INFLUENCER: Janette De Villiers shares the South African approach to pro-active diversity in advertising
An advocate of diversity in the commercial film industry, Janette De Villiers, founder of South African-based full-service production company Groundglass, shares her thoughts on South Africa, diversity initiatives and what’s actually being done to tackle the issue.
Q > You joined the industry in 1986, quite a turbulent period socially for South Africa. As a young woman did you find it was a challenging start to your career?
Janette De Villiers > When I joined the film industry in Johannesburg almost 30 years ago, it was still a very small and a very white male industry. I think there were only about 150 freelance crew at the time who didn’t work for our national broadcaster. You have to bear in mind that television only came to South Africa in 1975, and TV advertising a few years after that.
As a woman with no experience trying to break into a then very male-dominated industry, my only career options in film were as a production secretary or as a child minder on set. I couldn’t type so that didn’t leave me with many options. The only other women on set were make-up artists so, in that sense, I definitely felt like I was breaking new ground and that sometimes meant having to confront sexist presumptions. I was constantly told that I wasn’t physically strong enough to be a production runner and when I started producing at my first company 20 years ago, I represented one of only two female commercial directors in South Africa.
The situation was even worse in terms of racial diversity. We were still under an apartheid government at the time so the industry was predominantly white, though things had started to change. Consequently, anyone of colour in the film industry was either a set painter or spark.
Q > This year has already seen a real focus on diversity in the film industry. You’ve spoken on diversity for commercial film on several occasions, most recently at Ciclope. What led you to become involved in these talks?
JV > I’m proud to say that our industry has grown from strength to strength, which is evident from the incredible South African stories that have gained international acclaim: films like Sarafina, Goodbye Bafana, the Oscar winning Tsotsi, and District 9 to name a few. Our film industry has arguably made the most progress out of any in terms of transformation since I joined. I don’t know how we fare compared to the rest of the world but in Cannes I find the number of young black South African creatives noticeably higher than any other country, largely due to the high number of subsidies and grants available to filmmakers of colour in South Africa and our commitment to transformation.
Nevertheless, I still think there’s room for improvement so it’s important that we continue to examine how we can harness this success in order to become more inclusive. We’re still a very white industry!
Q > Do you feel the state could do more to improve diversification or should this come from within the industry?
JV > I would say both. At the end of apartheid, South Africa introduced ‘Affirmative Action’ and a system called ‘BEE’ (Black Economic Empowerment) across all businesses. In my opinion, this period was incredibly influential to women in film because BEE implemented strong measures to empower women, regardless of colour, and suddenly created more opportunity for us. I also believe there are more female directors in South Africa than in most other countries its size, thanks to BEE.
Unfortunately, the regulation has been rewritten numerous times over the years and women are no longer considered when it comes to BEE so, in that sense, I feel like we’re regressing. Fortunately, BEE encouraged a lot of companies to transform early on so, 20 years on, the results are still visible, perhaps most clearly in South African advertising agencies, which are full of women and historically disadvantaged individuals in very senior roles.
Although affirmative action in my country has been far from perfect, I think it’s had a positive impact overall, not least in pushing the subject of diversity to the forefront of every South African business owner’s mind.
Where the government falls short, we must take responsibility into our own hands and find our own ways to transform. Groundglass is just one small company but I’ve made it my focus to educate and upskill. I’m very proud to have six female directors on my roster and seven people of colour amongst my team.
Q > What would you like to see happen in 2016 in terms of diversification?
JV > Through affirmative action and other such processes, without a doubt, there’s more opportunity for young black filmmakers than ever before but because these schemes are not training or upskilling on a government level, the funds are not making as much impact as they have the potential to.
It also needs to start much sooner: in schools with the youth. In the poorer government schools there is no music, drama, dance, or art. Without these, how can youngsters find out whether they have any of the creative skills relevant to our industry?
I believe we have a responsibility to spearhead our own initiatives and take responsibility for building an industry that is representative of our nation and people.
Q > You’re involved in a variety of educational programmes and run a number of self-funded diversity initiatives, is that right?
JV > I have worked with World Film Collective, a programme that taught underprivileged children in marginalised communities to film and edit on their mobile devices, and hosted platforms where they could upload content. It was fantastic because it offered a much-needed space to be creative.
I am currently launching a programme called Creative Workshop, through which industry professionals volunteer in schools once a week to teach the arts to willing kids. It’s an exciting project that I think has great potential to grow quickly. I’ve been appealing to creatives, teachers, and skilled volunteers to give up just an hour per week of their time to teach their craft to a group of bright children to increase their exposure to the arts.
Short and Sweet is also a scheme I work closely with. It travels around South Africa, screening free films in townships with the aim of encouraging and empowering people to produce local content. It makes film and art accessible to those who may not otherwise be exposed to it.
Finally, the T3 training programme is a recently launched and brilliant initiative in Cape Town masterminded by Tracey Rollino, where production companies are encouraged to commit to having one trainee on every film shoot. The trainees all undergo a really comprehensive 3-month training programme and, depending on their will and skill, move quite quickly into the commercial industry. I work very closely with them through my new online tech endeavour, Crew Pencil. I give them a platform to market themselves and insist on at least one T3 trainee on every shoot.
The government doesn’t offer financial support for training so most of these schemes are privately or self-funded but they are making a difference! If everyone gets involved to some degree and addresses the problem actively, that’s how we bring about change. Success does not happen without intent and effort.