Womxn in film

On Harvey Weinstein, #Metoo and sexual harassment in South Africa’s film and TV industry

As #Metoo movement – sparked by the growing number of womxn, such as Angelina Jolie and Lupito Nyong’o, to name a few of the many, who have reported abuse by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein – go viral and Facebook feeds are flooded with the crises of masculinity (or what writer Sophie Gilbert describes as the “tragedy of man”), the worldwide ubiquity of abuse has been brought to the forefront. This shining a light on womxn abuse in South Africa’s film industry.

There are Harvey Weinsteins in every industry whose unfettered behaviour is supported by the cogs of capitalism and footholds of patriarchy. The world we live in has presidents and political figureheads such as Zuma and Trump – elected leaders representing the embodiment of upstanding citizens – reduce sexual harassment to “locker room talk” and still in office even after being accused of rape and sexual assault respectively.

womxn in film

Source. Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer accused of abuse against womxn.

When it comes to our own film industry, according to Sisters Working in Film and Television’s (SWIFT) first Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Survey, which ran from January to April this year, 66.7% of womxn feel unsafe in the workplace, 65% have witnessed sexual harassment, 23.7% indicated they had been unwillingly touched and 71% felt they did not have a platform or strong support structure where they could address these issues.

Motivated by their research, SWIFT produced the #ThatsNotOK campaign launched in July, a series of short films, which speaks directly to the issue of sexual harassment. Their first film, The Line Producer, was created by Nelisa Ngcobo, Natalie Haarhof, Aliki Saragas and Zoe Chiriseri, and inspired by the international campaign #ThatsHarassment.

womxn in film industry

A still from SWIFT’s #ThatsNotOK short film, The Line Producer.

“The nature of the film industry is decidedly undemocratic. It is more akin to a military operation where orders are issued from on high and executed further down the chain of command. Actors are engaged as independent contractors with no recourse to the regulatory structures of the labour legislation, rendering them particularly vulnerable,” says head of media and communications of South African Guild of Actors (SAGA) Adrian Galley. 

It’s not just the abuse but also the lack of legal infrastructure that nurtures a toxic ecosystem of complicity that’s almost just as horrific.

“The industry’s scant regulation, unstable employment tenure and discriminatory gate-keeping practices allow abuse to flourish and perpetrators are shielded from scrutiny.” 

Furthermore, when labour legislation was changed in the early years of democracy, independent contractors and freelancers – that which many actors and film crew members are – were excluded from statutory protection. Essentially, they were legally precluded from unionising, leaving them with virtually no legal protection.

As filmmaker Mmabatho Montsho and creator of the YouTube web-series Women on Sex says, “If 16 famous [Generations] actors could be fired willy-nilly for asking about money, what do you think will happen to a wardrobe assistant who demands action over sexual harassment?”

It’s common knowledge that the entertainment industry is built on the objectification of womxn. Even movies like Blade Runner 2049, which has received five-star reviews, continue to tell misogynistic narratives. As writer Charlotte Gush so aptly pointed out, “Armed with a colossal budget and an experienced cast, [the film’s director Denis] Villeneuve has proceeded to make a completely flat, emotionless, nonsensical, and eye-gouging sexist film.”

This is one example among thousands where misogyny is promoted in an industry whose value system champions the patriarchal, cishet male gaze. Patriarchy is so entrenched and pervasive within the TV and film industry that it’s not just the one-dimensional roles written for womxn or the hamfisted language used to type-cast them that are the problem – the unsafe casting-couch is too.

Womxn in film

From left to right: Jacqui-Lee Katz, Mmabatho Montsho (source) and Adrian Galley.

“We look at each other and say, ‘Oh, she’s only got a job because she’s a pretty face, she gets jobs because she poses in bikinis on Instagram and she got promoted because she’s sleeping with so and so’. We do not question the bastard on the casting couch casting his Instagram crushes, instead, we berate the girl. This attitude further victimises and isolates women,” adds Mmabatho.

So, what’s to be done?

The positive news is that SWIFT is in the final stages of drafting a viable code of conduct to be used in the industry. “This will ensure that womxn are protected when it comes to reporting and dealing with instances of sexual harassment,” says core board member of the non-profit organisation, Jacqui-Lee Katz. They have also partnered with the National Film and Video Foundation to further their research and do a second, more-in-depth survey around similar topics.

In addition, “SAGA has been making a series of representations to the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Labour and the Department of Social Development, among others, to argue for more freelance-friendly legislation. Our efforts have been well received, culminating this year in SAGA‘s presence in parliament before two portfolio committees,” says Adrian.

This sounds hopeful. However, despite a constitution’s legal framework protecting individuals from abuse, the combination of power and wealth often allows perpetrators to delay or avoid legal recourse.

A better legal framework is a step in the right direction but tackling serial abusers is about dismantling a system. As the Guardian author, Suzanne Moore wrote, “We are fighting not one guy here but a system that can only be challenged by collective rage, not individual shame”.

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