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In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. Our EDN member of the month for April 2016 is Don Edkins, producer and director, Day Zero Film & Video, South Africa.

Don Edkins, producer and director
Day Zero Film & Video, South Africa.

EDN has talked to Don Edkins about his many current projects including STEPS, Dare to Dream incl. the connection to the Crossing Borders programme (also see our call for submissions) and the AfriDocs initiative. Don Edkins was born in Cape Town in 1953. At the age of twenty-two he left South Africa for political reasons, and returned in 1994 to take part in his country’s first democratic elections. He completed his studies in development work and African languages, and has extensive work experience in the field of media and social change.

In April 2014, he started AfriDocs, the first weekly primetime documentary strand across sub-Saharan Africa, that screens the best African and international documentary films twice a week, as well as special focus events on relevant issues facing African audiences.

Don is furthermore a director of the non-profit organization STEPS that works in documentary film production, training and distribution. He produced the documentary projects Landscape of Memory, Steps for the Future, Why Democracy? and Why Poverty? He has co-authored a book with Iikka Vekhalahti on documentary filmmaking entitled Steps by Steps.

EDN: Can you start by telling a bit more about your background and your road into the world of documentaries?

DE: I became interested in photography during my high school years and used it to document whatever situation I was facing in my life. Having to leave South Africa because of refusing to fight in the Angolan war in 1975, I ended up photographing life in Guatemala during the military dictatorship, an LSD conference in Santa Cruz, California, the effect migrant labour had on families in Lesotho, and refugees from the Rwandan genocide. I was a member of Afrapix, a collective of South African photographers documenting life under apartheid, and then moved to Germany in 1988 where I joined a media collective, the Medienwerkstatt Freiburg. That is where I started working in documentary film, and the first two films I made – Goldwidows and The Colour of Gold – were about migrant labour in South Africa and Lesotho. Affordable video projectors became available in the early ‘90s, and so we took these films to show in rural communities in Lesotho: the experience of the incredible discussions that took place after the screenings has influenced much of my work since then. The mobile cinema we started in Lesotho has now been running continuously for more than twenty years.

EDN: You seem to be a very busy man – running both STEPS, AfriDocs and a production company in South Africa. So lets take it step by step and hear more about the different initiatives. First of all your own active filmmaking business where you run the company Day Zero Film & Video. When did you launch the company and which projects are you currently working on?

DE: I launched Day Zero Films in 1995 together with Laurence Dworkin, who had been working with a video activist group during the apartheid years in South Africa called Afravision. We named it Day Zero to reflect the start of a new democratic dispensation after apartheid. Our first film was about land restitution and redistribution under the Mandela government, called The Broken String, to document redress of the primary cause for structural poverty and inequality for black South Africans - the loss of land under colonialism.

In 2000 we began a new type of documentary production together with Iikka Vehkalahti, involving a collaboration of filmmakers, commissioning editors, institutions and civil society activists. Steps for the Future was a multi-film project around a particular social justice issue – that of HIV and AIDS – where we produced 38 films by filmmakers from Southern Africa. This became the prototype for later projects Why Democracy? and Why Poverty?

We started STEPS as a non-profit organisation to run the global projects, and gradually produced less through Day Zero Films. Mama Africa, on the life of Miriam Makeba who was our patron for Steps for the Future, directed by Mika Kaurismäki, was a co-production that premiered at the Berlinale in 2010. A current film in production is Days of Cannibalism about China and Africa, being directed by my son Teboho.

EDN: Is there a specific profile of the company and a thematic focus for the films you get involved in?

DE: No, not necessarily – but the angle that deals with social justice, especially for the STEPS films, is a constant thread. Growing up under apartheid has exposed me to the need of addressing injustices and strengthening human rights in our societies. Documentary film is a great way to do that.

EDN: The company is based in Cape Town, South Africa. Can you give some insights to the current situation for documentaries in South Africa? Is there any funding available and is there any support from the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) at the moment for documentaries?

DE: The SABC had a brief moment of operating as a real public broadcaster after the end of apartheid, providing a window for many filmmakers. But that did not last long and its support for funding and screening creative, critical documentary has dried up. The major body for film in South Africa is the National Film & Video Foundation and it has been instrumental in supporting a number of filmmakers but its resources are limited. But as filmmakers have matured in storytelling and filmmaking access to international funding has increased. And the support of funds such as the IDFA Bertha Fund and the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Fund have been crucial in this process.

There is a great need, not just in South Africa, but across Africa, to expand the documentary ecosystem. This is an opportunity for a cultural transformation for which we are actively seeking partners. Connecting filmmakers to social movements can allow civil society to have a greater voice on social and political issues. Interlinking with journalists and social media will make this louder.

EDN: In 2014, you initiated the documentary strand AfriDocs, which is available across sub-Saharan Africa. How did the idea for AfriDocs come about and can you tell more about the profile of the strand?

DE: As filmmakers we have always struggled to get our films screened to African audiences. There are some film festivals, mobile cinemas, a few independent cinemas, and we have always tried to invent new ways of getting films out. After all, films are made to be seen. African television, being previously mostly state broadcasters, wouldn’t show films that asked questions about society and politics. Digital TV channels that are not politically controlled have now opened up, but most are commercially controlled and don’t have space for creative documentary films. Three years ago a non-commercial knowledge channel was started as a CSR project by a large satellite broadcast conglomerate and we were asked if we could provide content. We suggested to host a creative documentary strand and called it AfriDocs (after running a competition to choose a name amongst our documentary friends around the world).

Broadcasting across 49 countries by satellite, and 10 countries terrestrially across 100 cities, we access a wide audience. Its primary purpose is to screen African stories and to be a platform for African filmmakers, and help build an audience for viewing documentary films. So we also show great documentary films from around the world, with a bias to the Global South. We try to curate the program to reach diverse audiences across sub-Saharan Africa. We can show feature length, one-hour, half-hour and short films.

Social media response to the films have been fantastic. Countries where we see the most uptake are Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria. And filmmakers often receive emails directly from all over sub-Saharan Africa.

AfriDocs is a partnership between the Bertha Foundation and STEPS. It is weekly, primetime, and is repeated during the day and on the weekends. We are now building AfriDocs Online.

EDN: Can you give some examples of titles screened in the AfriDocs strand?

DE: The first films we showed were the series about the global anti-apartheid struggle Have You Heard From Johannesburg? as we launched AfriDocs in April 2014, 20 years after the start of democracy in South Africa. This April we have a program about genocide and reconciliation as it is 20 years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began in South Africa, and 22 years since the Rwandan genocide. So we are showing The Act of Killing about Indonesia, My Neighbour My Killer, about reconciliation in Rwanda, and Rewind, a film about a cantata composed from the TRC hearings in South Africa.

We have screened God Loves Uganda, Miners Shot Down, Capitaine Thomas Sankara, Virunga, Beats of the Antonov, Democrats, The Dream of Shahrazad, Return to Homs, The Gulabi Gang – amongst many titles, over 100 films during the past two years. We have had focus events on African music, arts and culture; and on climate change – the latter week events during the COP negotiations.

Each year we also have the channel for a week 24/7 during the Durban International Film Festival, and in collaboration with DIFF and DStv channel [ED] our broadcast platform, we are able to bring a major African film festival to audiences across the continent with special screenings of documentaries from the festival, and an hour live broadcast each day of interviews with filmmakers and industry professionals.

EDN: If you are a producer / filmmaker from outside of Africa can you then approach AfriDocs with a film related to African issues? And what is the best way to go about this?

DE: Yes, we want to be approached, and it doesn’t only have to be films related to African issues, although those are of most interest. The best way is to write to my colleagues Theresa Hill and Patrice Carter at highlighting the story of the film, where it was made, the length, if it has screened at festivals or on TV, or has reviews, and with a link to view.

EDN: Does AfriDocs only do acquisitions or also co-production and pre-buys?

DE: We can do some pre-buys, especially when it will help a film to be finished or in some cases to get started, but these will only be with African filmmakers. We are working on building up resources to do co-productions. This can also happen through STEPS.

EDN: You are also the director of STEPS – a non-profit organisation that produces, distributes, and uses socially relevant documentary film to stimulate interest, educate, advocate, and empower communities. Currently STEPS is running the Dare to Dream programme together with the documentary organisation In-Docs in Indonesia. Can you tell more about Dare to Dream and the objectives of the programme?

DE: I am the co-founder of STEPS together with Iikka Vehkalahti, and Laurence Dworkin is the organisational director. When we evaluated our past STEPS film projects, we decided that next we wanted to provide more opportunities to filmmakers from the Global South in order to strengthen their voice and talents with more films being produced and seen. One of the current major issues facing these regions is the burgeoning youth population – and the need to reflect the challenges and opportunities they have, their dreams.

With In-Docs we found a perfect partner in In-Docs Program Director Amelia Hapsari and her team. Together we designed the project along the STEPS experience, involving filmmakers from across the region, primarily from Southeast Asia, to create something unique that will produce a collection of new films with the support of some of the best international documentary professionals. The knowledge transfer that takes place throughout the production process from story development to editing, and reaching audiences, is of great value – it’s like having a film school without walls.

EDN: Last year Dare to Dream was launched and held its initial workshop in collaboration with the Asian-European training programme Crossing Borders, which is run by EDN and Documentary Campus. How did it benefit the programme to have the two initiatives together and what are the advantages of facilitating the networking between the European and the Asian participants?

DE: Collaborating with Crossing Borders meant having more people involved, greater expertise, more discussions about our purpose and vision, more resources – and more fun. Also, importantly, it was about collaboration – and that across regions of the world. We learn more, understand more, and create friendships that can also develop into co-productions. Networking is about peer-to-peer collaboration, and the sparks that come from when people find each other creatively, has immeasurable value to people and their films.

Institutional knowledge from previous Crossing Borders workshops helped in the planning and running of what was quite a large initiative – there were 50 filmmakers working on 31 projects from 13 Asian countries, with 10 international experts to mentor the projects.

EDN: What is the next step in the Dare to Dream programme?

DE: Going into production with eight long films from Bhutan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. And starting the documentary short film part of the project that connects film organisations and filmmakers in the region. Professional support to the filmmakers will continue to be part of the programme.

EDN: And last but not least what lies next for you in the busy doc calendar?

DE: Taking Dare to Dream to Africa – where we have a median age of 19! The challenges caused by poor education, lack of employment, climate change and conflict, result in migration within Africa and to Europe, but there are real opportunities and change taking place, and we need to know those stories. We also need more content for AfriDocs and that means more documentary films from African filmmakers.

Related links & further information:


Crossing Borders 2016: Call for Submissions


Dare to Dream Asia