Lights, camera, action!

Brent Quinn is a South African filmmaker and storyteller. He has been working for many years in storytelling, specifically making television series. In addition to that, he has worked on advocacy media in different parts of Africa. He has also condcuted  international advocacy campaigns. As a dramatist, he has produced many South African series and is now head of AFDA, The South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance, which is based in Johannesburg. His producing and screenwriting work has garnered around 60 global recognitions, including a George Peabody Award for The Three Amigos. A second Peabody (2012) was awarded to Intersexions, a hit local drama series which Brent head wrote. Tewodros Kebkab of The Reporter recently travelled to Johannesburg, South Africa, and caught up with Quinn for an interview. Excerpts:

The Reporter: How did you become a filmmaker?

Brent Quinn: Back in the day, I used to fail at everything when I was in school. I was told I was a complete failure. However, after I went to university I did very well. I studied literature, philosophy, psychology and also got a degree in education. The reason I became a filmmaker is that I have always considered myself to be a storyteller. If you are a storyteller you tell stories the best way you can. Some people write them while others paint them. I used to tell stories from when I was young. When I was a baby I drew on the wall. I have always been imaginative and creative.

I grew up during the Apartheid era. I remember when I was a little boy I watched my teachers crying and asked myself why they were crying. I became conscious and I decided to tell the stories. I had a projector as a baby used to get my friends and the domestic workers to the front of the screen in our backyard. I was just an inventive writer, creator and director.

For how many years have you been working on films?

I worked on films and TV dramas for about 30 years. After I finished school, I worked on documentaries and TV programs. Back then we had 15mm film. I have been very blessed; there are many things that I have written and produced. I have also directed dramas, commercials and a lot of different things. I have also written scripts for many shows.

Which works do you like the most?

I like works that can make a difference. For instance, I have written a series for little children. It was so difficult to write but very exciting because you have to think like a child to write. You have to get into the mind of a child. The story is fantasy about a playland for children and I loved doing that. I also love doing political satire and drama series.

You are now the head of the film school. How many students do you have?

We have around 340-350 students in the film school alone and about 800 in the whole school. I am sure we are the biggest film school in Africa. We are growing and we have film schools in Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town. We want to be the best in the southern hemisphere and then become one of the best in the world. We have a good talent and we live in Africa; what better place for stories than Africa. We are in the best place for stories and South Arica is very good for stories.

How many disciplines do you have in AFDA?

We have got four disciplines. We have the Department of Production, which is writing, directing, producing animation, and then we got the Department of Image, which mainly focus on Cinematography. We also have the Department of Design, and the Department of Editing and Sound. So we have four departments and 12 disciplines in the film school. We have got television school and they have their disciplines. We also have a live performance school which has great music performances. We also have street actin and stage acting

Can you tell me about the whole AFDA program?

You have the film school and when you come to the film school, you learn to be a filmmaker. You take eight disciplines in your first year. We have four terms in one year. During that time you will be required to work on two subjects and make a film, then you have a short break. After you come back, you will be introduced to a new discipline and two subjects, then you make a film in eight weeks. Generally speaking, we give you a broad taste of what a film school is all about. We do fiction, we do drama, we push them to be great story tellers and engage in local stories. Then you go to television, the focus there is acting, directing, producing. There is also the technical aspect, which is camera, sound and editing. Their focus is more on reality. You do music shows, you do entertainment, you do interviews, and reality shows for television. When you come to live performance, you have to act in the film school. You will act for television shows and on stage. You also have to compose your own music. So our system in AFDA is very audience-driven. We teach you the craft in the first two years and in the third year your graduation has to be in front of a live audience. For filmmakers their films go to the lecturers If you are in live performance or are a singer, you have to compose 12 original songs, and do an album. If you are a stage performer you will be given an hour and 30 minutes to show you are a performer. You will be required to sing and present your own original work with your own band. So it’s very tough because after you qualify you are going to be a filmmaker, a television show-maker, a theater maker or a music maker.

Do you think the audience can be the perfect judge for filmmakers?

No and yes

How?

We know that a good storytelling must be emotionally and culturally relevant and it must be made very effectively to ensure that your investors’ money was well spent. Your investor wants you to make something that reaches the audience. Anybody can tell a story for the sake of telling a story but the issue is that it has to be relevant to the audience. We make films to be seen and when we say our lecturers guide the students it means that their creativity must have a commercial aspect. Africans should be watching a movie about Africans made by Africans. This is what you need to see.

Does education change Africa's cinema?

Yes but it depends on your education. If you only teach about Hollywood films, you will only be imitating. We encourage our students to watch as many films as they can. We love world cinema and we encourage our students to watch cinema from Korea, Russia and other countries. We just don’t focus on Hollywood but in the mean time we are not scared of Hollywood. What we teach our kids is to be a sponge; take the best and apply to your situation. Make a story about who you are and be proud of who you are and proud of the stories that you tell.

Do you have plans to expand?

We currently have four campuses and we are about to start a new 5th one. We are hungry for more African Cinema that reflects our dignity and the complexity of our lives. I was blessed to travel to the east, west and all across Africa and what I see is just remarkable people, remarkable cultures and massive opportunities for stories. We have an open potential and we are on the right course to have the most advanced cinema. West Africa has a great tradition of film making, which is beautiful. East Africa is also emerging. We have done some good stuff in the south but there is still room to expand. The next generation of filmmakers is going to make the most interesting stuff because they have got a new identity. They are confident they are not making European cinema. They are not making stuff that is a romanticized notion of Africa. They want to do the real thing. We do it with love and respect as opposed to judgment. I wish we can judge how strong our societies are and how open we are as storytellers. I say a storyteller is the one that holds the mirror.

Ethiopian cinema is slowly growing but there are bumps on the road. For instance, films that have political elements in them are censored. Do you think that is the right thing to do and won’t it affect the art of filmmaking?

I do not recommend censorship. I grew up in South Africa during a time of high censorship. It was tragic and the biggest tragedy is that if you think about racism and how racism emerges, it is clear that it comes from ignorance. That ignorance leads to fear and fear leads to hatred and hatred leads to racism. The government I knew growing up would tell us what to think and how to think. No one can tell you what to think of and what you see. I would love to meet an official, who is such a genius, to be able to tell you no. We don’t want this to be the case.

Do you receive support from the South African government and what roles do you think governments should have?

I will not be too presumptuous to say what the government should or should not do. The opinion I expressed about censorship is just one man's opinion and I will stand by my opinion but I will defend with my life the opinion of somebody who disagrees with me. In terms of what the government’s role should be, Australia is the best example. Australia was a country that was upside down at the bottom of the earth. They had no clue on how to promote their culture and traditions. So in the late 1970s the Minister of Culture decided to invest in filmmaking. People said we need more hospitals and other facilities but the government said no and decided to invest in filmmaking. They decided to show their beautiful culture and tell their beautiful stories. It was called Australia's new wave. Beautiful cinema came out of Australia and suddenly the world woke up and said Australia is a great place. Then guess what, after 10 years, it started booming and now Australia is a world power in cinema. Australia is a very sophisticated society but before the wave what it had was lots of sheep and was just a farming destination. Now its cuisines, fashion, design, technology, and animation have become extremely popular. They got a brilliant industry because the government invested in filmmaking and that transformed the economy of that country and this is direct evidence that investment in culture is the best way to boost your identity.

Ethiopia has the potential since it has a brilliant, advanced and ancient civilization. What can it offer? You can take South Africa as an example. What can it offer with that tragic past, heroic struggle and brilliant diversity? We got stuff to offer. So a wise government I believe invests in the vision that the people have of themselves and that is an opportunity. If you invest in people who have something to say with pride and are proud of who they are, then that is the best export commodity. What’s better to export, apple, sheep, gold, oil? What's more important is pride and identity because that is what people want to see. Then you get to build a very proud and conscious citizenry. Citizens that get to see the reflection of how complex, diverse and beautiful their culture is will get inspired by who they are.

The other Achilles heel for Ethiopian filmmakers is tax. For instance, the government believes that filmmaking equipment is a luxurys and is highly taxed. What do you think should be the remedy?

Filmmakers should not blame the government. Filmmakers should inspire the government to be partners with them. That should be their job. So, before you say the government has failed, you should look at yourself and ask whether you have approached the government with the right vision. After the government realizes that you have a great vision the policymakers will turn around and say that they should not chop you down with stiff taxes and let you grow. Show the right potential, have the right vision and with the right committees and brilliant people working together, you can make a big change. Still, don’t get me wrong. At the end of the day, it’s all about priority. If the government thinks that people need medicine and hospitals rather than movies then that is acceptable. But what you have to understand is that you should work hard to convince people in the government to buy the vision.

So what do you think should be the vision of African filmmakers? 

I can’t speak for all Africans. But I can tell you one story as an example. A long time ago in England an old man worked in a shoe factory. He was a talkative person and complained a lot. This frustrated his bosses and they decided to get rid of him and told him that he was going to be sent to Africa on a marketing tour. The old man traveled to Africa and came back after six months. He continued complaining saying that he was sent to Africa to sell shoes where they don’t wear shoes. After a short while, the old man died and was replaced by a young boy. Like the old man the young boy was talkative, which irritated them and forced them to send him to Africa. However, he came back from Africa speechless. They asked him what was wrong and he said there is a whole continent that does not wear a shoe. He earned the company lots of money after that.

Now look at Africa. What have we been consuming? We are consuming foreign products. Yes Nollywood is trying to touch the surface with the kind of films they make but Africa wants proper diet, rich texture and delicious diverse cuisine in terms of cinema and every country has its own brand of movies representation. Not just TV drama; I am also talking about cinema. You can look at the potential we have because if you think about it, how many films do Africans watch which are made in their country compared to what is coming from outside? The potential is massive and guess that the young generation is wide awake and smart.

Do you have any last words?

I would love to visit Ethiopia, the religion, the Orthodox Church, the richness of the culture, the texture, design and art. As an admirer I look from a distance and I know that Ethiopia has rich diverse civilization. I think it would be fantastic for us to find synergy between film schools in Ethiopia and South Africa. We should start building story lines across this continent so the younger generation in Johannesburg can start to watch Ethiopian films and see how life is interesting in Ethiopia and vice versa. If we start to exchange ideas and change the next generation, I believe we can fix the world and empower the continent, one inspired storyteller at a time. Our world is changing very fast and we can raise awareness and consciousness. People who impart the stories are the best citizens because they make great decisions of respect, of encouragement, of understanding and support. That is how you build the continent. Our continent was great thousands of years ago and was on the right path but unfortunately colonization from east and Europe created a lot of tragedy, a lot of brutality. But jazz does not come out of happiness; great art comes from struggle. So I say it’s time to roll the cameras.