Gatekeepers will never open up SA entertainment industry

At least Hlaudi helped to empower local talent in a way few people have been able to accomplish

“Famed for his 90% rule on South African entertainment during his tenure as SABC’s COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng is a shadow of South Africa’s call for an open industry.”
“Famed for his 90% rule on South African entertainment during his tenure as SABC’s COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng is a shadow of South Africa’s call for an open industry.”
Image: ALON SKUY

Despite his many maladies and the misdemeanours he committed, Hlaudi Motsoeneng's commitment to 90% local entertainment on SABC TV and radio stations is by far his most memorable achievement.

While some might view it as a haphazard effort, many will remember it as a great opportunity to empower local talent. In a way, Motsoeneng helped to open up the SA entertainment industry in a way very few people have been able to accomplish.

Five years after Motsoeneng’s short-lived mission to change the industry, not much has changed. The same lack of representation still exists today even at the helm of role players responsible for shaking things up.

This week, film director Athi Petela faced a backlash while debuting her film Trapped – a production that is centred on queer experiences at a time when there has been a rise in the murder of queer persons. In a passionate short clip, Petela explained how she would never give an opportunity to cast an actor simply on the basis that they were queer.

Meritocracy rarely rears its head in the SA entertainment industry with many opportunities given to those who party at the right hotspots or happen to know the right socialites, influencers or creatives. As closed as the SA industry may be, it is equally tight knit, a difficult system of cliques and connections.

Petela’s comments come at a time when there is a great need to filter out the dilettantes from the prodigies. The crop of talents who come from the world of Insta-fame and viral sensationalism or just pure career boredom tend to lack the skills required to carry impactful work.

Eradicating the need to hire actors that pass the bill for accurate representation jeopardises the vision and integral mission of a production. The director needs the right kind of actor who can take instruction on how to perform a scene. The costume department would hang themselves on the most callous metre of canvas should the lighting department fail to capture their styling choice correctly. The incompetence of a post-production editing team could jeopardise the marketing team’s job of selling a serious Oscar-worthy drama that has been chopped and screwed like a straight-to-DVD Disney comedy. Talent on all fronts is extremely vital.

And that is also where Petela’s demanding vision becomes short-sighted. In her pursuit of a happy production, Petela seems to forget that her very place as a female director is one under immense scrutiny. One that can is usually appreciated by niche markets and minority groups, much like the work of Ava DuVernay or even Sofia Coppola.

In closing herself off to the opportunity to create spaces for miscast queer characters, Petela becomes part of the problem rather than a righteous solution. There is a lack of queer and female voices in the entertainment industry – heck, there is a lack in every other work space. Petela’s stance closes the industry many are trying to open and protects those who are carefully curated to appease this kind of thinking.

But what’s the worst that could happen when close-minded talents like Petela have a seat at the table and choose to pacify themselves with the food they are served? Well, we have an industry that protects those who are deemed as talents. Phat Joe continued to be heralded as a presenter, regardless of his numerous misdemeanours and hate speech. This is similar to Gareth Cliff who went and started his own podcast to freely express bigotry without the fear or repercussion from the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of SA.

Meritocracy becomes less of an expectation and more of a weapon that begrudgingly limits the extent to which young talents can play a part in diversifying an industry belonging to a country more colourful than a box of Smarties and more assorted than a Baker’s Choice box. If we don’t open our minds to the importance of giving opportunities, who will be there to follow the vile industry big wigs that are constantly protected when they are no more?

Opening the SA entertainment industry is a pipe dream that we should all perhaps leave abandoned. With more stars and power players more concerned with their growing fame rather than a growing industry, it seems we are all just potholes that keep making their power trip a drag. ​

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