It has been more than a month since the national lockdown to limit the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus forced all TV and film productions to grind to a halt, but the industry got some relief this week in the form of an announcement that productions may recommence, subject to strict on-set protocols: no kissing or facial intimacy in any performance, a maximum of 50 people on set inclusive of cast members, the use of masks on set and adherence to social distancing rules.
But actors did not have a problem with the protocols and were just happy to be back on set.
Actor Zolisa Xaluva, who plays Melusi in Mzansi Magic’s telenovela Gomora, said he was privileged to be working at a time when most people found themselves in limbo and facing financial strain. “It is a blessing, but it feels weird driving to and from work without experiencing the normal Joburg traffic,” said Xaluva.
“I must say, it affects my natural rhythm – there is something about the buzz you feel in the streets that inspires you to go get your dream, and it gives you the feeling that it is valid and indeed conceivable. I feel short-changed.”
Xaluva admitted that the experience on his first day back at work was not great. Being forced to distance himself from others had a deep psychological effect on him as an actor. He also shared that it was still tough to adjust to social distancing, wearing a mask all the time, working with a smaller crew and sanitising constantly.
“But I take it one day at a time and I pray we go back to normal soon. We thrive on human interaction. I feel cheated because I miss lunchtime conversations. We usually congregate as cast and crew to catch up and have some downtime,” he said.
Asavela Mngqithi, who plays Ntwenhle Ndlovu in the award-winning Isibaya, also returned to work this week and said it was a challenge to adapt to the strict regulations.
“They have very strict rules on set and it’s weird working with masks and keeping social distance, but it feels good to be back at work. We all have to learn to work safely and to protect each other,” said Mngqithi.
Online consumption of visual entertainment has increased quite a lot, to the extent of forcing digital content providers to drop their picture definition and bit rate percentages. International streaming service Netflix already has its gaze firmly on local talent. Kagiso Lediga’s drama series Queen Sono has been picked up for a second season.
And, just this week, Netflix announced its intention to back another domestic production, Jiva! – a vibrant urban story that unfolds on the streets of Durban, telling the tale of Ntombi, a young woman who finds herself boxed in by her mundane existence until the gift of dance becomes an exit strategy for her.
Candice Modiselle, who plays the part of Vuyiswa, the co-lead in Jiva!, told City Press that this was the most turbulent time for artists globally. “We have to diversify our skill set and explore multiple digital avenues, which is what I’ve done,” Modiselle said.
Commenting on her role in Jiva!, she said: “I think many artists can agree that it’s incredible to see Netflix investing in African narratives. Our stories are valid and they’re being told on a global platform, which affirms for us that our time is now. This also creates more employment opportunities in the entertainment industry, which is something that can’t be taken for granted.”
The executive producer of Jiva!, award-winning writer, producer and director Busisiwe Ntintili, who also wrote the popular romantic drama Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, told City Press that plans to return to production were still being devised.
“The pandemic has been challenging for everyone in the global television and film industries. But local and global protocols are under way to ensure that all cast and crew will return to a safe shooting environment. In South Africa, where some local productions have started to return to shooting, that has meant adopting strict shooting protocols by testing cast and crew, limiting the number of cast and crew on sets, ensuring workplaces are cleaned and disinfected, and, of course, continuing to wear masks and sanitising,” she said.
“The pandemic has hit especially hard in the film and television industry because the majority of people who work in this field are freelance artists and are not regarded as employees according to labour laws. So they have not been able to claim unemployment benefits.”
The major broadcasters also shared their reactions and intentions. SABC spokesperson Mmoni Seapolelo said production houses would resume work based on a schedule drafted between the corporation and production houses.
“The SABC is equipped to ensure the safety of everyone working on a set by adhering to stringent safety regulations. Production houses are independent of this organisation and will have to make certain they fall in line with the lockdown level 4 directives before returning to work. Some production companies have opted not to restart productions during level 4,” she said.
M-Net chief executive officer Nkateko Mabaso rejoiced.
“While the R80 million fund MultiChoice Group established has ensured that cast and crew continued to receive their salaries throughout the start of the lockdown, we are thrilled that they have been able to return to work this week.”