» The Promised Land

Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking aims to create a space and a future in the broad media landscape for marginalized youths in South Africa.

The foundations of Big Fish stem back to 1995, in the wake of South Africa’s revolutionary status as a democratic nation. After years spent in exile in the UK working for Channel 4, acclaimed political documentary filmmaker and Fulbright scholar Dr Melanie Chait returned home to work as a special advisor and later as a board member of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). It was a crucial time for race relations, yet the country’s media was out of touch and in critical need of reinvention. Chait outlines how change would only surface if the national media was a fundamentally universal one: “Eleven languages, three TV channels and a lot to transform, it was a very exciting time. I soon recognized that if true transformation was to occur in the film and TV sector, we would need to train talented marginalized youth to become the next generation of documentary filmmakers.”

Despite Chait’s best efforts, the SABC board members shunned her aspirations of a subsidized tertiary education for people from disadvantaged, rural and peri-urban communities. Taking such assumed indolence in her stride, in 2007 she established The Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking, an NGO set up to encourage and instruct a new breed of “socially responsible” filmmakers in South Africa.

Chait’s aspirations have proved worthwhile. Balanced by her team of stalwart mentors made up of BAFTA, Emmy and Oscar award-winning industry professionals, Big Fish has become one of the most significant film schools on the continent, and the only South African film school annually invited to screen films at national film festivals.

The school – which enrols marginalized and disenfranchised students from all nine provinces across the country, has been highlighted for its efforts to tackle old-timely, stagnant societal problems, winning two prestigious Stevie International Business Awards as the best NGO in Africa and the Middle East, and later for its outstanding contribution to democracy and change. >

While all of these plaudits are testament to the school’s continued success, the most covetable credit Big Fish has to its name is the recruitment rate of its graduates. With the capacity and funding to enrol a maximum of 200 trainee-filmmakers each year across its Johannesburg and Cape Town campuses (at €10,000 per student), 85% of Big Fish graduates are employed by South African broadcasters, mainstream media outlets or independent production companies. Not only do they arrive at these positions with enthusiasm and professional documentary filmmaking skills, they share a dream to make the South African film and media industry representative of the culturally rich, ethnically diverse nation itself. As for the remaining 15% of newly qualified filmmakers, most keep working at Big Fish’s production trust, Little Pond, creating service based documentary work for NGO’s such as Save the Children.

Even with these enviable triumphs, Big Fish is always suffocating under the pressure to raise funds. As an NGO, money is brought in by affiliated charities, Corporate Social Investments and corporations like Sony and Barclays to form the school’s entire financial backbone; making sure that every student taken into the fold will not have to pay tuition fees. Included in the estimated €10,000 a year tuition, Big Fish uses funds to pay for accommodation; weekly student stipends, which are often sent back to support their families; production budgets; cultural excursions and, in the gravest of cases, counselling where necessary for students who have experienced traumatic events from their time before joining the school.

Executive Director of Development at Big Fish, Zamo Mkhwanazi, suggests that, in times of such economic uncertainty at the school and in the country at large, the sense of community spirit is what really keeps Big Fish going: “Yes, we are a film school, but it’s not just all about the filmmaking. We always need to be concerned about making sure the funds are there so we can do what we do. This gives Big Fish a unique, humanitarian edge that other film schools don’t have.”

Despite most of the acclaim and prestige for the school stemming from the African continent, there have been some notable cases where Big Fish students have made a significant impact on the film industry the world over. In 2011, alumna Palesa Shongwe, 32, made ripples in the European film festival circuit with her lyrical body poem-turned-essay film, Atrophy. The contemplative 8-minute short explores how nostalgia and the dormant memories of our collective youth shape us growing up, yet simultaneously cripple our sense of freedom, artistic and self-expression. Exceeding the scope of your average student film, Palesa went on to win the Oberhausen, Ecumenical Jury prize at the Short Film Festival in Germany. This reputable prize brought more attention to the budding filmmaker, who is now enrolled in a Film Masters programme at NYU after being awarded with a Fulbright Scholarship.

Another such Big Fish success is Lesego Lediga who won the award for Best Short Film at the Montreal International Black Film Festival in Canada with her first-year student production My Last Swim. Using a harrowing voice-over and evocative imagery, the lucid dream short explores the adversities of rape in South Africa. For Lesego, this was an important epidemic to combat through film:

“For our end-of-year productions, we were asked to bring a personal story to the screen. Rape is a huge problem in South Africa, and it has affected my family personally, when my niece was raped for the first time at just 7 years old by her grandfather and, secondly, by a stranger. By putting this down into film, I hope that it can educate people about what is going on here and change things for the better.”

Boldly speaking out about these trenchant societal issues, Lesego has proven that there are distinct and talented filmmakers to be found across all of South African society. After completing a year’s education at Big Fish, Lesego was offered an internship with The African Motion Picture Company, where she now works as an editor and director.

This is the beginning of the wave, and Big Fish wants to be there from the very start

Zamo Mkhwanazi, Executive Director of Development, Big Fish

Another Big Fish’s success is graduate Wiseman L. Mabusela, who was selected for Siemen’s UK Sustainability Centre’s City Stories project, which saw Wiseman directing a short under the instruction of Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for ‘Superman’ and It Might Get Loud). The resulting film, titled Growing Hope, is a heartrending and inspiring fable about starting a green initiative in Soweto. A melange of hard-hitting archive footage and landscape farming from the present, it’s an elaborate, even glossy production that, while it stylistically differs from the smaller technical scope of Big Fish, nevertheless has its origins and socially conscious ethos rooted in Mabusela’s tenure at the school.

As the influence of Big Fish continues to seep into and potentially reshape the national media, the school hopes to change public opinion about South Africa across the world. This year, delegates of the school will be attending the Berlinale’s European Film Market to wheedle out more international funding and distribution opportunities. Hoping to present Big Fish films to the widest audience possible, this distribution, Zamo Mkhwanazi suggests, will gear people up for what she claims will be the inevitable African media insurgence:

“Within the next twenty to fifty years, Africa is going to be the rising star. It’s the Promised Land. A lot of people were not ready for the ‘Asian Wave’ of cinema and are scrambling to catch up. With the risk of this happening again, it seems that Europe and the Western world are wanting to be versed in what happens in Africa before this expected boom, to be engaged in what is going on in Africa because that is where the future is. This is the beginning of the wave, and Big Fish wants to be there for the very start, reflecting what the future could look like, by presenting life in South Africa as it is today.”

Whether Zamo, her colleagues and the shoal of Big Fish students’ fervent ambitions to assist South African documentary filmmaking into the worldwide media industry prove fruitful depends on their advocates and financial backers. As socially, culturally and politically important as any film school could be, let’s hope Big Fish is able to keep on swimming._

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