Charl Blignaut reports on the legal tussle that led to the dramatic pulling of this year’s Safta for best short doccie
Enver Samuel and Simon Wood were delighted when they were named as finalists in the short documentary category at this year’s SA Film and TV Awards (Saftas).
The two film makers, who’ve lifted five Saftas between them, arrived at Sun City on Friday March 1 ahead of the awards ceremony the following day.
Wood had paid for his own flight from Cape Town to honour his drought crisis film Scenes from a Dry City, while Samuel had trekked home from Samoa, where he was working on Survivor SA, for his film Someone to Blame, about the inquest of slain activist Ahmed Timol.
But in the early hours of Saturday morning, Wood received an email that dissipated his joy.
It was from Shadrack Bokaba, the acting chief executive of the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), which stages the awards, saying the award for short documentary would be postponed because of correspondence received about a finalist’s film “wherein the ownership of the content is in question”.
The letter – which Samuel only received an hour and a half before the ceremony – stated that the NFVF would investigate the matter and stay in communication with the finalists.
CAROLINE RUPERT VS CARTE BLANCHE
The dispute, City Press has learnt, has to do with the ownership of footage used in the third finalist’s work Follow the Guns, a rhino and gun smuggling film by Combined Artistic Productions, which produces the investigative TV show Carte Blanche on M-Net. Follow the Guns was first screened on Carte Blanche.
The letter, dated Monday February 25, had been sent to Bokaba by a lawyer representing film production company African Revolutions, which lists Caroline Rupert, the daughter of billionaire businessman Anton Rupert, as the sole director.
It’s unclear why the NFVF acted so late, but the letter makes damning allegations against Carte Blanche – which the show vehemently denies.
The letter states that Follow the Guns, “a 46-minute exposé about the supply of rifles manufactured in the Czech Republic to rhinoceros poaching syndicates operating near the border between South Africa and Mozambique ... featured footage of exclusive interviews conducted by Ms Kathi Lynn Austin of the US”.
African Revolutions, it states, had been working with Austin since September 2015 to develop a documentary titled Battle Zone Rhino about the same subject and had spent more than R5 million on the project.
African Revolutions, says the letter, began talking to Carte Blanche “in late April or early May”, warning the show that it was not allowed to use any of its footage in the documentary produced by Austin and local investigative journalist Sasha Schwendenwein.
“Carte Blanche ultimately assured African Revolutions that Follow the Guns would not include any footage that African Revolutions had funded,” reads the letter.
“When it was broadcast on June 24 2018, however, it did include footage funded by African Revolutions – in fact, the exclusive interview footage made up more than half of the duration [of the film].”
Neither Caroline Rupert – who lists various social justice film work on her LinkdIn profile – nor her lawyers wished to comment this week, but Carte Blanche executive producer Wynand Grobler came out guns blazing to dispute Rupert’s claims.
“These claims are false,” he said.
“There was no agreement between Austin and Caroline Rupert or African Revolutions whereby African Revolutions acquired rights to footage. Ms Austin, whose non-governmental organisation owned the footage, granted the rights to use the footage to Carte Blanche.
"Carte Blanche then produced the documentary, including editing the footage provided to it by Ms Austin. The documentary was produced by Carte Blanche. Carte Blanche fact-checked and vetted every minute of footage provided to it by Ms Austin.”
INDUSTRY READY TO FIGHT
Regardless of the dispute, the local film fraternity is up in arms about the NFVF’s handling of the debacle.
The Documentary Filmmakers’ Association wrote a strongly worded letter to Bokaba on March 4, saying it was “alarmed” by the category being removed; that “there seems to have been a failure in the vetting and filtering process”; and that the legal issues “should have gone to the bodies that were put in place for adjudication and arbitration”; and decrying the treatment of the finalists.
The award points to bigger issues with the NFVF, it says, which seems more concerned about celebrity actors and red carpets than the film industry.
Several production houses continue to boycott the Saftas over what they see as unfair judging choices.
As it turns out, according to the NFVF’s own embargoed Saftas winners’ list, which was sent to City Press on March 1, Follow the Guns came top in the judging process.
But numerous sources, who do not wish to be named, say the Carte Blanche doccie was the subject of heated judging debate as some questioned whether it was a South African production, given Austin’s sizeable role.
Sources were angry that documentary awards were included, like writing awards, in the technical section of the Saftas and said that the technical documentary jury placed the film first despite objections from the creative documentary jury.
Carte Blanche strongly denies the fears, listing a string of work done by themselves and their award-winning journalist in creating the film, stating Austin is not a film maker.
This week, Bokaba confirmed that the NFVF had met with the warring parties on Monday and that “further information has been requested from them ... and, as such, the NFVF is unable to comment further on an ongoing investigation”.
Bokaba stated that, when it came to the “workings of the adjudications panel, the NFVF is currently conducting a review of the guidelines and will provide detailed comment on that matter in due course”, but stressed that judges were industry leaders.
Bokaba denied the industry’s criticisms, saying: “The Saftas are not just a glamour event – their primary objective is to honour, celebrate and promote the creativity, quality and excellence of the South African film and television industry, as well as to encourage entrepreneurship and the development of new talent within the industry.”
But Samuel, Wood and Carte Blanche are frustrated by the process.
“It’s weeks later and Simon and I are still in the dark,” said Samuel. “I believe the entry that caused all the fuss should be withdrawn and there should be a resolution to the award.”
Wood said: “I still haven’t received any further communication from the NFVF regarding the award. I think it’s time to draw a line under the issue.”
Grobler said: “Carte Blanche believes the documentary is eligible for consideration. It awaits the NFVF’s decision and will respect the outcome.”