Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mma Ramotswe on BTV

The books by Alexander McCall Smith about the traditionally built detective Mma Ramotswe have been made into a movie and a series shown on BBC. Lucky for TV viewers in Botswana our local television station has been able to air the movie and the series on Mondays and Wednesdays after the 9pm news.

The books are set in Botswana and at the time of filming our government paid money to the production company to get them to film the movie and the series here in Botswana. The production company was planning to film in South Africa where there are far more trained personnel and other facilities needed for such a big production. To do the same thing in Botswana would be very costly as much of what they needed would have to be brought in. But the government of Botswana thought the movies would help to attract tourists to our country if the film was shot here so used tax money to entice them to our side of the border. I, for one, think it was one of the better investments of our public funds. If the local newspaper columnists are anything to go by, I may be alone in my belief.

Last week, Sonny O. Serite a columnist in The Telegraph had a scathing commentary on the programmes. His beef comes in a three guises:

1. Jill Scott who plays Mma Ramotswe, and her secretary played by Aniki Noni Rose are vilified by Serite for not producing a perfect Setswana accent.

2. Serite claims that big roles played by South African actors could have easily been played by Batswana actors.

3. He says the plots are simplistic -"the story line is too childish and it is very difficult to follow the series and connect what you saw on Monday with what you see on Wednesday".

Serite says from the outset that "....I am one of those who were never caught in on the hype that came with the release of the movie..." later he admits to having never watched it until it was free on BTV. The assumption is he also did not read the books, though he doesn't mention that clearly. He claims the movie was meant to ..."depict Botswana and the lifestyle of Batswana..."

I believe Serite operates from quite a few false premises. The Mma Ramotswe books are not nonfiction; the movie is not a documentary. It is a work of fiction. Just as Mr. Bean is a character based on a man in Britain, Mma Ramotswe is a character based on a woman in Botswana. I doubt anyone with sense makes the assumption when watching Mr. Bean that this is how all British people are; the same can be said for Mma Ramotswe. The books are a gentle, comical view of Batswana. A much nicer take than the normal picture given by the world of Africa: the land of disease, starvation, and inept governments. A breath of fresh air if you ask me.

As has been mentioned over and over throughout this debate in Botswana, we are barely walking when it comes to film and television production. The few Batswana actors with a CV longer than half a page all work in South Africa or overseas. The Mma Ramotswe films gave many Batswana opportunities to learn more about the film industry- both in front and behind the camera. I, personally, know many people who worked on the production and can add it to their CVs to boost their chances of getting more significant positions for the next production that comes along.

If you look through the cast list you will see quite a few Batswana with substantial speaking roles in the series. For example, Lebogang Motubudi does an excellent job as Mma Makhutsi's brother who is sick with AIDS. It is a speaking role spreading over a few episodes. Joe Matome has a speaking role as the curio shop owner. Musicians such as Tshilo Baitsile and Gaolape Basuhi appeared in the movie and were involved in the soundtrack. I'm only mentioning a few, but to say Batswana did not benefit from this production is disingenuous.

We also need to accept that film production is a business. It would be an unpardonable risk to cast an unknown in the major roles. People like Jill Scott and Aniki Noni Rose are famous Hollywood names. The accents might have been better, but few outside Botswana would even recognise the difference, and, in the end, weren't these films made for a foreign audience? Didn't the government invest that money so foreigners could get a look at our beautiful country and decide they would like to visit?

I think Serite and those of his ilk have seriously lost the plot. It is more of the same. Batswana have the terrible tendency to always look for the dark side. Why is no one mentioning the sterling performances by Batswana actors in the production? Why are they not happy that a writer who lived in Botswana for many years (contributing significantly to the development of this country while here) has gone on to write such delightful and popular books that have shown even the most geographically challenged foreigners that a country called Botswana exists?

The PHD (Pull Him/Her Down) Syndrome is alive and well in my country, I'm afraid, and it is doing nobody any good.


bonita said...

At least one of the series was shown over here on cable—I missed it because I don't have cable. So I can't comment on actors and their accent or the validity of casting choices.

However, the concept tickled my interest and I bought (& read) the first 7 volumes of the series. Mr Serite is correct, the plots are simple but they are endearing. I don't imagine they totally reflect Botswana life today, but a life wished for when things were simpler and even a 'modern' Batswana (sp?) might rely on tradition to help solve problems.

Generally, I don't expect fiction mystery series to give me a true-to-life image of life today. (Except for Peretsky's VI Warshawsky books.) However I did come away with an impression of an altogether calm and gentle life style, far different from the "disease, starvation, and inept governments" usually served under an African title.

I totally do not get the statement ""the story line is too childish and it is very difficult to follow the series " If it's that damn simple it should be easy to follow. The fact that he could not pick up the plot thread over three days implies that the story did, indeed, have some richness.

Was the televised series that distant from the books?

Lauri said...

It's been a bit since I read the books. I think the TV series is a compilation of various cases in the books. It really is done so nicely. I love the secretary. I actually met the actress at Music Camp the year before last. If you get a chance you must really try to see it.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

The PHD (Pull Him/Her Down) Syndrome is alive and well here in the US too! I get so tired of critics, they seem to take glee in criticizing anything and everything that isn't totally dark and focused on the scum of the earth.

How would the landscape of the lacking film industry in Botswana change if no efforts were made, for crying out loud? Shame on those that attack so viscously those that are making strides.

Anonymous said...

I am actually watching the first series at the moment and was keen to know what you thought of it because I am really enjoying it. I haven't seen Jill Scott act before (I only know her as a fantastic singer) and I think she is excellent in the role. I like the whimsical nature of the plot lines as well as the incredible scenery. Last night they were driving along and there were two giraffes right there. It was amazing.

At various points I think to myself :'I wonder if Lauri's ever been there?'

I look forward to every episode!

Lauri said...

Selma- I think the filming is lovely too. The place where her office is and the hair salon and other shops was built just for filming. It is all still there in Gaborone. We visited it at Music Camp. I know there were some great scenes of the moonscape of Makgadikgadi Pans and I've been there too. Of course they've sort of condensed the country. You certianly wouldn't find any giraffes along the A1 (out main road heading north) nor in Gaborone or MmaRamotswe's home of Mochudi. All the big wild animals are up north or in parks.

Elizabeth- You are so right. If we waited for the government run BTV to help develop the film industry in the country my grandchildren would be combing out their white hair before we'd see any progress.

Suko said...

Nice to have found your Botswana blog!

I enjoyed this series on HBO very much. I am also a big fan of the books--I've read them all.