In Africa TV shows outnumber and outright lie (12/01)

US filmmakers stand accused of exploiting Africans with slippery offers while putting lives and the environment at risk. In fact, the latest project to choose an African location, CBS’ successful Survivor: Africa, is currently facing a lawsuit. Local communities in and around the Shaba Game Reserve in remote northeastern Kenya want $142,000 to compensate for disruptions during the show’s production. Meanwhile, in Mozambique the producers of Ali, the new film about the beloved boxer, have been charged with trying to cut costs at the expense of poor extras.


“They exploit people,” says Angela June, a pregnant 23-year-old who agreed to appear as an extra for a scene shot in the rain. “At the end of 12 hours, they paid me $20 rather than the $60 promised, and so I left.” While she understands that Mozambique isn’t the US, she points out, “People should at least be respected as human beings.”


Blaise Nato, a spokesperson for Columbia Pictures, protests, “No one was promised $60. The payment for scenes was negotiated up front and there was no reneging on that.” Extras made $10-20 per day, he says, and all company obligations were met. Pat Kingsley, a publicist for director Michael Mann, adds that it was ridiculous for African extras to think they would be paid as much as $60 when “they don’t make that in a year.” A spokesperson for Will Smith, who plays Ali in the film, called it a disturbing situation, but demurred that the actor had nothing to do with hiring extras.

Asked about a raffle, in which just a few people received prizes rather than the standard cash compensation, Columbia insisted that this is normal practice in the filming of long distance crowd scenes. People come for the fun of being in a movie, spokespersons offer as a reason for nonpayment.

“So, why the choice of Mozambique?” wondered Milan Vesely, a Kenyan journalist living in the US. “Why a nation still emerging from a debilitating civil war? One with little government and no experience in modern movie making?” The answer came from a production spokesperson who told him, on condition of anonymity, that the producers knew the extras could be paid little or nothing. And when local organizers insisted that spreading money around in poverty-stricken Maputo would lead to riots, that became the justification for the raffle. “At one time, it was even considered that we give Will Smith T-shirts as payment,” the source admitted. But this was rejected as too provocative.” Smith was “kept in the dark in this regard.”


Meanwhile, the Waso Trust Land Project, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Kenya, is representing the communities that want CBS and Mwandinga Productions to admit liability and compensate them for injuries and damages to individuals and the environment. The communities include Samburu and Boran, whose names were appropriated as titles for the two Survivor “tribes.” In September, a lawyer for the NGO issued an ultimatum: admit liability and propose a settlement within a week, or face a lawsuit. Not surprisingly, the network and producers didn’t meet the deadline.


According to attorney Patrick Kiage, the communities, “whose survival would, were, and will continue to be negatively impacted by activities related to the shooting of this show, were neither consulted nor appraised before the shooting of Survivor III.” He accuses CBS agents of secretly signing a lease agreement with the Isiolo County Council, which led to the takeover of huge tracts of land in the Shaba Game Reserve between May and August. Tight security kept his clients and other stakeholders from seeing “the enormous and disastrous destruction of the fragile Shaba ecosystem behind the curtain.”


A preliminary environmental assessment of the reserve and its environs after the shooting “is a testament to gross, callous, and actionable degradation of … the environment and ecology of the treasured natural reserve,” he adds. “The sudden and violent intrusion of a human population numbering 1000 or more, the introduction of numerous domestic animals, the construction of numerous huts in two villages ringed by electric fences; the imposition of generators producing some 1000 kilwatts at the George Adamson camp, not to mention horses and light aircraft, all drastically altered the quiet wilderness nature and character of the Shaba.”


Survivor was part of the first wave of “reality TV” shows, which use contestants rather than actors. Last June, a press release confirmed that the Kenyan Reserve had been selected as the hotly contested location for the program’s third season. Subsequently, the entire area was closed off to everyone except production personnel. “Previously used in the highly acclaimed film Born Free, this location is ideal for the river and scrubland background, adding just the exotic touch the producers were looking for,” stated CBS spokesperson Chris Ender. Some Kenyans were asked to sign confidentiality agreements before being used to test “challenges” being devised.


Kenyan environmentalists became concerned about the effects that weeks of production would have on flora and fauna. When members of the Waso Trust Land Project and several journalists tried to enter the area to check, they were detained by security staff. Upon release, they met with the production team to discuss their concerns.

“Why were such heavy-handed procedures necessary to prevent local journalists from inspecting what is normally a public game reserve?” they asked. In response, Ender insisted that privacy had to be maintained, but that series Executive Producer Mark Burnett always respected the environment in which his shows were filmed. “He has learned through trial and error how to return the land to the same condition, and in some cases better condition,” Ender said.


Whether that’s true may be determined in court. Meanwhile, many Kenyans still don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Survivor won’t be aired on TV in their country: It’s far too expensive for local stations. And other than some increased bookings at a nearby hotel, notes Vesely, there will be little financial reward – unless some locals negotiated Screen Actors Guild (SAG) wages. Asked how Africans could reap greater benefits from Western TV and film productions, a SAG official in Los Angeles replied, “Form a unionized association of actors.”


Sounds reasonable. However, the Mozambique experience with Ali appears to demonstrate that US filmmakers have little regard for Africans. During filming, reports indicated that the soccer stadium in Machava resembled a detention camp. Thousands of young men rattled the locked gates, pleading for something to eat or drink. This wasn’t what they expected when they responded to flyers beckoning them to “come and see the filming of the movie.” Promised food, drinks, and prizes, they got nothing. By nightfall, after a full day in the stadium, the filming still wasn’t finished. The “extras” were finally released at 4 a.m., after being told that payment would be made only when all the filming was completed.


“We were hungry, tired, and it was a dirty trick to play on people who struggle just to survive,” said one extra, Madelena Muntimucu. Claiming she was promised money, not a raffle or a prize, as compensation, she said that not even transportation home – yet another promise – was provided.