#REPRESENTATIONMATTERS: PULANE BOESAK ON CREATING ANIMATED CHARACTERS FOR THE YOUNG, BLACK CHILD

The upcoming release of movies like ‘Black Panther’ (an American superhero film that focuses on African characters, culture, and history, and features a stellar, all-star black cast (think Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Forest Whitaker) – as well as the local release of ‘Liyana‘, has brought a sharp focus on the importance of creating content that is relevant, affirming and visually representative of us as Africans.

One such agent of change, who’s reconstructing the dialogue around how black people are represented in media is Pulane Boesak… 

“My work is honestly in response to my 10 year old son, who one day turned to me and said; “Cartoon Network doesn’t like brown people, there’s no one that looks like me”. For a young black child to already feel ‘unliked’ by main stream content ‘designed for children’ at that age, made me mad”.

Together with a friend and story partner, Chisanga Kabinga, they’ve positively channeled this frustration towards the creation of 3 animation projects, namely; ‘When Hlumi Sneezes’, ‘The Growers’ and ‘Power Play’.

One of the animations ‘Power Play’ is set in ‘Orange Farm’ – a township south of Johannesburg. The aim is to impact the relationship children (and caregivers) have with their environment. “If we can change our relationship with our environment, perhaps we can care for it differently, and feel differently about where we come from”. ‘When Hlumi Sneezes’ follows a little boy from Eshowe in KZN and his super-smart little sister, Lu on a mystical journey of amusing blunders, resulting in a reluctant superhero.

Born to anti-apartheid activists, Allan Boesak and Dorothy Rose Martin, Pulane tells us where it all started;

“I grew up in the Western Cape neighbourhood of Bellville-South, in an even tinier suburb called Glenhaven. My household was one of spirituality, readings of Steve Biko, Malcolm X, Robert Sobukwe, records of Malopoets, Miles Davis, Miriam Makeba and smells of chicken curry. My father was the local Dutch Reformed minister, which made my mother the local minister’s wife. That home base laid the foundation in shaping my thoughts, my spirit and my belief that one person can create a better world for another”.

BL: Wow… can ya’ll say POWER! So, how did this project come about?

PB: I’ve been in the television industry in various positions for more than 15 years. I’ve worked at SABC 1 Programming, as well as at an international children’s brand, creating big game shows, daily dramas and international-format programmes. This has given me a thorough understanding of the international and local content landscape. I have, however, found a misalignment with how we as black consumers view ourselves and how we are portrayed in mainstream media.

When we ask for black children’s content we are given talking animal characters as opposed to characters that look like black children ‘to make it more internationally appealing’. It is a default acceptance that characters who look like black children will alienate a commercial audience. 

“Young black children are being subtly informed on a daily basis that there are no superheroes that look like them. And if they sound like them, and have a name like them, they’re a monkey, or a hippo, or a zebra. Our animation project is an active refusal to continue acceptance of that default setting”

BL: This is important work! Tell us a bit more about the animation project?

PB: I work with 2 small animation studios – both 100% black owned and run: Dippoppaai Studios and Digital Characters. Ear Candy Audio Studio has come on board as our partner in completing the audio design for the 3 animation pilots.  We really believe in the magic of the African child and want them to fiercely believe it too. Effortlessly. It must come as easily as breathing.

That’s why we spend a lot of time on character development and have dubbed the series into languages and mannerisms of children in our community. It’s essential that our primary target market see and recognise themselves.

“For us, #RepresentationMatters isn’t just a popular hashtag – it really underpins the thread of our content”.

BL: Well, you have us all inspired. Tell us, which #BossLady are you crushing on and why?

PB: My mother, as many mothers of our generation, was the original #BossLady – political activist, social activist, mother of four, outstanding scholar (she completed 2 degrees while raising us), ran the local soup kitchen, and volunteered at every children’s home organisation within a 20 km radius.  I have a picture of her during the mid-1980s because that image just embodied who I wanted to be at age 10: Fearless in the face of danger, grounded in determination. That’s what she was for me. A voice. (I also used that voice she gave me to give her varying degrees of hell between ages 15 through to 21 – *I’m reeaaalllllly sorry Mom 🙂

Mama Dorothy

 

Mama Winnie Mandela is a permanent fixture on my list, and ironically, another ‘Winnie’ – Winnie Serote. I salute her for doing with Skeem Saam (a popular drama on SABC 1) what everyone was betting against – she silently took a radio drama and grew it into a daily soap. It’s authentic, she’s authentic and that’s why it succeeds.

BL: When do you launch?

PB: We are in the pilot pre-production phase on two of the animation projects. We have amazing voice-talent on board and are incredibly excited about the next steps. It’s been a difficult and long journey, but we are taking both projects to be screened at MIPCOM this year. While there are talks, no local broadcast deal has been concluded yet. 

MIPCOM is an annual trade show held in Cannes, France traditionally in the month of October and running for 4 days. The event is geared towards the television industry. It is primarily attended by representatives of television studios and broadcasters, who use the event as a marketplace to buy and sell new programmes and formats for international distribution, as well as celebrities to promote programming.

#BossLadies can follow the journey on LinkedIn (Pulane Boesak) or on Twitter: @pulaneb

Talk about driving change through storytelling! We’re inspired by Pulane. Have you given any thought to the programmes and media your children are exposed to? What conscious efforts have you taken in changing the narrative around how they view themselves? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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