24 Feb Meet Monareng Makwetla, Executive Producer at Velocity Afrika
It’s mid day as I make my way to the Velocity Afrika offices off Rivonia Road. Coincidentally, or maybe it was strategic, there are 3 agencies well within walking distance of the production company. I am ushered into a boardroom with vintage cameras arranged on a bookshelf that takes up the entire left hand sidewall. The bookshelf is actually a reference library, each block dedicated to its own kind of inspiration, a block for design, a block for photography etc. A moment later I am joined by Monareng and the ladies from production who after the awkward shuffling of a notebook and several clicks of a pen admit that they’re not really sure what they are doing here. We laugh easily and they, with Monareng’s permission, excuse themselves.
I was meant to meet with both Monareng and Mpho and I am disappointed when I’m told that Mpho is at a recce and won’t be joining us. However all was not lost, after my interview with Monareng I meet the frenetic personality that is Mpho and we agree to meet later the same week for breakfast.
Monareng is not what I expected. He is a mature looking man casually dressed in a black t-shirt, jeans and all stars. This sight seems contrary to his title of Executive Producer as well as the image of him in the ‘Info’ section of their website. He is friendly and charming but there’s definitely a ‘producer’ air about him. We make small talk and the interview with Monareng begins.
Your website mentions the strategic/business reasons for focusing on just the continent namely, “the increasing number of clients demanding productions with an increased level of creativity and because of the surge of local agencies getting more and more African clients.” Is there a more romantic aspiration that motivated you?
There’s the desire to make films that our people can be proud of, that we as film makers can say I can put my name on that. I’m making a responsible piece of film where it’s not derogatory. It’s also about creating challenging content that challenges the consumer and customers. We want to be part of that change, we want to be part of the people that’ll point that out to Clients. We are already doing that. Audiences in Nigeria don’t neccessarily want to be spoken to the same way that audiences in Tanzania want to be spoken to. People have this thing that Africa is Africa and that what works in Tanzania will work in Nigeria. We want to be part of responsible film making in Africa.
The site reads that your reason for being “stems from the increasing number of Clients in these territories that are demanding productions with an increased level of creativity…” Was the criticism regarding the level of creativity coming out of the rest of Africa intentional?
It’s completely unintentional. It’s a business decision at the end of the day. We felt like we were competing in a very over saturated market and we felt that our work would be noticed more outside of our own borders.
You guys are a South African outfit how do you propose to sell Nigeria to a Nigerian? What are you bringing to these countries that they cannot provide for themselves?
People have the idea that Africa is Africa and all Africans can be spoken to in the same voice. We don’t pretend to know it all. We bring a different perspective and most importantly we bring production processes that are tried and tested. We are trying to bring production processes and a quality that’s enjoyed everywhere else.
Business in Africa comes with its own sets of challenges and stereotypes. What have been your challenges?
(chuckles) I think our own mental boxes are what’s most challenging. When we first went to Nigeria we were paranoid thinking we were going to get hoodwinked. It’s not really like that. There are obviously challenges working in Africa especially shooting commercials in Africa. The challenges we experienced were mostly logistical. Most countries don’t have a shooting infrastructure. We once shot in Mali and had to bring equipment in from Burkino Faso and Morocco.
I am amazed at the tenacity of people and their drive to do business even in places with little to no infrastructure. Just how much people do with so little. Sometimes our emphasis is on creating a great quality product whereas Nollywood is more about the story.
Don’t the logistical issues become a little pricey?
It’s about a balance. It is cheaper yes, to shoot in South Africa but then you’ve compromised on the authenticity and that’s where part of our emphasis is. There’s always a trade off of some kind. It does work out expensively but really you get given a budget and you need to just manage what you have.
In hindsight how do you feel about the decision to focus on just producing & directing commercials from just the continent?
We will be 4 years in June/July and it’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. We thought our work would be better recognized out of South Africa but the work we’ve done beyond the border has seen us getting more jobs locally. Nigeria is our biggest client and we haven’t shot with them in a while.
Isn’t Nigeria an over saturated industry, how are they able to outsource work to you guys?
Nigeria outsources quite a bit. I’m not sure how to explain it, it’s actually a little weird but they don’t tend to use their own production companies for commercials. They have a film market but not really a commercials industry per se. There’s definitely an advertising industry but not a commercials production industry. In fact our biggest competitors in Nigeria are 2 other South African production companies.
Part of your vision is to nurture and develop aspirant directors in the region. How do you intend to do this?
By region we meant all of Africa but really wherever we operate. (He laughs)
This was a bit of a wish list. Kinda like wanting to feed the world, your heart is in the right place but it’s usually easier said then done but it’s still an aspiration. Part of our strategy is that once the workflow permits, we’d open up an office in a particular region. We do not want to come across as people who are taking from these countries. We want to leave something behind. We want to make investments in the regions. If we grow and nurture the talents there it grows the industry in that region which means it grows our market. It’s bit of a romantic way of looking at things but hey we can definitely try.
Locally we have Zwelethu Radebe. He started with us in 2012. In 2011 he basically picked up a lot of accolades at AFDA. He’s a very talented young man and a great storyteller but what we found was that people come out of AFDA saying “I’m a film director” but then they get into the real world and it becomes very frustrating because then you actually have to work yourself up. Just like everybody else anywhere else in the world especially in commercials. Because of the kinds of budgets that we are dealing with, people have got to know that they can trust you with their money, that you can execute their idea and that they can get the best value for their money. That takes you a while. Often people come in and start working as researchers or worse production assistants and it’s a long hard slog but eventually you get there.
Also what tends to happen as well, and I have to be frank as this may be a little controversial, because production companies that are traditionally white want to have a black director they’ll sometimes push somebody who’s not quite ready and they’ll say yes, you are a director. What tends to happen is that they call him a director but Agency & Client don’t trust him and then there’s no work for that person. They get frustrated and leave that particular production company and they go to another production company calling themselves a director. That production company says to itself well here’s a director from such and such and trusts in that but then it becomes a vicious cycle where this person still doesn’t get the work they want. They end up saying screw it I’m leaving and will do something else with his/her life and now you’ve lost a talent. So we don’t want to rush him, he’s worked on some really good jobs. He’s done a commercial for Veet, Dettol, UNICEF and he’s done a promo for Kabelo’s Boot Camp. We’re slowly letting him take small bites of a big chunk. The goal is to have him become a fully-fledged director in the next year and a half to two years. After all this he’ll have a reel that says, “I can direct.”
Mpho & Monareng
How long have you & Mpho been working together for?
In truth, we started working together in 2001. I started in the industry as a PA and Mpho as a production coordinator. We were at Freshwater Films at the time. At some point Mpho left to go to Belgium and I stayed behind to do my own thing and when he got back we started our own production company called Calash with another partner of ours who won a green card and moved to the US. When he won I couldn’t believe it. Apparently there’s a 1 in 50 000 chance of winning this lottery but it really happens. However as a result we found ourselves without a director and we were 2 producers. At this point we ended up at Velocity Films and we started a partnership with Velocity Afrika and Gift started directing. We’ve been working together for 13 years.
The relationship between the producer and director is sometimes a precarious one. Producers are taught and know to manage budgets and a director’s wish list. Tell us about your producer director relationship with Mpho.
We happen to be really good friends as well and that helps but I’m very lucky to produce for a director who used to be a producer. So what happens there is that you have somebody who understands my world. Often Gift we’ll say he wants to see the budget to see what my target is so that he works within that target. It doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes I’m told I want my establishing shot, make it happen. I also understand that he is building a reel so there’s the obvious emphasis on producing really good work and not necessarily just on making money. It’s a fine balancing act but it’s part of the producer’s responsibilities.
Tell us about Mpho.
I’ve always been very amazed at the guy’s infectious nature. He walks into a room and people can’t help but fall in love with him. He is always very bubbly which makes working with him very easy. I never have to motivate him because he’s got a zest for life that I can’t really explain but it rubs off on others and it’s rubbed off even onto me. Mpho has taught me a lot about how we want to work, we were PA’s and based on our respective experiences with people we’ve come up with a culture for Velocity Afrika that says everybody here is important and that feeds of a lot from the type of person Mpho is. As a director he will often arrive on set with production, he will greet everyone on set; say his goodbyes and thank you’s at the end of the day. He’s whole philosophy is that everybody on set is as important as everybody else. As a director he has a vision, making work that we can be proud of. Can his mom or daughter watch this? His vision is one that has definitely informed the company ethos. I truly believe that he has the type of talent that can make a difference.
For more on Velocity Afrika you can visit their website here.