Among the creative arts the one that has fascinated humans since time immemorial is that of telling stories with moving images. Around campfires across the world people have used the shadows cast by the light to imitate life, especially animal life. The shadow theatre of Asia, employing cut out figures whose shadows are projected onto a screen, was an extension of this original idea. The magic lantern similarly used static cut outs whose movements required an operator to manipulate them in front of a lantern.
The camera obscura, a 19 th century invention, brought us the photograph, reproduced first on film, and opened the door to the movie camera, which finally made it possible to photographically reproduce the moving image in direct imitation of life. By 1900 the art of synchronizing frames per second with human body movement had largely been mastered. Sergei Eisenstein and W.F. Griffiths, from the left and the right respectively, pioneered the craft of editing during the early 1920s. By adding sound, in the late 1920s, the moving image was well on its way to imitating life. Colour photography, after the Second World War, plus all the subsequent refinements have made the movies the single most popular form of entertainment during the 20 th century. It truly became the theatre of the 20 th century, bringing to the silver screen every type of story, from the absolutely bad, the indifferent, to the most excellent. The movie’s ability to harness all the performing arts simultaneously to produce one art object made it the 20 th century’s quintessential story-teller, but one who was far more versatile than any we had know before.
The movie is also very directly dependent on two crucial factors: electricity and a chemical processing industry. In addition to these production factors, movies and movie-making entail very long value chains that can include hundreds of technicians, craftsmen, visual artists and musicians. Add to that list the players, the extras, the prompts, the make-up artists, the set builders, etc
Television, like radio transmission before it, radically changed communications by making it possible to bring two persons separated by miles of space, within earshot of each other. The visual, accompanying the aural, which is what television entails, has made it possible to bring every type of moving image that can be captured chemically on film, or electronically on tape, or digitally on disc directly into the home. Television is the most powerful tool of mass communication invented by humans and its impact on society has yet to be measured. Its applications : to communicate events in real time; to store information for later use; to recall and replay stored information within seconds of reception; to merge, compare and disaggregate information being received or stored lend it a host of capacities every preceding means of communication lacked.
Television offers unprecedented access to the private domain of every human – the home. Using this medium the news reader, the preacher, the weatherman, the politician, the salesman and the entertainer gain direct access to your home. As one little known SABC executive once said: “Television is information, but it is also advertising and show-biz”.
Tonight, we are here to talk about the show-biz dimension of television.
In 1974, Gil Scott-Heron, the African-American poet, musician and activist who commands quite an enthusiastic following here in South Africa, made the impassioned assertion that “the revolution will not be televised”. That statement was later countered by Richard J. Powell in a chapter titled “Correction: the revolution will be televised” in his book “Black Art: A Cultural History.”
The nexus between the DAC and the SABC has the great potential of re-invigorating South Africa’s own revolution; this time through the arts.
The Department of Arts and Culture is charged with the responsibility of enhancing socio-economic development, promoting social cohesion and nation-building and nurturing a new sense of national identity through the development, preservation and promotion of South African arts and culture. The SABC is strategically placed to make an impressive contribution towards this by transmitting what our artists and other cultural workers create to the broader public.
Tonight’s occasion hopefully marks the maturing of the relationship between the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The Literature for Television Adaptation Conference is not only about a marriage of creative minds; a marriage of artistic genres, it is also about adding a different approach to our literary heritage.
Contemporary problems call for contemporary and creative solutions. Here I would like to underscore the word “creative”.
It has become apparent to all of us who love books, lovers of the creative word, that our children and our youth are increasingly shying away from reading in favour of visual stimulation and appreciation. However, history would indict us if, because of this, we discouraged our children from reading, a habit that we as adults should be responsible for inculcating into the precious young minds who are the future of humanity. If they are going to consume television, let them consume something of value. The creation of this relationship between the written text and television, would then stand a good chance of inspiring our youth to revisit the original texts and thus enter the formidable love triangle between the young mind, the book and the film.
Despite all of the new refinements of communication technology, books remain one of the most essential means of communication alongside TV, Radio, Computers, and other electronic media. Contrary to the view of quite a few, television and other forms of popular electronic media are not a substitute for the book. The various forms of media complement one another and together they have the potential of ensuring the accessibility, preservation, and promotion of our cultural heritage. Elsewhere, on another occasion, I have argued that “writing was probably the most profound cultural revolution experienced by human kind prior to the twentieth century. Books, consequently occupy an important place in the preservation and transmission of information, knowledge and experience.” For it is through writing that we are able to record our history, transmit knowledge from one generation to another, and teach our offspring about the essential values of humankind. This is why the development of literature and increased literary awareness remain at the top of our priority list as the Department of Arts and Culture. This initiative, a conference about the adaptation of literature for the screen, hopefully brings together the minds, the voices and the eyes that can map out a programme of action. Provided that we are serious about the matters at hand, I have every confidence that the partnership between the DAC and the SABC can yield positive results and engender a wider readership for South African literature while growing the audiences of the SABC, TV and Radio.
The SABC has the capacity to reach 19 million TV viewers in South Africa. 74% of the country’s population listen to its radio stations which now broadcast in all our eleven official languages.
The Department of Arts and Culture, as the custodian of our nation’s heritage, recognises the SABC as an important partner in promoting our cultural heritage. This initiative is the affirmation of the intimate bond that should exist between the two institutions. We are happy that the SABC contributes to the DAC mandate in promoting the use and equitable development of all South African languages.
Although this conference is the first of its kind on our soil, South Africa boasts a strong tradition of adaptation from one form to another. The SABC, in particular, has displayed a keen interest in adapting South African texts, particularly literary classics written in our indigenous languages, for television. In the past we have seen television adaptations of the isiXhosa classic, S.E.K. Mqhayi’s “Itylala Lamawele”, which was first published in 1914. South Africa is also making its mark in the global arena. The film “Tsotsi”, adapted from Athol Fugard’s novel, won the Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category in Hollywood this February. We believe that further and greater efforts in this direction can revitalize our literature and contribute directly to our key national goals.
Literature for Television Adaptation is essentially about texts made visible. This calls for creative dialogue and interaction between and among the practitioners of two genres which could produce innovative ways of tackling the problem of literacy in this country. By adapting books for film, (and by extension, television) by bringing them into the visual medium, we are not only introducing a different dimension to the book, we are making it more alive through moving visual images and sound. We are giving the book a new texture.
We are constantly searching for creative ways to persuade South Africans to read. This initiative with the SABC could be a milestone in that direction. Adaptation can also aid to bridge the generational gap between the writers of yesteryear, who were generally restricted to pen and paper, and the younger generation with greater exposure to media and more opportunities to express themselves through such modern media.
Our Cultural Development section, which houses the Books and Publishing and Audiovisual units, among others, seeks to enhance the economic viability of these industries so that they make a significant contribution to the South African economy. We are at an advanced stage of developing our National Book Policy, which will serve as a normative instrument to guide growth strategies in the book publishing industry and enhance the culture of reading and writing amongst South Africans.
In 1999 the government established the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) as a statutory body responsible for the development of our film industry. In the past couple of years we have witnessed the remarkable growth of the film sector. Apart from the Oscar that came with “Tsotsi” earlier this year, South Africa has made its mark on the silver screen around the world with such films as Drum, Yesterday, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, Max and Mona to mention the best known. The NFVF was established on the premise that South Africa has stories to tell, and these must be told by South Africans, in their own way. The recent achievements of our film industry tell us that South Africa has a wealth of untapped talent and stories that can engross the world to tell.
“The film-maker is our modern day dramatic story-teller who invites his audience to view reality through his/her eyes”, I remarked two years ago. The Ethiopian filmmaker, Haille Gerima, stresses the importance of using film and television to reflect our own realities as Africans. The images portrayed on the screen need to resonate with the viewer’s world in some form or the other, they may not necessarily be true representations, but they must be familiar and recognizable. Our realities will differ from person to person for they are intricately connected to our own very unique experiences of life.
It is our commitment as the government to nurture and advance the arts and provide the necessary support to artists and stimulate cultural activity in all parts of the country. The various interventions made by the government, the NFVF, and other relevant bodies has brought an unprecedented paradigm shift in the film industry. South African film industry today commands a great deal of respect on the continent and the world over. We have moved from being a film-making destination to a film-making country.
In bringing books to television, and adapting our classics for film purposes we will be enriching and giving value not only to the SABC’s content hub, but creatively and visually engaging the minds of South Africans with the great literary minds of today and those of the past. By adapting our literary classics for film and television, we shall raise our literature to new heights and create new locally inspired films that will enrich not only ours, but also the lives of millions of others throughout the world.
I wish the participants every success in their endeavours.
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