As the most expensive movie ever made with African American actors depicting a celebrated black American hero who felt close to his African heritage, the movie producers of Ali turned up in Machava in Mozambique for authentic audience scenes.
“There was a fight scene where a large number of extras was needed. It was clearly said to people to come down and see a Hollywood movie being made,” Blaise Nato, spokesman for Columbia Pictures, states.
“There was a raffle of motor scooters, refrigerators, athletic shoes and clothing. Arrangements were also made for food and drink.”
“Not so”‘ insists Madelena Muntimuca, an undernourished, 46-year-old single woman who survives by selling charcoal briquettes on Maputo’s potholed streets. “We worked, clapping, cheering and dancing on instruction only to find out there was no food and no prizes or pay. We only got a bottle of water and the children some juice the whole day.”
In the United States, members of the Screen Actors Guild receive $100 a day and nonunion members $50 per day to work as extras, a not inconsiderable sum in a movie’s budget when huge crowd scenes are involved. If their own clothing or cats are used, or if required to work more than 8 hours, the extras are compensated additionally, some regulars earning $30,000 to $50,000 per year.
The Columbia Pictures movie Ali is directed by Michael Mann, one of Hollywood’s top 10 directors. Starring famous actor Will Smith, it is the first big budget movie ever filmed in Mozambique and snags were expected, but were the local African extras also hoodwinked?
“They exploited people,” said Angela Jane, 23 and pregnant, who agreed to be 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 understood that Mozambique was not America, she points our “people should at least be respected as human beings”.
“No one was promised $60. The payment for scenes was negotiated up front and there was no reneging on that,” Blaise Nato, spokesman for Columbia Pictures insisted. Adding that he believed extras made $10 or $20 a day, he stated that all company obligations were carried out.
Pat Kingsley, a publicist for director Mann, also responded that it was ridiculous for extras in Africa to think that they’d be paid as much $60 when, “they don’t make that in a year”.
A spokeswoman for actor Will Smith said that she thought it was a disturbing situation but that the actor had nothing to do with the hiring of extras. “He knew nothing about the confusion,” she insisted.
Asked why a raffle was involved, in which only a few individuals got prizes rather then the standard cash compensation, the Columbia Picture’s spokesperson insisted that this is normal practice when long distance crowd scenes are shot, even in the United States. People come for the fun of being in a movie, they stare, justifying the rationale for non payment.
“Do African people understand what a raffle is? That someone gets something, someone else doesn’t?” spokesman Nato insisted on asking.
A dirty trick?
So why the choice of Mozambique, a nation still emerging from a debilitating civil war? One with little government oversight and no experience in modern movie-making?
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a production spokesman confirmed that the producers knew that African extras would be paid little or nothing. Local organisers insisted that spreading money around in a poverty-stricken Maputo would lead to rioting. They claim this fact is justification for the selected raffle system of compensation.
“At one time it was even considered giving Will Smith T-shirts as payment,” the spokesman confirmed. But even this was rejected as being too provocative and director Mann took the local organiser’s word for it.” Actor Will Smith, he added “was kept in the dark in this regard”.
The thousands of extras detained in the stadium at Machava were finally released at 4-am, after organisers told them that they would be paid after all the filming had been completed.
“We were hungry, tired and it was a dirty trick to play on people who struggle just to survive,” film extra Madelena Muntimucu said. Insisting that she had been promised money and not a raffle or prizes as compensation for her time, she complained that even the transport home that had been promised had not been forthcoming.
Ali is just one of a number of TV documentaries and full length movie projects being filmed in Africa. In Tanzania, the Canadian produced Walk with Lions starring Richard Harris as famous lion rehabilitator George Adamson has completed shooting. Murdered in Kenya’s Kora National Park by machine gun-toting bandits, George Adamson’s celluloid recorded life-story should prove successful with western audiences. Following such box office hits as Out of Afrifa and the Diane Fossey life story Gorillas in the Mist, such movies with their panoramic vistas and heartwarming animal-human relationships bring considerable publicity but little financial reward to the countries in which they are filmed. As in the endless wildlife documentaries being filmed for TV audiences in the US and Europe, most of the financial rewards remain in London or Los Angeles.
Survivor series to shoot in Kenya
The latest project to chose an African location is the highly popular and financially successful CBS Survivor TV series. Culminating in the winner receiving a $lm cash prize for being the final survivor, the show was the first of a wave of ‘reality’ TV shows using real life contestants rather than actors. A press release last June confirmed that Kenya’s Shaba National Park Reserve had been selected as the hotly contested location for its third Survivor series. 140 miles north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the whole reserve has been dosed-off to all but 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,” a spokesman stated.
When pressed, CBS spokesman Chris Ender also confirmed that some local Kenyans had been asked to sign confidentiality agreements before being used to test challenges being devised.
Kenyan environmentalists have expressed concern at the effect that weeks of film shooting will have on the flora and fauna in the area. Local members of the Waso Trust Land Project and several Kenyan journalists who entered the off-limits area to check on environmental damage reports were detained by security staff. Finally released, they met with the production team to discuss their concerns.
So why are such heavy handed procedures necessary to prevent local journalists inspecting what is normally a public game reserve?
Responding, CBS spokesman Chris Ender insists that privacy had to be maintained and that series executive producer, Murk Burnett, had always respected the environment in which the Survivor shows ate filmed. “He has learned through trial and error how to return the land to the same condition, and in some cases better condition, then it was when he started,” Mr. Ender stated.
Many Kenyans will find it hard to understand what all the fuss is about. The Survivor series will never he shown on local Kenyan TV far to expensive for the local stations to afford. Other then possibly bringing increased trade to a nearby hotel, little financial reward will result unless local Kenyans negotiate wages commensurate with Screen Actor Guild pay scales.
The question of how Africa can reap the financial rewards associated with Western movie making is relatively easy to solve, Screen Actors Guild officials in Los Angeles claim. Form a unionised association of actors, model agencies and safari equipment suppliers with whom the movie producers have to negotiate and local people will have some bargaining power they insist.
The abiding sense of resentment in Mozambique against the producers of A/i is ironic considering how Muhammad Ali endeared himself to Africa with his exuberant affection for the continent’s peoples during his 1974 fight against George Foreman. It is also tragic.
“The poor and Africans are responsible for my victory over the bigger, younger and stronger Foreman,” he stated in his stirring victory speech in Kinshasa after the fight.
How tragic it is that film extra Feliciano Manjate, 51, now feels that the producers of Ali “exploited us because we are Africans” and that “if the task was performed by white men they would have been given money”.