Towards an audio-visual strategy for development communication
Some 18 months ago, a theoretical partnership between Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) and the Film Resource Unit (FRU) started to find practical expression in direct interaction with communities. Two pilot projects were conducted at the Sebokeng Multi-purpose Community Centre (MPCC) in Sedibeng and the Lerethlabetse MPCC in Lebotlwane. The projects were put in place to bring the audio-visual medium, rich in content and pithy in relevance, to communities serviced by these MPCCs.
In a sense, the FRU/GCIS partnership is a natural one.
On the one hand, GCIS' core mandate is to bring to communities information they can use for their own advancement. It is constantly searching for creative platforms beyond the purveyors of sound-bites. It seeks to use infotainment that conveys unmediated messages of development for communities to become actors in changing their lives for the better.
On the other hand, the FRU, formed as a champion of African film, has expertise in terms of content pertaining to African experience, organisation, methodology and some community networks, to partner GCIS in what promises to be a mutually-beneficial relationship.
Today, as we "explore possible futures through African film", we have cause to celebrate the soft landing of the joint pilot projects. More importantly, this opportunity allows us to pause and reflect on this experience and its broader significance for the cause of development in general and development communication in particular.
Those who have had direct experience of the pilot projects will be in a better position to articulate their efficacy, the value of our partnership and the practical way forward. My task is merely to pose questions relevant to these reflections.
Some of these questions are:
- what is the socio-economic and communication context within which we have to consummate this relationship;
- in talking about FRU and MPCCs, are we here dealing with the periphery of real South African life, or is this glittering so-called "real life" of Hollywood truly South African and truly African; and
- lastly, in terms of content, what are the values that should underpin South African communication and cultural life: should we in fact be striving for a reversal of roles, that the "periphery" should become the "mainstream" and vice versa?
I am raising these questions because, we in GCIS are convinced that the partnership we have transcends the narrow confines of film and relates to the critical issue of socio-economic inclusion and exclusion, the Two Economies paradigm that has been identified in government's Ten-Year Review.
The one economy is advanced, thriving and integrated into the global economy. The other economy is made up poor people, unemployed and unemployable because they do not have skills, and they are not connected to - nor do they benefit from - the First Economy.
In the same vein, one could argue that we have Two Communication Environments.
One environment is made up of people who have access to virtually all platforms of communication, from radio to ICT; they are exposed to the glitter of the First Economy and are in a position to make choices about how to benefit from this economy; and they are being persuaded day-in and day-out that the mores that should govern our society should be based on the saying: "Everyone for himself and the Devil takes the hindmost".
The other Communication Environment is made up of people with access to a few of the mediums and platforms of communication; they are poor; however they are also exposed to the glitter of the First Economy, not to make choices, but merely to marvel at how good life can be; and they struggle to access the information tools that would allow them either to join the First Economy or at least subsist with sustainable livelihood.
The high priests of the First Communication Environment value the eradication of poverty more out of pity for the poor majority or at least as a bulwark against threats to their wealth and lifestyle. To these, it is not issues of social services including social grants, efforts to eradicate poverty and provide work opportunities but HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe that will define the Mbeki Presidency.
To these, when Minister Penuel Maduna is involved in a car accident, the immediate concern is not about his health and his family. It is not about whether a water puddle, road-works or a stray dog may have been responsible for the accident. It is about whether there was reckless driving on his part; whether a breathalyser test was conducted. In other words, if an individual is in government, s/he should be presumed guilty until proven innocent - people in government are as a rule bound to do wrong.
In my view, the greatest danger to a society in transition, such as ours, is not so much that these views are held by these high priests of the First Economy and First Communication Environment. It is that those who belong to this First Economy and Environment who are committed to transformation and do genuinely care about the Second, keep quiet or grumble at the margins of what can, by default, become dominant societal thought. It is the reluctance to engage in public discourse, to pose alternatives to this so-called "real South African life" so that the views and aspirations of the majority can become the base upon which our values are constructed.
It is for this reason that the partnership between GCIS and FRU should be seen as an important part of the intervention which one would characterise as development communication for a developmental state in a developing society.
The first level of this strategic intervention is reflected in a methodology based on community participation:
- Theme months such as Human Rights, Freedom, Youth and Women's Month were used as the basis for the selection of various films.
- Preparatory networking and community liaison processes were undertaken in each community to identify partners, assess the relevant issues in the community, tailor responses and begin mobilising and awareness-raising efforts.
- Mini-film festivals were held to coincide with the relevant public holiday when appropriate African films, documentaries and select videos were screened.
- Mini-festivals were followed up with community-based workshops where issues raised through the films were discussed, mostly in the presence of issue specialists from both public and civil society sectors to provide strategic interventions.
The second level of intervention is reflected in the means of conveyance of the messages, in that:
- Film and video transcend the barriers of reading and writing which is often important for communities visiting MPCCs.
- Drama and role-play 'disguise' sensitive issues in communities. Women's month pilot studies indicated some reluctance to accept the changing roles of women. A film like Neria, which portrays a woman's triumph over cultural and historical barriers, showed another view.
- Films offer a stop-start facility - you are able to stop the screening and ask questions, solicit feedback and engage with images at particular moments.
- This medium embodies important social messages and values and often this is an entertaining way as opposed to other, more formal engagements including meetings, rallies and workshops.
- The resource requirements may be more than those of, say, a meeting or song competition, but they are not prohibitive especially as the MPCCs in the pilot not only had the halls/spaces required, but through the partnership, we had access to the appropriate technology such as PA system, video recorders and so on.
The third level of intervention is reflected in the logistical value-addition, in that MPCCs serve as part of the distribution chain:
- The primary challenge of African film is that of distribution and reach, as commercial distributors remain committed to "Hollywood". MPCCs offer a creative distribution site and point of contact between these filmmakers and the intended audience.
- Efforts to institutionalise audio-visual centres as facilities in communities often suffer from problems of sustainability, good governance and effective management. MPCCs can help obviate some of these problems, and offer sustainability and governance that extend to all potential centre occupants/tenants. This will be of major benefit to the audio-visual centres planned as SMMEs and attached to the MPCC, during the next phase of the project.
- MPCCs conduct needs assessments on an ongoing basis. They also prevail over strong local networks and have access to the vast majority of leaders and decision makers at local level, especially those from municipalities.
These then are some of the major lessons that can be drawn from these pilot projects - an experience from which we will need to learn as we take our partnership to a new and higher trajectory.
The first of these questions is, if the infotainment provided in these community festivals is so relevant to the lives of the majority, why is it not finding its way into the main platforms, including the public broadcaster and other major mediums!
Secondly, why are most of the productions used in these main platforms, with a few exceptions, not reflective of South Africa presenting itself to itself through film - who does the research and who is responsible for production?
Thirdly, when are we going to take to these community festivals South African epics and feature films of the calibre of such great works as Algiers, Lumumba, Gone with the Wind or Quiet Flows the Don? As such we would not have to beg Charlize Theron to speak some Afrikaans during the American Oscar ceremony for a film on American life, but celebrate our own epics about our own lives.
One is informed that the South African film industry is at last bristling with creative productions, and that about 12 feature films are in production. Hopefully, these productions will start to take us onto a new trail of excellence; and they will start to bring the periphery into the mainstream of South African cultural life.
We are convinced that our partnership, and the broader co-operation with such Departments as Arts and Culture, and Education, as well as with the National Film and Video Foundation, will contribute to facilitating the bridging of the chasm between the First and Second Communication Environments.
We are convinced that through these efforts, we will help entrench a "national ideology" of caring, of development - informed by the imperatives of our constitution, which says in its preamble that we should:
- "heal the division of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental rights;
- "lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
- "improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
- "build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations."
So in brief, yes, let us celebrate the partnership between government and the non-governmental sector; let us celebrate the progress that we are making in using a variety of forms of communication to bring to communities information that is relevant to their lives. But as we do so, we should remember that we are only at the beginning of a long, long journey!
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)