Of Ice Queens and Mother Hens…

The Cape Town International Film Market and Festival (CTIMF&F) took place earlier this month at the V&A Waterfront. Comprising of business meetings, exhibitions, networking events, master classes, film panels, workshops and a film festival, the CTIMF&F is gearing towards becoming the pre-eminent Cape Town umbrella film event on the calendar.

The couch conversation series was a unique opportunity for guests to listen and interact with some of the biggest names in the industry’s different disciplines, in an informal, intimate and “no frills” fashion – even if it was hosted by the One & Only.

One of the couch series conversations called The Tale of the World’s a Stage, was set to be a conversation with Antoinette Louw, Lee-Ann van Rooi, Christia Visser and Elana Afrika-Bredenkamp, moderated by Louw Venter. Originally, centred on double standards and the fickle, judgmental nature of the industry when it comes to performance artists, the conversation was hijacked by the honest and revelationary nature of the #MeToo campaign, a response to the serious accusations of sexual assault against movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein. The gathering of panelists made it seem like it had been specifically assembled to discuss this important and timely issue. Christia Visser’s absence due to an airline strike took an interesting subliminal twist, Louw Venter’s diplomatic moderation made for a curious tension while Alison director Uga Carlini served as a master of ceremonies for the on-the-couch format series.

Sharing from their experience of the film and television industry, Louw, van Rooi and Afrika-Bredenkamp commented on the complex and tricky nature of the game. Citing real-life examples of on set moments, where other actresses or they themselves had been taken advantage of, the discussion turned toward the difficulty of establishing boundaries without being labeled a diva. From “having the reputation of being an ice queen means you will never get work” to “you’ve got to have the balls to stand up for yourself”, the frank and free-ranging conversation offered some great candid insights. 

Taking personal responsibility for your treatment on set became a strong word of advice for the budding actors in the audience. Many young actors don’t know the code, want to make a good first impression and their vulnerability makes it easy for them to be targeted by unscrupulous colleagues or co-workers. Realising it’s only a job, knowing your personal worth, setting firm boundaries, keeping your agent in the loop and telling someone if you don’t feel at liberty to confront the situation head-on are good ways to protect yourself. While this is a good start, there’s also a need for up-and-coming talents to have a mentor, someone to serve as a “mother hen” and protector on the inside.

Knowing your rights as an actor means realising you can call for a closed set when shooting intimate scenes, being able to see shots, performing fully clothed rehearsals and requesting shots be limited to three takes. Setting these precedents to create the new normal is one way to fight this kind of abuse of power. The nature of film-making is pressurised and low budget films aren’t often governed consistently, or by the same rules. Unfortunately the apologetic attitude of actors within the industry, particularly in South Africa, make these obstacles difficult to overcome when there are such large discrepancies between perceptions of what is and isn’t okay.

Directors need to establish trust with their actors and have a direct bearing on the set culture to make them feel safe. Actors that feel safe and looked after are more likely to perform at their best than those who aren’t comfortable with their work conditions. Having a good support structure around you makes this process easier to accomplish. There are cases where a grey area develops whereby agents serve the needs of the film over the individual. When an agent isn’t serving your best interests, it helps to have other people around who you can lean on or confide in.

The on-the-couch panelists went on to say that good men and women need to stand up for their colleagues to eradicate double standards, “boys club” mentality and any trace of misogyny. The rat race mentality makes what should be a team effort into a situation where it’s every man or woman for themselves. While this competitive hierarchical structure can push talent to stretch themselves or lock into their caste, it fosters a dangerous and unstable environment where people feel they need to bend the rules to get ahead. While we are responsible for ourselves, much can be achieved by effecting a zero tolerance for all forms of abuse and establishing a greater unity among peers. Destroying the “every woman for herself” mindset and adopting a greater sense of unity among all actors can only improve matters.

While commenting specifically on the film industry, this advice is applicable to any industry where these double standards persist. The open nature of the discussions led one guest to open up about her rape several decades ago when as a young actor she had appeared for a bogus screen test. The brave confession from a woman with many years in the industry cut through to the heart of the matter, making the already powerful discussion much more cathartic, heartfelt and pertinent.