SA film funding in crisis

2015-03-15 15:00

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Interference from the council, a dodgy Hollywood  film deal and five-star trips to glamorous film festivals are behind the spate of resignations to hit film-funding body the NFVF, reports Charl Blignaut

Staff at government’s vital film-funding body, the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), have spoken out about a growing crisis that has resulted in a spate of resignations.

Although the NFVF has dismissed their grievances and denied that there is a crisis, City Press is in possession of an explosive exit report by Clarence Hamilton, former head of production and development, which asks a series of questions about the violation of corporate governance at the institution and its implications for the film industry.

Although Hamilton did not want to be interviewed, he confirmed the authenticity of the document. His resignation late last year was one of several in recent months, including managers in charge of documentaries and fiction films as well as a production coordinator, the head of marketing and the policy and legal officer.

“For the industry, things have come to a halt,” said Rehad Desai, who made the NFVF-backed documentary Miners Shot Down and serves on the executive of the Independent Producers’ Organisation. “There’s a funding vacuum since the production and development office quit.”

Over the past few weeks, City Press has interviewed seven former and current staff, who preferred to remain anonymous. They provided accounts that underscored the questions in Hamilton’s report.

Council interference

They say the NFVF’s council (board), chaired for a second term by Mmabatho Ramagoshi, has been regularly interfering in operational matters and trying to change policy without following procedure.

The NFVF’s funding decisions are made by four panels, assessing documentary and fiction film proposals; training and bursaries; marketing and festivals. Under Ramagoshi and chief executive Zama Mkosi, these panels are chaired by members of the council.

Sources accuse the council of overturning recommendations by the panels, ignoring the criteria used to assess film proposals and appointing panel members with no film expertise.

“There are only about two [councillors] who know anything about film, yet they will reject projects we have evaluated for weeks,” said a well-placed former staffer.

Things came to a head for Hamilton when he was “summoned to a meeting … and advised that henceforth the decisions of the panel chairs were final”. He responded that council’s role was supposed to be “oversight, policy and strategy, and not operational”.

Responding to questions from City Press, Mkosi said: “It is untrue that the panel chairs’ decisions?…?are not up for debate – the NFVF Act empowers a council member to act as chairperson over panels?…?It must be reiterated that all council members are appointed by the DAC [department of arts and culture]?…”

The Hollywood drama

One of the complaints by staff concerns a special project that Hamilton was removed from managing – when he started asking too many questions.

A Hollywood film shot in South Africa called Momentum, starring Russian model Olga Kurylenko, was to kick off the SAFilmFund, created apparently out of the blue by then minister of arts and culture Paul Mashatile and production company Azari Media.

The fund encourages Hollywood films to be shot in South Africa while training young black film makers on set. Each feature is expected to deliver about R4.35?million to finance a South African-language film.

“A fund no one at the NFVF knew about until Minister Mashatile invited the CEO [Mkosi] to Los Angeles to inform her that one Anton Ernst [of Azari Media] would be the manager of the fund and a beneficiary for the first pilot production,” reads Hamilton’s report.

The film cost the DAC R32?million, with the NFVF – which paid out the money – being drawn into the drama when the Momentum crew went on strike over nonpayment by Ernst.

Several sources believe the Momentum payment process resulted in the NFVF not being able to finance their third-quarter local film projects.

Mkosi denied this. She said “all funds paid towards the Momentum project were not part of the NFVF’s annual allocation but were made available by the DAC, especially for this project.” The NFVF has about R100?million to spend a year.

This week, Ernst blamed the NFVF for the crisis on set, saying there were delays and nonpayment.

He said Momentum had “30 trainees on set” and generated 3?500 jobs. A crew member City Press spoke to referred to the internships as “regular, the same as on any film” they worked on. Other crew members confirmed this.

Asked about the R4.35?million earmarked for a local film, Ernst said: “As the [filmfund] is no more, the procedures and systems in place to select the black-language movies will also no longer happen?…?It was never realised unfortunately.”

He said he had tried in vain to set up meetings with the DAC, which had not responded to questions from City Press at the time of going to print.

Five-star trips

Council chair Ramagoshi is a divisive figure among insiders, who all refer to her business class, five-star trips to film festivals from Cannes and Toronto to New York and Edinburgh. At the latter, she attended the Commonwealth Games.

Insiders say that, on these trips, she is awarded a daily allowance of €500 (R6?550) a day, or $500 (R6?239) in America. Sources say NFVF staff are expected to “chaperone” Ramagoshi on trips and do most of the talking in her industry meetings.

“She needs to account for her expenses and make it look like she has a purpose to travel. It’s a waste of our time,” said one.

Mkosi did not deny these allegations, but defended questions about Ramagoshi taking a trip to the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

“I want to clarify that Ms Ramagoshi was invited by the DAC as chairperson of an agency of the DAC,” she said.

There are also complaints that staff members not suited to the needs of international festivals – from human resources and finances – are chosen by Mkosi for trips, which, writes Hamilton, “has contributed to a serious undermining of the department’s role of identifying and developing international markets for SA products and business”.

Again Mkosi denied the claims: “The reasons for all staff travelling are always clearly motivated to meet the NFVF’s strategic objectives.”

She did not address questions about a staff member being asked to upgrade the score given to a proposal, but denied further claims that she did personal business with NFVF service providers, that a special “treasury fund” existed within the NFVF’s financial department and that the company credit card was being misused.

Investigation

In 2013, Hamilton was suspended for two months pending an investigation into his performance. He was cleared of all charges, which he dismisses as being cooked up by a council member who wanted his job and went on to apply for it.

City Press has a copy of the report clearing him. Several sources provide the same account. Mkosi denies the claims.

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