Information Australia, Feb/March 1985, pp.9-20; Peter Anderson, 'Documentary and the Problem of Method', Critical Arts, Vol 3 No 4, 1985 (forthcoming).
[ii] Interview with Don Pinnock and Simon Burton, Rhodes University, 20 November 1984.
[iii] Interview with Calvin Prakasim, Director of Afrascope, 13 April 1985.
[iv] David Bensusan in The Saftta Journal, Vol 4, 1985, p. 12.