INPUT 2008, Joburg

INPUT started on Saturday. It’s strange that many people who work in TV may not know a thing about it, so here goes…

It started about 30 years ago, when a bunch of like-minded folks from public broadcasters such as the CBC, BBC and PBS got together to watch and discuss the art of documentary making. It’s developed into a huge, expensive and quite amazing gathering each year and now spans the world, with members from South Korea to Kazakhstan, from Australia to Brazil.

They hold mini-INPUTs of their own, with some of the best documentaries and productions coming to these huge annual confererences. This is the second time it’s been held in Africa, and the first in Joburg. And you can blame my good friend, Sylvia Vollenhoven and southern Africa’s organizer, for that.

I’m here because it’s a good excuse to combine a journey of my own with a chance to sit in on some of the best, most powerful, innovative televsion in the world today.  They come from dozens of countries and in dozens of languages with one thing in common — they’re all amazing in their own particular ways.

Huge rooms with hundreds of chairs are jammed with hundreds of fannies, faces glued to the screens.  At the end of each screening, the folks get to ask a few questions, such as why didn’t you ask this question? or what happened to the villain in the story?

Independent and starving producers mingle with high-salaried staff producers at big broadcasters. They’re here to learn new techniques from the best, to learn from the mistakes of others, to see and be seen, to make deals, trade cards, and maybe get laid.

It’s at the Sandton Convention Centre this year, in a safe and formerly white northern suburb of Johannesburg. Some expect nothing less from an INPUT in Africa, even if it is South Africa.  Others are clearly uncomfortable at the incredible cost, the appalling glitz and downright gaudiness of the locale. The cost of one party would likely feed one or three villages in another part of Africa for a year.  Still, it’s important even for some of the latter types to be here. If they weren’t, they might never make that connection to that key person who might trigger the funds necessary to get the next documentary made.

I watch two docs this afternoon. I don’t read the lineup first.  I enter at random. It’s a testament to the high quality of these productions that they are both mindblowingly excellent.

The first documentary is from Mexico, in Spanish with subtitles. A woman journalist takes on powerful foreign businessmen, local politicians including the governor of Puebla State, and the police. They all collude to deny, coverup, threaten and then arrest the woman who is raped and on her way to a quick but ugly death in a ditch if not for the sudden interest by other journos and international human rights organizations. Her crime? Exposing those fine people of their proclivity to buying, trading, and selling children for sex. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have a happy ending as the political and justice system is geared to protect the rich and powerful but not the rights of the average citizen much less the weakest.

The next documentary comes from Cameroon, in French West Africa. The story this time is about a government-sanctioned death squad called the Operational Command. But these folks don’t kill for political purposes. They kill at the behest of neighbours; the reasons as flimsy as greed, jealousy, envy, hatred, a personal slight that no one can remember. 

A group of men are arrested, taken down a secluded road, shot and killed. Their crime? A neighbour felt slighted that one of the men had a two-storey apartment and she didn’t. She called the death squad in on a bogus accusation. The soldiers arrested men from an entire block of apartments for  petty theft charges and executed them without trial.

There are two things that blow the mind in this documentary. First, the calm questioning by the interviewer as she discusses the killings with one of the soldiers. The second is the frightening matter-of-factness as the soldier describes what, how and why he and his fellow soldiers did what they did. he speaks with calm deliberateness directly to the camera.

We pick them up. We take them down the road. Sometimes they offer us money, or give us money to not shoot them. We kill them anyway.

What then?

We celebrate. We sing and dance. We might have food and maybe wishkey or beer.

It is said directly to camera with a smile on this killer’s face.

This story, too, has no happy ending, no final come-uppance. The villains get away.  This is real life in parts of the world.

That’s what INPUT is all about.  To remind people why public broadcasting is not only necessary but vital in a world increasingly dominated by commercial TV that would rather heed a politician’s call or a policeman’s suggestion to look the other way.

Pictures to follow.

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