One of the best kept secrets in video training sits in a tall building in Auckland Park. No it’s not the SABC; it’s the Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking.
Michael Bratt sat down with the Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking’s founder, Melanie Chait, to find out how graduates become ‘big fish’ in the media world.
It started in 2003 as an outreach programme attached to Monash South Africa but then branched out to become a separate entity in 2007. Chait had returned from living and working in England, and was appointed as special advisor to the head of the SABC as well as sitting on the board of the public broadcaster, responsible for restructuring.
During her time there she began to notice that “It was obvious at the time that the demographics of the film industry had to change fundamentally… Monash SA asked me to join them and I said I would set up a programme for disadvantaged youth to become filmmakers… it was mostly white Afrikaans males receiving commissions from the SABC, the type of films were black stories being told by white people, which didn’t have an authenticity and I believed we needed to not only transform young people’s lives by introducing the idea of them telling their own stories, transforming the industry and the sorts of stories people had access to”.
Since training was not part of SABC’s core operations, Chait took matters into her own hands and founded the Big Fish School.
Producing excellent graduates
In the eight years that Big Fish has been operating, well over 1 000 participants have gone through its programme. What is even more impressive is that of those graduates, 85% have found permanent employment, being sought after by all the big broadcasters in South Africa, including SuperSport, e.tv, and SABC and television production companies. In fact, Big Fish has built up such a reputation that when companies have new job openings, before advertising them publicly, they approach the School to see which graduates might be interested.
The other 15%, who prefer to work on their own projects, work at Big Fish’s production division, Little Pond, a space where commissions are received by the company to be produced. TheSchool produces films for corporates, institutions, broadcasters, NGOs etc. They have just completed their first feature documentary which had been very well received, Walking in my Shoes, a programme for Special Assignment and a film for the Legal Resources Centre. They are also making 10 films for a prominent South African banking institution.
“Little Pond is another way for them to remain independent. It gives them a mental and physical space where they can create and develop their own work, and when we get commissioned, they are here to make the films,” says Chait.
The nature of teaching
Chait explains that the success of the school’s graduates is in part due to the nature of the teaching. Training goes beyond simply the technical aspects of filmmaking, incorporating professionalism, critical thinking, time management, life skills, confidence, development of self esteem and understanding the socio-political dimensions of the world we live in.
They leave with an understanding of the increasing importance of social justice filmmaking and how they can effect social change. The students are treated like employees as they sign an employment contract when they join the school. When funding permits accommodation is also paid for and they receive a small stipend. Chait also stresses that the programme is not like internship. “Government, through the Setas, is increasingly funding production houses more and more for internships, rather than training institutions. Some of those internships involve anything from walking people’s dogs, to making coffee, to collecting dry cleaning. I wait to be convinced of the success of these internships without providing for proper training beforehand,” she says.
Another advantage for the students is the rigorous selection process, small classes and as a not for profit organisation, any money received by Big Fish goes back into its resources, including state of the art equipment. A low turnover of staff has also contributed to the success and Chait also believes that the diversity of the participants at the school has led to many of the films produced being big successes,
“We have students from all nine provinces, from rural, remote areas, which means they have a totally different sensibility which is very innovative and different. And I think that’s why our films are doing so well and winning awards internationally, because people haven’t been exposed to the kind of stories that they’re telling,” she says.
Funding is an issue
Chait believes it would be wonderful if the film industry, like other industries supported its own training.
Big Fish does receive money from government Mict Seta and the department of arts and culture have been steadfast. Funding has also been received from GFC, and CFC, different foundations, individuals making donations and companies. But she feels that media companies could invest more in Big Fish as they would receive many benefits. “They would have access to the graduates that we are training. They would be helping to transform the industry and the country. They are giving young people who would not normally have access to this media a chance to be well trained … Besides that, because we have PBO status, companies get tax deductions and BEE benefits and as well the fact that we can produce their training and promotional audio-visual work,” Chait says.
Another element of the school’s curriculum is the ongoing skills audits they conduct so as to know where the shortages are and what needs to be added to the curricula allowing them to remain at the cutting edge of what’s happening. “I think that’s why our students are well trained, because we know exactly what the needs are in the industry and where things are going, as we are researching all the time,” she says.
In the next two years the School will be focusing on moving into different video channels, Chait explains. “We will absolutely still be doing documentaries, but it’s going to be very much understanding what’s mobile compatible, what are the right sort of programmes to do… It’s going to be very exciting trying to work out the best ways of presenting material on mobile phones.” She is optimistic about data costs coming down in South Africa in the near future, as well as connectivity increasing.
Raising awareness of social justice issues
Moving away from the school on to a more personal note, Chait discusses the films that she has been more personally involved with. Her most recent one involved rural schooling, following the challenges that learners face. These include walking many kilometres to get to school and back home, as well as students difficulties concentrating as they are distracted by hunger, child headed households, drugs and violence. Chait explains that the unexpected surprise that has come out of this film, is that universities are using it to teach teachers who are so occupied with the school experience that they have forgotten about the domestic daily lives of what their students have to go through before even getting to school.
“The department of basic education also wants to show it to their senior managers in order to give them a better understanding of the situation on the ground,” says Chait.
She touches on her preference of topics for her films. “Certainly social justice issues interest me. I’m putting together a series of early childhood development and on destigmatising mental health. I won’t necessarily make them; I will bring in graduates to do that.”
She is also planning on going back to revisit people who have featured in her past films, to get an update on where they are, what they are doing, and how they have progressed.
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