||28 June 2009 07:00
Devi Sankaree Govender
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
Mahendra puppet (News presenter): "Good evening... goeienaand! I'm Mahendra and this is my hair."
Devi Sankaree Govender (Carte Blanche presenter): "And I'm Devi Sankaree Govender and this is my real hair. The clip you've just seen is from a show which should have aired on South African television, but never did. The powers that be cut the strings to ensure that these puppets have no voice."
"ZNews" was a collaboration between cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro and former television executive Thierry Cassuto.
Thierry Cassuto (Producer - Znews.TV): "Many years ago the creators of a French show called Les Guignols' came to me - before it was on TV and pitched it to me. I was a TV executive. And I loved the show but I didn't have enough money, because we were a new channel, to do it. But I stayed friends with them. Their show was picked up by a pay channel, Canal+ and it became a runaway hit - it's been running for 20 years now on French TV daily."
When he immigrated to this country 12 years ago, Thierry believed South Africa - as a beacon of democracy - would be the perfect place for a similar show.
Thierry: "These puppets, they take us back to our childhood. There's an immediate connection. You talk puppets, you see puppets - they don't need to speak, they don't need to have elaborate dialogue - you look at them, you laugh!"
Like "Les Guignols", "ZNews" features life-size puppets that poke fun at celebrities and politicians.
Thierry: "We believe that one way of keeping people in check is - for the citizen in this country - is to make sure you can laugh at them. I think it's much better than being up in arms. It is better than promoting violence. It's better than saying, We would kill for someone.' No, we say, We will laugh at you' ...how scary is that? We will laugh at you' - is that a threat?"
The pilot episode was made just after the 2007 ANC conference in Polokwane, which provided rich material for "ZNews".
Thabo Mbeki puppet: "And so you are back, from outer space... I just walk in to find you here, with that sad look upon your face... I should have changed that stupid lock, I should have made you leave your key... [image of Zuma puppet appears on screen] If I had known for just one second you'd be back to bother me... go on now, go out the door... just turn around now, cos you are not welcome anymore...'"
Thierry: "ZNews tickles the funny bone of the people of South Africa. And the leaders? It's supposed to irritate them sometimes. It's supposed to generate responses. It's supposed to make people laugh or say, Hey, you're going too far. This is not on - you can't do this with our president..., or you can't do this with the leader of the opposition..., or you can't do this with our favourite soccer player.' But we say, Why not?'"
Tumi Tsukudu (Scriptwriter): "This is South Africa, we slaughter any sacred cows in traditional ceremonies - that's what we intended to do. Nothing was off-limits. So we intended to make the country laugh at itself."
The scriptwriters included Tumi Tsukudu, Lauren Beukes and the shadowy columnist and author, Ben Trovato.
Ben Trovato (Scriptwriter): "In a country like this which is a bit of a pressure cooker, I think the satirists are like the valve on the pressure cooker. And every time we can get somebody either to look at themselves and laugh, at their folly, or look at other people and laugh it let's off a bit of steam."
Lauren Beukes (Scriptwriter): "And it makes people see things in a different way. If you go on TV and rant about everything that's wrong it's boring, it's tedious - people tune that stuff out immediately. So, humour is a way of getting to the heart of things."
Or to the liver, as in the case of the Dr Manto puppet who operates on a hapless patient, who doesn't survive.
Dr Manto puppet: "[Squeezes half a lemon into patient's open innards] Huh? That's the eighth one today. I guess you don't need this [removes gold wristwatch from patient's arm] or that [removes the liver of patient as well]. Alright nurse, good job. How about a drink before the next one?"
The SABC paid R1-million for the pilot to be produced, but a full series of "ZNews" was never commissioned.
Devi: "So did the head honcho say, No go'?"
Thierry: "They never said in those many words, No go.' It was just buried in the bureaucracy - the red tape, the clip of Dr Manto operating on a patient and pulling out a liver. And the fact that we made it a real cow liver. They found it gross and shocking. And they also heard that we were being disrespectful of one of our elders' which was then the minister of health."
Ben: "I also grew up with being told to respect you elders, but I always thought it was like, Do your homework,' or Tuck your shirt in' - those things that your parents tell you that you can ignore. And in white' culture, we don't respect our elders. We abuse our parents and shout at them, slap them around and eventually put them in an old-age home to die. At least I did. It's very different in other cultures perhaps?"
Devi: "Freedom of speech is enshrined in the Constitution, but when it comes to making fun of our politicians it seems South Africa has lost its nerve. Funnily enough, another African country has thrown caution to the wind."
Kenya has started broadcasting a weekly political satire show on Citizen TV called "The XYZ Show". Its creator Gado has been described as the Kenyan Zapiro.
Gado (Producer -The XYZ Show): "A society which cannot laugh at itself is a very dangerous society."
Given the post-election violence that tore Kenya apart only 18 months ago, it's all the more encouraging that the country is now laughing at itself on "The XYZ Show".
Gado: "It's important to allow discussion. We cannot always agree, but it is very important that we allow different voices - even when we don't agree with them."
The power struggle within Kenya's coalition government provides fertile ground for Gado's humour. President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga feature regularly.
Odinga: "This is my private toilet, and this is also my private sink! You don't have a toilet here! You are meant to give me due respect because I'm the honourable Prime Minister. You have no right to be here!"
Devi: "Have you been sued yet?"
Gado: "Not yet. You end up offending people - it comes with the territory. So you expect that. And we'll probably get sued."
But it's not just Kenyan politicians that are fair game.
[Clip "The XYZ Show"] "President Obama has been accused of not being Kenyan enough. But XYZ will prove to you once and for all that President Barack Obama is indeed Kenyan all the time. [Simulation of homemade video recording showing Kenyan garments laid out in Obama's room and bathroom]."
Gado was in Cape Town recently to discuss political satire at the World Economic Forum. We asked him what he thought about the fact that "ZNews" has never been screened in South Africa.
Gado: "The public broadcaster in Kenya would not have aired this kind of project, so I can understand why the SABC would not have aired this kind of project. But, having said that, I totally disagree that South Africans are not ready for that kind of project."
We took the puppets onto the streets of Cape Town to see what South Africans thought of them. They were an instant hit, with crowds of people taking pictures, waving hello and shrieking with laughter.
Devi: "Do you want to see them on television?"
Devi: "Do you think we are being disrespectful by showing our politician's like this?"
Crowd: "No, not at all."
The puppets JZ and Godzille recently flew to Johannesburg to join the protest march outside the SABC.
Protestor: "We have lost faith in the current Board and Executive management of the SABC."
But perhaps the broadcaster's self-censorship has more to do with the fact that President Zuma is still suing Zapiro for the Lady Justice cartoon.
Devi: "How much of this do you think has to do with an outstanding issue - legal issue - between Zapiro and Jacob Zuma?"
Thierry: "I think there's a perception that ZNews is Zaprio's own show - which I it isn't. Zaprio is part of a team, and is the co-creator of this concept with me. I do think that the whole controversy and the fact that Zapiro is being sued by Zuma is definitely hurting us. And maybe if this hadn't happened we would already be on air."
Tumi: "I wonder how it would be if Zapiro was black', they would have to find some other excuse. I would blame a lot of it on Jonathan for the show getting cancelled. He has irritated the right kind of people who've pulled the strings."
Thierry: "We're all laughing at our politicians, celebrities, people in the public space in private, in the comfort of our homes, in pubs or in shebeens. Why can't we do that in public, on TV, together? And because that would be a bond - a collective bond. If we laugh together, we can do everything together."
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.