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EDN Member of the Month - Ryley Grunenwald, Director and Producer, South Africa / France


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 November 2014 is Ryley Grunenwald, Director and Producer, South Africa / France.

Ryley Grunenwald is a South African documentary filmmaker who has recently moved to France. She is the managing director of Marie-Vérité Films, which focuses on delivering engaging documentary content to the international market. After several years as a cinematographer, The Dawn of a New Day (2011) was Ryley’s debut as director and producer. The film won Best Director and Best Cinematographer of a Documentary at the 2012 South African Film and Television Awards.  Ryley has furthermore served on the board of the Documentary Filmmakers’ Association of South Africa and she holds a Masters in Arts specialising in Film and Television. She has just completed her latest documentary The Shore Break, which has been selected for IDFA Competition for First Appearance 2014.

EDN has among other things talked to Ryley about her film being selected for IDFA and about the current documentary environment in South Africa.

EDN: Can you start by telling a bit more about your background and what drove you in to making documentaries?

RG: While growing up, I wasn’t exposed to much documentary beyond wildlife and at film school, the focus was on fiction films (with documentary somewhat regarded as a “lesser art”). However, while working as a freelance cinematographer I shot a documentary series and was surprised at how much documentary had to offer. I loved working with down to earth people and the challenge of making beautiful visuals despite less equipment and having less control of the filming environment. Most of all, I felt that documentary content had a greater capacity to challenge me and audiences than fiction content. At one point I had to decide between shooting the first television drama series I was offered and making my first documentary The Dawn of New Day. I took a risk and it was worth it.

EDN: You have founded your own production company Marie-Vérité Films. What was your motivation for founding your own company what are the profile and objectives of the company?

RG: At the time I was raising finance for The Dawn of a New Day. I was so obsessed with making the film that I hadn’t really thought of life beyond its completion. On visiting a potential financier, the Gauteng Film Commission in South Africa (GFC), they advised me to start my own company, which I did.  It took their encouragement for me to get out of a freelancing mentality and take the leap of imagining a career in creating my own films. The focus of the company has been feature length documentaries though I’m open to many formats of fiction and documentary. What counts is the story.

EDN: On your previous film The Dawn of a New Day you worked as director, producer and cinematographer. How did you manage to joggle all 3 roles at the same time and what did you learn from the experience?

RG: On The Dawn of a New Day, I was spending months living on a Christian non-profit hospital ship that had limited bed space – even if there had been budget for three people to cover three roles, we would have had to share one bed which wasn’t going to fly. I arrived in Benin alone and broke but along the way volunteers of the hospital ship offered their assistance with driving, production stills, translation, and carrying gear. One of them, a deck officer, offered to carry my tripod and we ended up getting married. Even if I set out to make a film on my own, its completion was only possible because others came along for the ride.

I will not deny that covering multiple roles leads to compromises and it is exhausting. I decided I would never do that to myself again. For future films I knew I would just have to raise enough budget to at least have a camera assistant and sound recordist on set with me.

EDN: You have just completed your latest project The Shore Break. What is the film about and how did you get involved in this subject?

RG: The Shore Break follows the family feud of two cousins who have opposing views on how to develop their ancestral lands on the Wild Coast of South Africa. After titanium is discovered on their land, one cousin collaborates with the mining company while the other resists it, believing that it will threaten their traditional way of life. Meanwhile, their traditional King and Queen who speak out against the developments, are deposed by the South African Government who replaces the King with his pro-mining nephew.

I got involved in the story because the Wild Coast has always been my favourite place – it’s breathtakingly beautiful in a rugged and mysterious way.  On a fishing trip with my father I met Nonhle Mbuthuma, the female cousin against the mining. She was so hardcore and got my attention. My love for the Wild Coast and my fascination for the Shakespearean elements to Nonhle’s story convinced me to make The Shore Break.

EDN: The Shore Break is co-produced by you and Odette Geldenhuys. How did it make a difference for you having another producer on board?

RG: After The Dawn of A New Day, it was such a pleasure to work with Odette. It has been so good to have someone to bounce ideas off, brainstorm and share the heavy workload with. Also, there were times I was shooting on the Wild Coast with no cell phone signal or access to emails and it was a relief to know that Odette was holding the fort. I’ve also appreciated the fact that Odette is older and wiser than me – if things don’t go according to plan she’s good at putting things into perspective.

EDN: Has the film been long underway and how has it been financed?

RG: I started developing The Shore Break in mid 2011 so it has been a couple of years in the making. Financing documentaries anywhere in the world is tricky and South Africa has its unique challenges and opportunities. On one hand there is financial support from the South African Government through grants from the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), regional film organisations and in particular the Department of Trade and Industry’s (the dti’s) substantial film tax incentives. On the other hand there is very little buy-in from local broadcasters. Our public broadcaster, the SABC, has been in financial and managerial crisis for many years. The SABC, and now even some of the so-called independent broadcasters, are highly unlikely to broadcast anything politically controversial. In recent years, several hard-hitting South African documentaries have been produced. Unfortunately they are more likely to be seen by international audiences than the South African public.

For this reason, we’ve had to rely on both local and international funding in order to produce The Shore Break. In addition to support from the dti, NFVF and the Gauteng Film Commission (GFC), our funding has come from the Ford Foundation, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Fondation Alter-Ciné, the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Documentary Fund and a CBA WorldView grant after winning the 2013 WorldView IDFA Summer School Award. We were also fortunate to have the early support of Murray Battle from Knowledge Network in Canada.

EDN: The film will premiere at IDFA - International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, which takes place this month and it has been selected for the IDFA Competition for First Appearance. What does this selection mean to you and what are you looking forward to when taking part in the festival?

RG: Having The Shore Break be selected for IDFA and for one of its competitive programmes is a dream come true. After taking part in the 2013 IDFA Summer School, which really helped shape the film, it makes it even more rewarding to have the world premiere in Amsterdam. I think IDFA will be a great launching pad for the film, particularly with IDFA’s strong market opportunities and loyal documentary audiences.  I really look forward to chatting with people after the film.

EDN: How do you usually find projects and themes for your documentaries?

RG: I have to be obsessed enough with the story to dedicate a few years of my time and energy. We usually aren’t in the documentary industry to get rich so the process has to be more rewarding than the financial sacrifices one makes to produce a cinema vérité styled film. With The Shore Break, the complexity of the story and its spectacular setting were irresistible. I’d also had a strange dream several years before about the Wild Coast, which was confirmation to me that I was on the right track.

EDN: You recently moved to France but until then you were based in Johannesburg in South Africa. Can you tell more about the current situation for the documentary industry there?

RG: I moved to France in mid September after my husband needed to relocate for work. However, nothing reminds me of my South African nationality more than when the French telemarketers hang up on me after I try to answer the phone in French. There have been some exciting developments in South African documentary. With filmmakers having fewer opportunities with local broadcasters, more are challenged to compete in the international market. Some recent South African documentaries include Khalo Matabane’s Nelson Mandela: the myth & me, Rehad Desai’s Miners Shot Down and Jolynn Minaar’s Unearthed. Five South African films will be screening at IDFA 2014 including Francois Verster’s The Dream of Shahrazad, which is in the Masters Programme.

EDN: You are also a member and previous board member of DFA - The Documentary Filmmakers’ Association in South Africa. What is the foundation and aim of this organisation and how does it help the local documentary industry?

RG: The DFA is a volunteer run association that aims to protect, assist, and promote South African documentary filmmakers. It shares the latest documentary related opportunities and news with its membership, lobbies certain issues and organises South African delegations to documentary markets.

EDN: In recent years there have been several delegations from South Africa to e.g. Hot Docs and IDFA. Do you have any information on the outcome of the delegations and how they benefit the involved filmmakers?

RG: These South African delegations have primarily been funded by the dti and the delegations to IDFA and Hot Docs have been organised by the DFA. I can say from personal experience that they are benefiting filmmakers and resulting in more South African documentaries reaching the international market. In 2012 I was able to attend Hot Docs with a South African delegation. We pitched The Shore Break at the Hot Docs Forum, after being coached by the EDN, and soon got support from Knowledge Network. Now in 2014 we have the film in competition at IDFA, and I am able to attend thanks to the DFA and the dti. So many of us South African documentary filmmakers did not know how to compete in the international market because we were rarely exposed to top documentaries and had limited training in documentary marketing and distribution. These delegations have started to change that dramatically.

EDN: From which sources can you obtain funding for documentaries in South Africa?

RG: The film grants available in South Africa for documentaries are relatively modest but essential. Funding for development, production, market attendance and marketing and distribution can be available from South African Government funded organisations like the NFVF and regional film organisations like the Gauteng Film Commission or KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission.

The dti’s SA Film & TV Production and Co-production Film Incentive can provide 35% tax incentive on South African qualifying production expenditure. This has helped the South African film and television industry tremendously although most South African documentary filmmakers have struggled to meet the criteria which includes a total budget of at least R2.5 million (around 180 000 Euros). There is also a relatively new incentive for South African emerging black filmmakers who can receive up to a 50% tax incentive.

EDN: Can you give any advice to filmmakers / producers interested in working in South Africa?

RG: South Africa has a lot to offer in terms of a wide range of beautiful locations, incredible weather as well as crew and gear rental houses of an international standard. Furthermore, with the weak South African Rand, European filmmakers will find that their Euros can go a long way.

South Africa has official international co-production treaties with countries including Germany, France, Italy, UK, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Foreign productions which are shot on location in the South Africa can qualify for an uncapped 20% tax inventive with the dti on qualifying South African production expenditure, with further incentives available to those who conduct their post-production in South Africa.

(For more details on the dti’s film incentives here is the link:

EDN: What comes next for you after IDFA? Are you already working on new projects?

RG: I do have another film project on the cards although after IDFA the next premiere will be having my first child in January. After maternity leave I’d like to further develop the new film while working on the distribution of The Shore Break. As they say, when you’ve completed a film, that’s when the real work begins.


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