The mystery of the disappearing film industry.

Tuesday, July 27.

Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s wildly popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series are no doubt aware that the books – as well as their HBO spin-off – are set in modern-day Botswana. I know little about the series, apart from a general awareness of their earnest, homespun character, and the “traditionally built” protagonist that is Mma Ramotswe. I know, too, that the first book in the series begins, with a tip of the topi to Isak Dinesen, “Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.”

Readers of this blog will recall that the very same Kgale Hill lies just a few kilometers from Mokolodi Backpackers, and that this narrator has, for the past few days, passed it repeatedly on his to-ings and fro-ings about town. I can say on good authority that the detective agency itself – or, at least, its Hollywood reproduction – also sits at the foot of the very same hill, having gone from set piece to tourist attraction for those with time to kill in Gabs.

Jill Scott as Mma Ramotswe, in front of her detective agency

The fact that the ersatz detective agency attracts only the casual tourist – as opposed to the crowds of actors and technicians of a big-budget Hollywood production – is indicative of some of the economic challenges facing Botswana today.

In 2007, the BBC filmed a pilot for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency which, the following year, was turned into an HBO series (starring the singer Jill Scott). The series was expected to give a shot in the arm to Botswana’s moribund film industry, as the first big-budget foreign production to be filmed inside the country. (Fans of The Gods Must be Crazy will be disappointed to learn that film was actually shot in South Africa.) The series was shot on location in Gaborone and the Okavango Delta; some 600 local actors and technicians, according to the series’ Gaborone-based production manager, Ndipo Mokoka, were employed during the filming. When Vice-President Mompati Merafhe visited the set, according to Mokoka, he was impressed by the scale of the production.

“That’s when [the government] realized this is a serious thing, and it can sustain us for a long time,” Mokoka told me at his office on Tuesday.

Despite the superior infrastructure of neighboring South Africa, the producers thought it was important to shoot inside the country that inspired the books – “almost seeing Botswana as one of the characters in the script,” as Vlokkie Gordon, of the South African production services company Film Afrika, which worked on the series, said to me by phone from Cape Town.

There was a sense, too, that the production could have a lasting impact.

“The feeling – and (director) Anthony (Minghella)’s vision – was not only to shoot the film in the country, but also to contribute to the country by helping to build a mature film industry,” said Gordon.

To that end, nearly 200 students received hands-on training during the filming of the 2007 pilot; many returned to work on the HBO production when it began shooting the following year.

“Our dream was…to identify more people that we could replace South Africans with,” said Gordon, “in such a way that eventually, by the end of two or three or four years, we would just have some key people that we bring in, and that the rest of the people would be Batswana.”

That plan was derailed earlier this year, when the producers packed their bags and relocated to Cape Town. The reason was a simple case of hard-luck economics: South Africa’s sophisticated film industry, which receives a generous helping hand from government, was able to offer the production an attractive package of tax incentives and rebates (which, in the world of international film production, is one of the main ways to lure fancy-pants Hollywood films to your country). Botswana simply couldn’t compete.

Jill Scott as Mma Ramotswe

Those involved with the production said that after contributing $5 million toward financing the pilot, the recession-strapped government of Botswana – which, as I wrote earlier, was hit hard by the sluggish demand for diamonds last year – balked at coughing up more cash for the series. As negotiations dragged on to try to keep the production in the country, Gordon said “there was no doubt that we would go on a wild goose chase expecting money.”

This is puzzling on the surface, yet indicative of the mixed message the Botswana government has been sending on the economy. While acknowledging for years the necessity to diversify the economy and wean the country off its diamond dependence, the government has, in effect, done the exact opposite, increasing its reliance on the diamond industry by shifting its focus from production to aggregation and marketing. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Botswana’s failure to establish a viable manufacturing sector owes not only to a small domestic market (and stiff competition from South Africa) but to a ponderous government bureaucracy which is reluctant to support risk-taking ventures. (Kenneth Good, from whom I’ve culled much of the above data, tells the story in Diamonds, Dispossession and Democracy in Botswana, of the failed attempts to establish a car-assembly plant in Gaborone. When the initiative collapsed in 2000, the government’s “prime concern was not to protect a new and productive resource, but to secure its financial investment.”) Despite manufacturing incentives introduced last year, the country is still hampered by the high cost of state-owned utilities like water, power and telecommunications, as well as interest rates that are the region’s highest, after Zimbabwe. Agriculture, too, is suffering: though roughly half of Batswana make a living through agriculture, it produces less than 3 percent of GDP.

There is, of course, no way to suggest that the film and TV industries would contribute a significant portion of GDP anytime soon – certainly not with the South African industry as its nearest competitor. Still, it should be in the interest of this government – certainly with its stated aims of diversifying the economy – to support a nascent industry that has the potential to produce a few thousand skilled workers in the next few years.

When I visited Mokoka at his office in a suburb of Gaborone, though, he painted an unflattering portrait of government interest in the film industry. A proposed film commission has failed to gain traction, and despite plans to introduce rebates, there are still no incentive schemes to compete with neighboring South Africa. Negotiations to keep No. 1 Ladies’ in the country stalled during a cabinet shake-up last year. The left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right one is doing. “When you go to [the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology, which oversees the film industry], everything is news to everybody,” said Mokoka.

“It’s so demoralizing. After working so hard and being so patient in the industry, and all of a sudden it just dies.”

Mokoka began working in the industry in 1997 with World View Botswana, the country’s first production company. Today he is the director of the production company Just Between Us. In more than a decade he has watched the sluggish growth of Btv, the national broadcaster, and the emergence of a number of small, local production houses. The lack of a regulatory body to give the industry oversight and coherence, though, stands in the way of its continued growth.

“How do you work for an industry for 20 years, and still, there’s no improvement?” he asked.

Mokoka is a young, handsome man, fastidious of manners and dress. When I met him he was sitting behind an executive-style desk in his office on the outskirts of Gaborone. The walls were bare and white-washed; the chairs were ergonomically correct. On his desk sat pictures of his son and daughter, as well as a boxed DVD set of the first season of No. 1 Ladies’, and a small reproduction of a director’s slateboard. (“Film is my life,” he said, with a sigh.) We moved to a nearby table and he rang for his secretary to bring us coffee and tea. She arrived – a brisk, stout woman in a modestly cut dress – carrying a tray with four canisters of instant coffee, tea, sugar and powdered milk. There were two mugs and two plates, each with four round biscuits and half a sandwich of buttered white bread, cut into triangles. Mokoka watched me nervously as I sloppily spooned coffee and sugar into my mug, much of which seemed to end up on the serving tray. I could see this poor, delicate man was in a state of distress. Fussily he picked at stray crumbs on the table with his manicured fingers. Each time he did, I hastily wiped away the crumbs that had gathered beside my plate. This nervous dance continued throughout our interview, which was otherwise, I assure you, a very pleasant one.

Mokoka said he had been wrangling with the government for years over the state of the industry. A film commission was in the process of being set up in 2008, he said, but was side-tracked by the government shake-up that followed President Khama’s assumption of power. The cabinet was reshuffled; the minister in charge of setting up the commission was now in the Ministry of Wildlife. The progress made during filming of No. 1 Ladies’ had stalled.

“Many people have been trained, but right now, nothing is happening in the industry,” he said.

In a country of less than two million, this is not surprising. But the industry’s size and limitations, he said, were putting a strain on everyone. “Our market is very small. A few of these people still have something to do, but most have found other work because of the lack of continuity in their jobs. You can do one job in three months. But you cannot have a family like this.”

He gestured to the room around him. “This office here is a family transport business. It is a way to put food on the table.”

Despite the challenges, he was still upbeat. Foreign films are eager to shoot in the country, he said; next month a major UK production company is coming to scout locations. Even the producers of No. 1 Ladies’ had left the door open to return to Botswana.

“If the government is willing to help them, yes, they will come back,” he said.

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4 responses to “The mystery of the disappearing film industry.

  1. Barbara Soloski Albin

    I will admit that I have been trying for 14 months, emailing everyone I possibly could to bring this series back on air. HBO has received thousands of emails from me and other fans, begging for the return of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. During all this time I had no idea that part of the problem was the country of Botswana, as we fans have fallen in love with Botswana, the customs, the people, the language, everything except the snakes. I am sad that the show will not be filmed in Botswana, but I am also realistic, being born in Los Angeles and understanding how the film industry works. There has to be give and take. The industry will go to where the deal is the best. I am looking forward to see Miss Jill Scott, as Mma Ramotswe and the entire cast coming back. I will miss knowing that it is not being shot in Botswana.

  2. Hi Barbara,

    To be clear: the bulk of the filming will be done in Cape Town (e.g., all the interior scenes), but the producers said they’ll still be traveling to Botswana for some of the landscape shots that can’t be replicated in South Africa. No, it’s certainly not the same thing – but you’ll still be seeing something of Botswana the next time you watch “No. 1 Ladies’”. (Along those lines, since there’s no current plan for the series to return to HBO next year, the producers are planning to shoot two 90-minute films, with pre-production beginning later this year. Where the show goes from there is anybody’s guess.)

    Still, everyone I spoke to – both in Botswana and South Africa – said that the production was eager to come back to Bots. So long as the government can find a way to make it work, Mma Ramotswe and company might be back at the foot of Kgale Hill before long.

    Chris

  3. Barbara Soloski Albin

    Chris, Thank you for the answer to my comment. We in the United States can not get a clear statement from Michael Lombardo and HBO, not from lack of trying. I wish I could post or face book your articles, but I can’t seem to find the connection. I enjoy reading them. Received another Post Card Junky article todayi, thoroughly enjoyed it. Again, I appreciate your response, and many fans her will appreciate knowing something. Which is better than being left with no information at all. When I started my ‘crusade’ there were 6000 people on the face book site, I have moved it (not with help from HBO, even though it is there site, to over 18.500. I am even going to be lucky enough to have coffee with Mr. Alexander McCall Smith when he visits northern Califoria in October. I am very excited about this. I would love to visit your country some day, the scenery is incredible and the people seem so friendly. Regards, Barbara

  4. Barbara Soloski Albin

    Hi Chris, Thank you for your answer to me. I haven’t figured out how else to contact you. Regards, Barbara (located in California)

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