DRAMA-ZIMBABWE: Actors Say ‘No’ to Third-Rate Parts and Peanuts

Lewis Machipisa

HARARE, Aug 5 1997 (IPS) - Outraged Zimbabwean actors say they are tired of being exploited by film producers who pay them peanuts and they aim to receive recognition for their skills.

Not that they are demanding the type of fees that a Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman pocket, but they, too, want to smile all the way to the bank.

“Actors are exploited from left, right and centre,” says actress Kathy Kuleya. “I don’t mind doing acting as a hobby because I started acting as a hobby. But now it’s paying and if it’s now paying why don’t we get what we are worth? We are tired and we have to put an end to it.”

“I have got nothing to show for all those years that I have been acting. I have done about 15 films to date. It really pains me,” Kuleya told IPS. “I suffered before because of lack of knowledge and lack of organisation. But we now want to protect those who are taking after us. We didn’t gain but that should not go on.

“In film they always say it’s a small budget, but at the end of the day producers pocket everything. I know these producers come in with real budgets. A feature film can never be a small budget film.”

Kuleya, who has been an actress for more than 10 years, says she was paid a daily age of 50 Zimbabwe dollars (then worth around seven U.S. dollars) for starring in JIT, a local feature film produced in 1989.

Another performer, Dominic Kanaventi, told IPS extras are paid around 100 Zim dollars (less than nine U.S. dollars) a day, while daily wages for full-fledged actors range from the equivalent of 40 U.S. dollars to 270 U.S. dollars, which very few get. Moreover, there are no royalties.

Kanaventi heads a new organisation which aims to protect local actors and actresses — the Zimbabwe Actors’ Guild (ZAG). “ZAG will always endeavour to nurture the promotion, protection and improvement of the status and interests of the performing artist in Zimbabwe,” reads the organisation’s mission statement.

The organisation also aims to help safeguard Zimbabwe’s culture. “We will promote films that promote our own culture,” says Kanaventi. “We would like our culture to be seen as it is and not as a nation of thin people who are hungry.”

The idea to form ZAG was mooted in 1994. “We tried at that time to get it going but our biggest stumbling block was funding. We had no money,” Kanaventi told IPS. “But fortunately we have now been allocated a grant from the Norwegian Cultural Fund through the ministry of Sports Recreation and Culture.”

Explaining what led him to participate in the founding of the organisation, vice chairman Emmanuel Mbirimi said: “As an artist I have been exploited and abused up to a stage where I have said NO! to some productions. Enough is enough. Let’s say ‘No!’. Let’s be heard and let’s speak.

ZAG also hopes to help provide training for local actors and to safeguard their turf, according to Kanaventi. “A majority of the key parts are given to foreigners who are brought in,” he told IPS. “Even if they use experienced locals, they are given what are termed extra roles.”

Says Mbirimi: “We have to work at making the industry make sense…. foreign actors come to Zimbabwe and act without being cleared. You can’t do it in South Africa and the U.K. without being cleared. Those guys are protecting their industry.

“We can’t have actors being imported into Zimbabwe when we are here and we are not consulted. We are not saying they should not come here but they should be accredited and we hope through ZAG to put up such structures.” One of the main things the actors are fighting against is their treatment by producers. Kanaventi, for example, has 20 years acting experience, knows what he is worth and is not prepared to accept less. That, however, has not forced producers to pay him accordingly. Instead they look for another actor.

“The problem is that these guys will get a person from the street who is given a few lines, is directed and paid peanuts. With unemployment high in Zimbabwe, that person just takes it,” Kanaventi explained. “What is the result? The acting is third rate.”

“We feel this is exploitation and it should end. We have to protect our artists from unscrupulous agents,” he said. “The basis of ZAG is to protect the artists and to make it a viable industry where we have minimum rates depending on your experience.

“We don’t want a situation where, when the international world sees the end result, they say ‘Aah, look at that. That’s Zimbabwean actors’. We are actually demeaning ourselves because the people who have been taken by these big movie houses are inexperienced and might not have worked on a film before. We want to protect the image of our industry.”

The actors have other grouses. “You are not insured against injury, death or sickness while on a film set,” says Kanaventi. “Gone are those days. We want to make this an industry that will be viable and you cannot have a viable industry without conditions and that is what we are aiming to do. We have had enough.”

“Foreign actors are flown in, booked into a five-star hotel and have per diems and weekend passes to fly back home. In the meantime, the local guy is living in a shack somewhere in Harare, and is given a tenth of the foreign actor’s per diem. Enough is enough. We have been exploited long enough.

“They come out here because Zimbabwe is cheap. They cut their budgets because there is no regulatory body and we are now saying we should be on par with other actors. We are not saying we should be paid like Denzel Washington but if we get to that stage why not?”

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